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Communications Line - Special Post Election Issue

Communications Line - Special Post Election Issue

The voters have spoken – well nearly 80% of those eligible have anyway. We are going to have a minority National government with enhanced supply and confidence agreements with at least two (and perhaps three) other parties. So much for all the media talk about coalitions. The electorate has formed into two blocks with the Maori Party not really in either. The Greens failed again. Winston is no more. The queen is dead; long live the king, and Key’s courtiers are going to enjoy the baubles of office. Key can form a government very quickly if he wants; there’s no constitutional impediment now. And Labour will have a new leadership team very soon, perhaps by the end of today. Analysis of the reasons for their defeat is being sidelined in a welter of action and spin. This edition unpacks two enormous pieces of spin that the media seem to be swallowing, and comments on the fate of political leaders and the Greens. There’s some monstrous examples of mangled English, and apart from that there’s a Sarah Palin bumper sticker. If you are not interested in politics and political communication go to the end for a giggle. Otherwise read on.

Coalitions – so not our future

What about all that media talk about coalitions? Our best and brightest political reporters misled us by focusing on this form of political relationship and ignoring the others. We are not going to have a coalition government, but that didn’t stop TV One’s late news last night from talking about “National’s coalition partners”, which was followed by a clip from Key’s Close Up interview where he explained that both ACT and United Future had agreed to support a National government and to accept ministerial posts outside Cabinet. That’s not a coalition; that’s a supply and confidence agreement with some enhancements. National and National alone will be responsible for the main policy decisions of the government because (unless there is a different deal done with the Maori Party) only National people will be at the Cabinet table. The Cabinet Office Manual (almost our substitute for a constitution) says that Ministers outside Cabinet are still bound by the doctrine of collective responsibility on matters affecting their portfolios.

Clause 5.27 of the manual says “Ministers outside Cabinet from parliamentary parties supporting the government may be bound by collective responsibility only in relation to their particular portfolios. Under these arrangements, when such Ministers speak about issues within their portfolios, they speak for the government and as part of the government. When they speak about matters outside their portfolios, however, they may speak as political party leaders or members of Parliament rather than as Ministers, and do not necessarily represent the government position.”

Key can move quickly

Strictly speaking there are no MPs at the moment and there won’t be until the writs have been returned for electorate MPs and the Electoral Commission returns the party lists. However under the Constitution Act (S6 (2)), any Member of Parliament may be appointed a Minister, and furthermore non MPs may be appointed if they were candidates for Parliament.

To appoint Ministers, “all Mr Key has to do is satisfy the Governor General that he has the confidence of Parliament, or will do so when Parliament meets,” Hayden Wilson, electoral law expert at lawyers Kensington Swan, told me. “ACT and United Future expressing support to National on supply and confidence would meet that test.”

An incoming Prime Minster could appoint Ministers, form a government, and take decisions. “He does not have to wait until the writs and lists are returned, Mr Wilson said. Neither does the Governor General, and he can’t insist on doing so. “By convention the Governor General could not refuse an incoming Prime Minister’s advice to appoint Ministers in these circumstances.”

The provisions enabling a new government to act immediately there is a clear result from the election were developed after the so called constitutional crisis of 1984, when Sir Robert Muldoon, the outgoing Prime Minister, refused for a day to follow the advice of the incoming government to devalue the dollar. There was no legal means to oblige him to do so, although a revolt among his own Ministers was mooted.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer fixed the problem by copying some provisions from the Australian federal constitution into the Constitution Act 1986. In 1972 the Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was so keen to move quickly after his election win that he got himself and his deputy Lance Barnard appointed to all the Cabinet positions and reshuffled the jobs later. Mr Key won’t be doing that, but he is entitled to get swift action from Government House.

The need for speed

In five elections MMP has not yet delivered a party able to govern alone. National currently has 49 MPs but may lose one if the Greens get another MP after the special votes are counted. And the situation may change further if Labour’s Harry Duyhoven gets back in New Plymouth on specials. Even on the current numbers, National is going to have to negotiate legislation with its partners, and ACT is clearly not going to support everything National wants (and vice versa).

