Sunday, September 24, 2017

History is on Labour's side in this election

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 22.)

Phew, what an election campaign. Voters’ heads must be spinning from the daily blizzard of policy announcements and extravagant promises, most of which involve spending large sums of our own money. Only the most nerdish political obsessives will have kept track of them all.

Another reason to be grateful when the campaign is over is that we’ll be spared those cringe-inducing nightly news reports in which the party leaders appear on camera flanked by the local candidates – or in Bill English’s case, cabinet ministers – slavishly nodding in agreement with whatever the boss says.

Presumably it doesn’t occur to them that they look mindlessly servile. This is one campaign ritual that the party image minders would be well advised to ditch.

The campaign has been intense, the more so because of the topsy-turvy polls, but it has remained generally good-natured. Jacinda Ardern’s relentlessly sunny disposition was put to the test as journalists started asking hard questions about Labour policies that hadn’t been satisfactorily explained, but we didn’t see her crack. It was an impressive feat of self-control for a leader who hasn’t previously experienced the white heat of the campaign trail.

Overall, she’s had a good campaign. But so has English, who has looked more relaxed than we’ve seen him before. Both leaders give the impression of having genuinely enjoyed themselves.

Taking his wife along wouldn’t have harmed English’s prospects. Mary English is personable, mixes easily, and being part-Samoan she’s an effective counter to the perception that National is the party of old, white New Zealand.

For her part, Ardern seems to have been accompanied everywhere on the campaign trail by Annette King – an unusual strategy, given that King’s stepping down, but a shrewd one. Of all Labour’s old hands, King is arguably the most universally liked and non-threatening. Her presence will have been reassuring to voters worried about the influence of radical ideologues in Labour’s ranks.

So, which way will the voters go?

History is on Labour’s side. Only one National government has won a fourth term – the one led by Keith Holyoake in 1969, which squeaked back into power by a very narrow majority. Labour leader Norman Kirk blamed his party’s defeat on the prolonged Wainui shipping dispute, which stoked public concerns about militant unionism and inevitably reflected unfavourably on Labour.

There are no such factors to help National this time. The party does, however, go into the election with a record of sound economic management. Few, if any, Western economies came through the global financial crisis in better shape.

Will that be enough to save National? It’s hard for a three-term government to look fresh and visionary, the more so when voters have seen the same ministerial faces defending the same policies for nine years. And it’s much tougher for a government to defend its record than it is for opposition parties to attack it.

As former National deputy leader Wyatt Creech has pointed out, when a party has been in power for nine years, niggles and annoyances build up. He calls it the death of a thousand cuts.

John Key no doubt saw this coming and with the same instinct and sense of timing that made him a masterful foreign exchange trader, got out while he was ahead.

The historical pattern is for National governments to serve three terms, gradually running out of puff as they go. The voters, observing the growing fatigue and complacency, then elect a Labour government fizzing with energy and reformist zeal.

Sometimes Labour crashes and burns, as in 1975 and 1990, but in the meantime the country’s political settings have undergone an irreversible reboot. Despite Wednesday night’s poll result, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this may be about to happen again.

English may come to regret not having been more adventurous in bringing new talent forward at the expense of his friends. His mate Nick Smith, for example, long ago ceased to sound convincing as Environment Minister and should have been dropped. Jonathan Coleman is similarly unpersuasive defending National’s health record. These are areas where National is vulnerable.

But all this may ultimately be neither here nor there. The election result may ultimately come down to something as basic and irrational as the natural human desire to try something new – and Ardern, with her relative youth and appealing personality, appears to be the right person to harness that mood.

Former National prime minister Jim Bolger pointed out this week that personality doesn’t pay the bills, or words to that effect. But Bolger, as a shrewd judge of politics, knows that personality can sway election results. We saw that with Key.

Bolger also stressed the importance of experience in government. Ardern has none – but neither did David Lange, and that didn’t stop the electorate from seeing him as a desirable alternative to Robert Muldoon.

Will the election come down to essentially a two-horse race, as English suggested this week? The polls certainly present a confusing picture on the state of the minor parties.

It’s possible that both New Zealand First and the Greens have duffed their chances. Winston Peters took a big punt with his refusal to take part in a TV debate with the other minor parties, and I hope it backfires. It was an act of supreme arrogance which suggested Peters thinks he’s above the drudgery of having to explain or defend his party’s policies.

