Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Winning Elections and Asking Questions

National's been getting an earful lately from a couple of quarters. Firstly, people were outraged by their "spam" or "DDOS" approach to opposition... people drew parallels with the behaviour of the Republicans in the US, although I'm not convinced it makes sense to speak of "the Opposition" there. Secondly, Nick Smith re-invigorated the whole "National won the election" trope, which also drew parallels with Republicans.... although I personally thought of Clinton and that's the better reference.

National's behaviour with the questions are infantile. I can understand that maybe they're being denied information they should have access to. I understand that there are mumblings about transparency already viz the current government. I can definitely see the appeal of trying to make tu quoque defences. I definitely think that the sort of information should be available to anyone without asking. That is, if you're a Minister, your diary should be retroactively published at the end of each week... there needs to be some kind of analogue for Hansard for this information. But what National is doing is still infantile:

  • Firstly, the tu quoque argument is fallacious.
  • Previous instances like Winston Peters' similar questions or Trevor Mallard's thousands, were made to well established governments. They were not launched at a time that could disrupt the changing of the guard.
  • When you look at the questions that Trevor Mallard once asked they were quite different. The information is less trivial and look a lot like Mallard was trying to access data that, again, should have been available. They might be problematic if it turns out he's asked questions that were duplicates in the way that...
  • National has literally asked ministers what events they attended in [month] by asking one question per day. Compare Winston Peters' formulation:
    • "What is the list of people and organisations, if any, with whom the Minister has held meetings in September 2016; for each person/organisation listed, where was the meeting or meetings held and what were the topics of discussion?" (October 2016)
    • Yes, you could argue that this is a fishing expedition. But here we have one question, one month, same information as dozens asked by National.
  • National's response to this "sort" of question is dismissive, here's what Phil Heatley wrote in response to Mallard's questions:
    • "I refer the Member to the attached tables. The first table shows the number of properties owned and leased by the Housing New Zealand Corporation for each of its neighbourhood units for each quarter since 31 December 2008. The second table shows the number of tenanted Corporation properties owned and leased by the number of bedrooms for each neighbourhood unit for each quarter since 31 December 2008. This also answers the Member’s parliamentary questions between numbers 19827 and 23559. While I have provided a full answer on this occasion, it was not without considerable time and effort by the Housing New Zealand Corporation for little public benefit. In the future, I will consider closely whether the time and effort spent on the responses are in the public interest."
    • While the tu quoque argument is fallacious, it is indeed infantile to do something which you don't like and don't think is worth it just because you can.
I will conclude my thoughts on this matter by quoting the Spinoff's comment:
This doesn’t mean National is powerless in opposition. It just means it’s probably best to forget the gimmicks, as National almost certainly will. The tried and true ways to hold up a government’s programme are still the most effective: applying careful targeted scrutiny, embarrassing ministers and winning over the public, not playing at student politics with arcane points of order and becoming obsessed with four-dimensional procedural chess.

I'm not sure I agree with their earlier remark that "If, for example, proactive publication of ministerial diaries is to become the norm, it shouldn’t be as a result of what’s essentially trolling" because I value the 'win' a lot. But I definitely agree with the author's argument that we're not going to really see a headline like this again. Hell, as you can see my issues here stem mostly from the fact I don't see why more than one question per minister was required.

The question of who wins elections here is more interesting.

In both the US and in NZ the current head of government (their president, our Prime Minister) comes from a party that didn't win the most votes. In fact, in both elections no-one won the most votes either (it is actually the norm for American presidents to not beat 50% of their pathetic turnouts... no Clinton has ever managed it, for instance). The difference is that in the US an election does have a winner as such. And in both countries the parties that best understood the system are the ones in power now.

Look, I definitely think that the American system is screwball. I also think that Clinton lost because of Comey. But the reality is that I'm a "sports fan" and in sport there's the saying, "You can only beat the guy in front of you." There are obviously lots of variations in words, but the point is that you make your performances in the face of conditions outside your control. You might get an easy run to the final, but if your opponents have been tougher, your task would have been the same. That's what the phrase means. And the truth is that Donald Trump did this. It wouldn't have worked if Obama had been allowed another go. It wouldn't have worked if the Democrats hadn't been choosing between Sanders and Clinton (Sanders is not electable). But the moves Trump made reflected both Clinton's weaknesses (adapting to the opposition, e.g. focussing on the email narrative) and the realities of the system (playing to the whistle, e.g. the Electoral College). The rules might have been dumb, but Trump played the game according to them better than anyone else. He had lots of luck and help but I'm not going to take that win away from him... he might nuke me.

In NZ elections aren't won because MMP makes the reality of the parliamentary system clearer. That is, it's not the share of vote that matters, but whether or not you have a majority of the seats. The only way to win an election in a parliamentary system is if you're able to form a government. The easiest way to do this is by having a majority of seats. In the UK about 20% of the vote can achieve this due to FPP. But because the big parties are so big (and you require a perfect storm to do that) British Labour and the Conservatives believe they can reach 50% by getting something more like 40-50% of all votes. And they can and do. In NZ, because we have MMP the only way to reach a majority solely is by winning more than 50% of the votes. That's really, really hard to do. And in 2017 National didn't manage it. Thus, winning the election became a question of coalition building.

National's abilities to build a coalition ultimately failed. We can see why Clinton didn't win much more easily. She suffered from Comey's letter. She suffered from not talking to her presumed constituents. But she also had the bad luck that when she talked to Trump's presumed constituents they proved more faithful than her own (somewhat contrary to what I said above both campaigns were very error rich). All this stuff happened in public: everyone saw it happening. Here what mattered in the coalition building process was a mix of public and private happenings. We knew NZ First could swing both ways, but we also saw that policy-wise Labour was a better fit. We knew that National and Labour could offer better deals and that Labour also required the Greens, but what exactly these sorts of deals were we couldn't tell. We knew that NZ First had a bad history with coalitions and National in particular, but we also saw it condemning this kind of thinking. So, can we really say that National didn't understand the process as well as Labour or, indeed, NZ First? I think so.

National's post election behaviour was pretty stupid. They spent all their time playing up their moral mandate or their moral majority as the winners, because they had the most votes. Firstly, as we have seen, that doesn't reflect the reality of parliamentary democracy, especially with MMP. (No, it's not MMP that creates winnerless elections.) Secondly, trying to use public pressure to strong-arm a group you're trying to co-operate with in the future is... dumb. So, yeah, the winner was the coalition we got and, yeah, comparing the Democrats and National makes sense. Both can claim a "moral victory" but if you piss around beforehand, you really shouldn't feel hard done by. Although, the Americans can at least point out that in a sane world they'd have won... National are just being complete pricks because they're advocating for a screwball world of the sort that would have let them win.

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