So we are back in the same situation as in the last nine years. That’s not a criticism or a complaint. MMP means negotiation and compromise and also the occasional defeat of government legislation - when they count the numbers incorrectly or when there is a shift in public sentiment and an ally changes its position. It’s not the end of the government, but you might well think that even if the leading playmakers have changed, the game is still the same (and frankly it is).

Time for a change

The main excuse being offered for why Labour lost the election is that it was time for a change. Phil Goff was offering this up just this morning on Morning Report, and Labour MPs are mouthing this at every opportunity. The media seems to be repeating it as if it were profound wisdom. In reality it is spin, not analysis.

The “time for a change” slogan (or It’s time) was used by the Australian Labor Party in their 1969 election and then used by the Labour Party here in 1972. For the parties the slogan encapsulated the positioning they wished to project at the time.

The notion that voters form a view that a government has run its course is a sham construct, but it is very useful. For an opposition seeking power, it legitimises change, and for the government that loses, it is a handy excuse. Helen Clark began using it last week and others have repeated it, including the media reporting the campaign. It’s a simple, short and repeatable mantra masquerading as an explanation. The problem is that it doesn’t explain very much, and more importantly it covers up a set of sins.

So why did Clark and Labour lose? Well try these reasons. People say that Labour couldn’t be trusted to handle the economy. They interfered with our lives too much and we got sick of that. They wasted the opportunity to transform our economy. Having started in 1999 with the worthy ambition to restore NZ to the top half of the OECD the goal was quietly abandoned and in the last three years it has hardly been mentioned. They failed to stop the exodus to Australia, a diaspora now running at record levels. They took too much of our money, didn’t give it back when the surpluses were large, and had to be bludgeoned into any tax changes at all. They bribed students with an overly generous interest free loans scheme, while confiscating the foreshore and seabed.

They ran a welfare system that doesn’t provide enough welfare for those who need it, costs too much and doesn’t deliver people from poverty, or protect the very vulnerable. The development of an underclass has gone unnoticed and unchecked. Nia Glassie and the Kahui twins are the visible victims of a system that doesn’t foster responsibility, or punish neglect – except by way of criminal penalties after a child is dead, and even then not always.

Our standard of living have slipped relatively over the last nine years, even though our economy has grown and unemployment has dropped. Other countries have done better and we all know that. Our carbon emissions have gone up over the last decade, despite the government’s bragging about our leading the world on the issue. Kyoto is going to cost us a fortune, and our streets aren’t seen as safe. There’s more, but surely that’s enough. There is substance in voters’ various disaffections, not just a fickle desire to switch. That’s superficial and shallow thinking.

None of this is necessarily to argue that Key and National have got the answers. To change a government two things have to happen. One is that there has to be disaffection and opposition to the government. Secondly there has to be an acceptable alternative. In 2005 the first condition was fulfilled but not the second (and there is plenty of room to argue about why and how that was so). But in 2008, both conditions were fulfilled. We didn’t want the Labour prescription any more. It just didn’t give us the policies, the outcomes, the values, or the people we wanted anymore. Enough voters were prepared to give the other lot a go instead. National’s party vote is up 6.4% and Labour’s down by 7.3% compared to 2005.

So when Labour and their defenders and propagandists talk of time for a change, it is worth remembering the failures that prompted that sentiment in the public mind. It is far too glib to say it was some naturalist phenomenon that occurs after nine years in office. It is more accurate to say that voters did not believe that Labour had made this economy and society better, stronger and safer, and enough of them voted to change the government as a result.

A swift death

In an election night where so much that was predicted happened, Helen Clark’s decision to stand down as leader immediately was the only real surprise. That she would go if defeated was close to inevitable. That’s what’s happens to leaders who lose.

Announcing it immediately avoided the death of a thousand whispers that awaits the losing leader of a political party. It avoids the anxious days and nights worrying about when the plotters will be ready? How will the plot unfold? An ambush at caucus? A no confidence letter signed by a majority of colleagues? Will there be public humiliation? Bloodletting and revenge taking?