For their part, the Greens don’t just have to recover from the Metiria Turei fiasco. Their core message of environmental health is one that resonates with many New Zealanders, even conservatives, but the Greens have muddied their brand by pushing “social justice” issues that are ideologically more contentious.

A final thought: if it’s a close result, as seems likely, how about a grand coalition between the two major parties?

National and Labour have at least as much in common with each other as they do with some of their idiosyncratic smaller potential coalition partners. They are both led by competent, likeable politicians who appear to respect each other.

It won’t happen of course. Old tribal enmities run too deep on both sides. But it’s a fascinating possibility to contemplate. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Trump: the dog that keeps barking long after the car has stopped

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, Sept 20.)

I’ve been trying to make sense of Donald Trump. It’s not easy.

It’s now 10 months since he was elected president of the United States and eight since he was inaugurated – time enough, you’d think, to prove that he’s fit for office.

I know people who have defended him throughout that time and continue to insist that he’s the man for the job. I've given them the benefit of the doubt and waited for some evidence that they were right. I thought that perhaps they saw something in him that I couldn’t see.

Besides, the contrarian in me instinctively rebels when I see the weight of public and media opinion so overwhelmingly arrayed against one person. Mass groupthink carries its own risks.

But here we are, almost one-quarter of the way through the Trump presidency, and I no see sign that his critics are anything but correct.

Hillary Clinton is hardly an impartial judge, but I believe she was on the mark when she recently described Trump as “immature, with poor impulse control”.

She went on to say that the president has a limited understanding of the world. “Everything is in relation to how it makes him feel.” My own impression is that he’s a man who has probably never read a book.

One of the striking things about Trump is that he behaves as if he’s still in campaign mode. In his tweets and at his rallies, he rants and blusters just as he did when he was contesting the presidency. He’s still fighting the same enemies.

It’s as if he didn’t give much thought to what he would actually do if he found himself in the Oval Office. Perhaps he never seriously expected it. 

He’s like the dog that chases cars and doesn’t know what to do after they’ve stopped, so just keeps barking. I keep waiting for someone to take him aside and gently explain that he’s the president now, and that people expect him to behave presidentially.

It may be significant that the only major policy initiatives Trump has ticked off so far involved undoing things – namely, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord, both of which he’s pulled out of.

Otherwise he doesn’t appear to have achieved any of the key policy objectives that he campaigned on.

There's no sign of The Wall and attempts to roll back Obamacare turned into a fiasco. He has back-pedalled on some promises – America’s military commitment in Afghanistan, for example – and substantially watered down others. On the deportation of “illegals”, he’s all over the place.

He seems to have little respect for either truth or consistency. He will say whatever occurs to him at any particular moment, but thinks nothing of doing a handbrake turn later. As some commentators have pointed out, he doesn’t appear to be guided by any coherent ideology.

He promised to be a man of action, but the supposedly forgotten Americans who voted for him must feel betrayed and disappointed. Trump has delivered mainly chaos and uncertainty.

In the meantime, the White House has been in a state of almost constant turmoil. Key appointees come and go like pizza delivery boys.

The most entertaining of these bum appointments was the spectacularly brash Anthony Scaramucci, who roared in like a hurricane, promptly got offside with crucial people and was fired – all in the space of 10 days.

Those who have clung on, including members of Trump’s extended family, have reportedly been in a state of war as the Trump purists – the reformist zealots bent on re-inventing the way Washington does politics – vie for influence with those advocating a more pragmatic, conventional line.

The Republican Party is in disarray and Trump has been publicly at odds with such respected party grandees as former presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney.  

This is an incredibly disruptive and destabilising way to conduct affairs of state, and it’s not only Americans who should be worried. The frightening brinkmanship currently being played out between Washington and Pyongyang is a sobering reminder of the possible consequences if Trump were to make a reckless call. The rest of the world can only hope that wiser minds would restrain him.

Through all of this, Trump has behaved like the braggart and buffoon that his detractors always said he was. But how could that be? Underneath all that vulgarian bluster, there must surely be an intelligent man. I mean, a stupid man could never have become that rich.