Helen Clark learns from history. She came to Parliament in 1981, and as a young backbencher saw the then Labour Party leader Bill Rowling being undermined by persistent talk of coups against him. Despite losing the 1975 and 1978 elections, Rowling held on, even at one stage exercising a casting vote in caucus to retain the leadership. In 1982 the Lange/Douglas crowd finally got him, but that period of instability debilitated Labour and helped keep it out of power.

Going now also looks gracious. New Zealanders warm to people who, when beaten, accept their fate. More importantly, it also avoids post mortems on what went wrong and finesses the blame game. That’s handy too. Because if leaders get the credit for victory (and usually they have to share that), defeat is theirs alone. On Saturday night Helen Clark accepted that responsibility too, but by standing down she made it seem as if that were punishment enough.

More Spin

So here’s the second piece of spin. Why would we now ask who was to blame for the defeat? That question has already been asked and answered in Helen’s accepting responsibility and falling on her sword. There’s now no need to cut up the corpse and examine the entrails to find fault. No need to look at the policy failures, the strategic and tactical mistakes and what might have been done better – well, not in public anyway. The matter is settled, and that is a neat way to avoid further examination by colleagues or by critics. Even at the last it’s a consummate piece of spin from an old master. And it’s working. The media agenda is the relentless calendar of events that follows an election – new government, change of leadership, new leader of the opposition, cabinet posts and the rest. Where is the hard analysis of why Labour lost? It’s not there (well, not yet anyway, but don’t hold your breath too long).

Who lost – the Greens did

Twelve years on and with representation still only in single figures, the Greens have to know that they have failed to make green issues central to New Zealand political life. The Greens’ political antecedent, the Values Party got 5.3% of the vote in the 1975 general election. Thirty three years on the Greens’ share is 6.43%. The Greens got 7% in 1990, and three MPs as part of the Alliance in 1996. Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons left the Alliance in November 1997, and the Greens campaigned separately after that. Their share of the vote has hardly changed: 5.2% in 1999, 7.0% in 2002, 5.3% in 2005 and 6.4% in 2008. That’s not the stuff of breakthroughs; it’s a persistent pattern of failure.

They failed to breakthrough with genetic modification as a core issue in 2002 and they failed again with climate change as a core issue in 2008. They have not had a sniff of the leather seats around the cabinet table in the nine years of the Labour led government and now they are part of a centre left block that lost the 2008 election.

Although their vote went up slightly this election, the Greens have just eight MPs, an ageing leadership and are being blamed by the strategists of the centre left for not holding their line and for not bringing more voters into the green tent.

Quite simply the environment wasn’t an issue in this election and just didn’t rate on the spectrum of voters concerns. These were dominated by the economy, the global financial crisis, whether they would have jobs and could cover the weekly bills. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that environmental concerns should be dismissed or ignored, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that as a political movement working to save the planet and to make green issues central to our lives the Green Party is an abject failure. The planet deserves better advocacy than the New Zealand Greens have been able to give it.

In the Victoria University pre-election study which asked voters which party was closest to their views on the most important issue facing New Zealand, only 3.5% of voters chose the Green Party. National got 43% and Labour 20%. Even ACT got 6%, and surely that demonstrates how badly the Greens have done as a political force. Perhaps new leaders and younger MPs might do better, because right now the party is going nowhere.

Most leaders fail

All political careers end in failure, Enoch Powell once remarked, because in Parliamentary democracies, leaders generally leave the stage only when they are beaten. In the United States, the President cannot by law serve for more than two terms, which makes for a more graceful exit. Bush, however unpopular, retires undefeated.

Instances of Prime Ministers leaving before they are beaten are rare. Keith Holyoake in 1971 is the most recent example in New Zealand. Sir Robert Menzies in Australia, who was Prime Minister for 17 years, also stepped down. Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t stand down, and although she was eventually forced out by her own MPs, she was never rejected by the voters.

In New Zealand there are only two instances since party government began in 1891 of a Prime Minister winning back power after losing it. One was Keith Holyoake in 1960, who got back after having very narrowly lost the 1957 election. The other was Sir Joseph Ward, who was Prime Minister 1906-1912, but returned to head a ramshackle coalition from 1928 to 1930.

In the UK, Harold Wilson, Winston Churchill and Stanley Baldwin all became Prime Ministers again after having lost office, but the last time it has happened was the return of Wilson in 1970. In Australia, the only example is Sir Robert Menzies who was PM from April 1939 to August 1941, and returned in December 1949 for a record stay of office which lasted until he resigned in February 1966.

Helen Clark chose to exit the leadership immediately. But the practice is mixed. Jenny Shipley left the leadership and Parliament almost immediately after being defeated in 1999. Jim Bolger had gone earlier after being forced out the Prime Ministership. Muldoon had to be rolled and then hung about for some years. So did David Lange. I am with Macbeth, who, contemplating the killing of Duncan, says If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well, it were done quickly.

A change of direction

The fear mongers say that National has a closet right wing agenda to do all manner of dreadful things to New Zealand now that it and ACT are to become the government. There is a problem with this theory. Real right wingers don’t believe it. They think Key is genuinely a centrist, a power seeker and a pragmatist. Those who want substantial change of the Roger Douglas/Ruth Richardson variety will likely be disappointed. Key is about a better managed status quo, with some modifications and perhaps with some new (un-mandated initiatives) and some back tracking as well depending on how bad the books genuinely turn out to be. If the pre-election economic and fiscal position was bad (although not dire) it would be a bold optimist who would think that the position has got any better over the last six weeks.

Government Communications

The rustle of CVs and the ting a ling of telephones make up a rising wall of sound in Wellington and Auckland as wannabe advisors and press secretaries work their contacts and networks to get Beehive jobs. The first term of any new government is always an exciting time, the first year in particular.

Key hasn’t given any indication of his proposed communications management style now that he is in government. My guess is a preference for an orderly and managed, but seemingly open and approachable style, will be articulated. But the test is not in the first couple of weeks, when a government is being formed. Right now there is plenty of genuine news to communicate: progress on negotiations with political partners, hints about the composition of Cabinet, when Parliament will sit, the pre Xmas legislative timetable, the content of bills to be actioned immediately and so on. These are all matters of genuine and important news value.

The test will be when the first surprise happens. How will the new government handle that? Even the best prepared governments cannot anticipate everything, so the test can be one of process as much as one of substance. How will the leadership handle it? A crisis, or even just an unexpected surprise of some size, will give the commentators something to get into the government about. When that happens the government will know that any honeymoon they might have thought they were enjoying, or any exceptionally good media management practices they thought they were employing, really don't count. It will be back to business as usual.

Jobs for former leaders

There has been some expression of view that utilising Helen Clark’s international contacts and reputation would be a good thing for the National led government to do. Perhaps. Having former leaders hanging around the House is inconvenient for both parties, so a job that would take her out of Parliament and out of the country could be good politics and good at a personal level for her too. Apart from getting her to abandon Mt Albert, the job probably has to be one within New Zealand’s gift. If it is with the UN or some multilateral agency all sorts of international diplomatic factors come into play. In a completely constructive spirit I am suggesting that she becomes New Zealand’s delegate to the International Whaling Commission. Her political mentor Sir Geoffrey Palmer might be prepared to give away his job there for her.

And while we are at it, what about a job for Don Brash? His favourite drum is the fall in New Zealand’s living standards relative to the rest of the OECD, particularly Australia. It’s also a high priority for the Key government.(Say goodbye to higher taxes, not your loved one, says the billboard) So how about a high powered taskforce to identify the barriers, hear submissions, consider the options and recommend some actionable solutions? Don would be a good choice to head that group. Report by the end of March please.

MPs try to return

At least ten former MPs defeated or retired from earlier elections (other than 2005) tried to get back into Parliament at the 2008 election. Most of them were standing for different parties from those for which they were elected in the first place. All but Roger Douglas failed. They were Stephen Franks, ACT and now National; Marc Alexander, United Future now National; Graeme Reeves and Murray Smith with National and United Future respectively now for United Future; Matt Robson, Progressive and still Progressive (but originally New Labour); Larry Baldock, Gordon Copeland and Bernie Ogilvy, United Future, now all with the Kiwi Party; and Kenneth Wang of ACT and still with ACT. (Tau Henare, formerly a NZF MP, successfully got back in under the National banner in 2005).