Or could he? I have a theory that some dumb people succeed in business because they are so blinded by greed that they don’t see the potential downsides of the big risks they take. They might experience embarrassing failures along the way (as Trump has) but it’s always possible that sheer greed and gall will pull them through.

In any case, success in business is no guarantee of success in politics. Trump comes from a world where he was the boss and expected everyone around him to do his bidding.

Politics is different. Politics is messier. Politics works through compromise, consensus and collaboration. Trump shows no sign of being able to make that transition.

The question is, will he last a full term, or will Congress tire of the whole demeaning pantomime and find a way, consistent with the Constitution (perhaps the 25th Amendment, which has never been put to the test), to get rid of him? No doubt some of America’s finest minds are working on this question even as I write.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Why journalistic objectivity is vital in a democracy

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 8.)

What a civilised election campaign this has been – so far, anyway. And what a contrast with the firestorms of 2014, when Nicky Hager and Kim Dotcom did their best to skew the election result.

To their credit, the voters paid no attention to the noisy distractions. They took the phone off the hook.

Eric Crampton, chief economist at free-market think tank the New Zealand Initiative (and a Canadian), wrote in a recent essay that New Zealand is the world’s last sane place, and he could be right.

Admittedly Crampton was mainly talking about economic factors and freedom from heavy-handed state intervention in people’s lives, but his description could equally be applied to the way we generally conduct our political affairs.

I remember watching a television debate in 1973 between the Labour and National leaders, Norm Kirk and Jack Marshall. It was such a relaxed and cordial encounter that I half expected the moderator – I think it was Ian Johnstone – to produce a flagon of DB and pour them a beer.

Monday night’s debate between Bill English and Jacinda Ardern wasn’t quite that cosy, but it was a mutually respectful contest between two basically decent people who want the best for their country.

Even the studio audience seemed admirably even-handed. We should be proud to live in such a mature democracy.

Sure, the campaign has had its moments of high drama. And elections are always polarising, the more so when you factor in the angry buzzing on social media, which amplifies ideological differences.

Besides, New Zealand politics hasn’t always been so good-tempered. The 1984 campaign, when Robert Muldoon was fighting for his political life, comes to mind. With Muldoon, there was always an undercurrent of menace – a feeling that you never knew quite what he was capable of, if pushed.

But back to that 1973 television debate. I had been living in Australia at the time and was struck by the contrast between our style of politics and that of our neighbours across the Ditch.

Everything about Australian politics was, and still is, more extreme and combative. Their conservatives are more reactionary, their radical lefties more doctrinaire, their factional powerbrokers more ruthless and their mavericks more unhinged.

Even when Australia’s not in election mode, its politics are far more febrile and polarised than ours. Right now the country is on the point of combusting over same-sex marriage, with the gay rights lobby using all manner of spurious arguments to torpedo a government proposal that would – heaven forbid – give voters a say on the issue.

It doesn’t help that the Australian news media are highly politicised, with the major Fairfax papers and the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation actively taking a left-leaning line while the Murdoch-owned Australian adopts a conservative position. People who complain of media bias here don’t know the half of it.

The danger to democracy of journalists taking sides is amply illustrated by a recent article in which the editor of the leftist Guardian Australia, Lenore Taylor, made it clear she wouldn’t be giving editorial space to opponents of same-sex marriage because … well, because she didn’t agree with them.

Here, laid bare, is the logical consequence of the insidious notion that the principle of “objectivity” in journalism is a myth and therefore can be disregarded.

Objectivity means, among other things, an obligation to be even-handed in the presentation of news. This concept has underpinned mainstream journalism for decades, but journalism textbooks and tutors now teach that “balance” gets in the way of truth-telling and serves the interests of the rich and powerful.

The result is that many journalists (who tend, by instinct, to have leftist sympathies) now feel they have licence to ignore anything that doesn’t align with their own views.

Objectivity serves as a vital check against abuse of media power, because the moment journalists take it on themselves to decide which opinions are fit for public consumption, democracy is in trouble.

New Zealand isn’t immune from this trend, as is obvious from the increasingly common usage by journalists of loaded words such as “sexist”, “racist” and “misogynist” to dismiss views they don’t approve of. But it’s not happening on the same scale, and certainly nowhere near as brazenly, as in Australia, where the media are up to their armpits in partisan politics.

The implications, if the principle of objectivity is abandoned, don’t need to be spelled out. Democracy depends on people casting an informed vote, and once news organisations start withholding information they don’t like, the liberal democracy model that we’re now seeing in action is at risk. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The steady creep of intolerance and bigotry

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, September 6.)

While the nation’s attention has been occupied by political drama and the election campaign, other things – serious things – have been going on almost unnoticed.

Last week, students at Auckland University voted to “disaffiliate” – “expel” would be a more honest word – a students’ anti-abortion group, ProLife Auckland. You don’t have to be opposed to abortion (as I am) to find this attack on free speech ominous.

A spokeswoman for Auckland Students for Choice, a women’s rights group that pushed for a referendum on the issue, said the pro-lifers were “an embarrassment”.

Clearly, groups that campaign to save unborn children are ideologically unfashionable, so must be discouraged by all means possible.

Overseas this phenomenon is known as “no platforming” – denying a voice to people you disagree with. This is rampant on university campuses in Britain and the United States and it’s lamentable that the practice has shown up here.

But it was probably inevitable, given that universities throughout the western world have been ideologically captured and no longer bother to maintain the pretence that they promote freedom of speech and robust intellectual debate. Yet democracy is built around the contestability of ideas, as the current election campaign reminds us.

The pro-life student group was accused of “propagating harmful misinformation”. If this phrase has an uncomfortably familiar ring, it may be because it’s similar to the language used by totalitarian regimes to silence dissidents before packing them off to re-education (read “punishment”) camps.

Ironically, if anyone could be accused of propagating misinformation, it was those campaigning to banish the pro-life group.The debate was misleadingly framed as being about misogyny – a word now used to marginalise anyone who dares to express a view that’s at odds with feminist orthodoxy. But wanting to save unborn children isn’t remotely synonymous with hatred of women. Only a seriously warped ideology could equate the two.

The students’ decision means that while the pro-lifers will theoretically still be able to organise on campus, the referendum result – 1600 in favour of “disaffiliation”, 1000 against – tilts the playing field heavily against them by denying them access to funding and resources available to other activist groups through the Auckland University Students’ Association.

But what matters more is the symbolism of the decision, and the message it sends. By expelling the group, the association has signalled its willingness to shut out voices that are deemed ideologically unacceptable.

It is a chilling example of the steady creep of intolerance and bigotry through the institutions of higher learning. I can do no better than quote a recent speech in which John Etchemendy, a former provost (the equivalent of our vice-chancellor) of California’s illustrious Stanford University, referred to an “intellectual monoculture” taking hold in American universities.

Etchemendy said he had observed a growing intolerance in universities – not intolerance along racial, ethnic or gender lines, but “a kind of political intolerance, a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for”.

This, he said, was reflected in demands to “disinvite” speakers and outlaw groups whose views were considered offensive. The result, according to Etchemendy, was an intellectual blindness which led to anyone with opposing views being written off as “evil or ignorant or stupid”.

He might have added “embarrassing”, the contemptuous term used by the young feminist zealot interviewed on the Stuff website about the Auckland pro-lifers.

Being young, she is consumed by idealism. She will probably have been influenced by politically correct teachers and lecturers. It may not have occurred to her that once a society makes it permissible to suppress views that some people don’t like, the genie is out of the bottle and the power to silence unfashionable opinions can be turned against anyone, depending on whichever ideology happens to be prevalent at the time.

But the Auckland student referendum isn’t the only unsettling thing to have happened in recent weeks. Last month the Charities Registration Board announced that it refused to recognise the conservative lobby group Family First as a charity, which means donations to the organisation would not be tax deductible.

The board made this decision on the basis that Family First “did not advance exclusively charitable purposes”.  This was essentially a re-affirmation of a decision it had made previously, but which it was forced to reconsider following a court ruling.

To be fair, Family First is primarily a lobby group. But hang on a minute: so are the Child Poverty Action Group and Greenpeace, both of which enjoy charitable status.

The same could be said of Oxfam New Zealand, which has morphed into a political activist organisation but still qualifies as a charity because it cleverly combines its activism with what you might call old-fashioned charitable work.

One rule for groups promoting “progressive” causes, but another for organisations that take a socially conservative position? That’s how it looks to me. What we are witnessing, I believe is the gradual squeezing out of conservative voices as that monoculture steadily extends its reach.