A quirk of the system

Is MMP really fair? Consider this point from Professor Nigel Roberts, political scientist and psephologist from Victoria University. New Zealand First gets 4.2% of the party vote and no seats. ACT gets 3.7% of the party vote and five seats. Why? Because ACT won an electorate seat and therefore its entire share of the party vote translates into seats. (The same rule worked in NZF’s favour in 2002). But partisanship aside, is that fair? Roberts says that rule is one thing that the Royal Commission on the Electoral System (which devised the current MMP system) got wrong, but he’s not expecting it to be changed any time soon.

Leadership – Winston is a loser

Still with Professor Roberts, who presented at a lunchtime session in Wellington yesterday on the election outcome, he quoted some findings from the Victoria University’s pre-election study. On leadership, Key led Clark on positive ratings by 39% to 30%, while Peters was on 4% and had negative ratings of 38%. On a net basis (positive minus negative), Key was plus 28%, Clark plus 15%, but Peters was negative 34%.

The Christian also lost

While Obama won the presidency at a walk, in the USA the social conservatives can claim victories too. Bans on gay marriage were carried in the three states where the proposition was on the ballot – by 62:38 in Florida, by 52:48 in California and by 56:44 in Arizona, and in Arkansas banning gay couples form adopting children was carried by 57:43. Obama won both Florida and California and lost in Arkansas and Arizona.

But in New Zealand the Christians did not do well. The Kiwi Party, containing three MPs who fled United Future, got only 0.56% of the party vote. The Family Party got 0.33 % and Taito Philip Field’s Pacific Party, which claimed to reflect traditional Christian values, got another 0.33%. That’s 1.2% in total, only about a quarter of what Christian Heritage under leader Graham Capill got in the 1996 election when the Christian right came closest to getting into Parliament. Even the Bill and Ben Party at 0.51% did better than any of those three parties individually.

Keep the change

The Republicans have been quick off the mark to exploit the change theme in their political marketing. This is the latest bumper sticker in the USA.

I'll keep my guns, freedom, and money. You can keep "the change!”

The message from the Republican National Committee says, “Vote Sarah Palin for President in 2012! The Liberal Media wants you to think that Sarah Palin held John McCain back. We all know that John McCain's campaign surged ahead because of Sarah. She's a rising star in the GOP and could easily defeat Barack Obama in 2012! The Palin Revolution is about to break out and you can be on the cutting edge with this clever new bumper sticker! This 2-PACK includes one for each of your vehicles, whether it's your gas guzzlin' SUV, pick-up truck, or "hockey mom" minivan!


Try this. It’s a genuine sign sent in by a reader, and reproduced here exactly.


These two items are from TradeMe

Four old Chinesse bowls

This Auction is for 4 old Chinesse Bowels , there are great bowels , all in good shape, very rear and wounderfull to look at and injoy.
And this for a comic

marvles gratest comics- old and good
1973- mar #41

this is in exlant condition-
no rips , no tears, no loose pages

will be sent out well raped and in heat seald bags to keep dry-

thank you for looking and happy biding

A final thought

In the original Hollow Men, a poem by TS Eliot, it is said

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

And so too political careers.

So as we celebrate or commiserate this week, depending on our political colouration, spare a thought for the leaders. It’s a lonely job. But don’t cry too much. They choose that way of life and that way of death.

Ezine to end soon

With the two most important and interesting elections of the year now over, I have been considering the future of this newsletter, and my inclination is to wind it up so that I can concentrate on other aspects of my business and professional life. The first issue was in late 2003, so that’s 72 issues in almost exactly five years. I am not drawn to blogging largely because it’s too time consuming and too many bloggers are just talking to other bloggers (there are exceptions, of course). But to do it well is a major commitment and I have to earn a living. So in 2009, I am looking for regular, and preferably paid, column space to offer some perspectives, for training and facilitation opportunities and some governance roles. All opportunities gratefully acknowledged and diligently pursued. This is not the last Communications Line, but the end is close.


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