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Real Issues No. 327 - Elections, Stories, Work

Real Issues No. 327 - Elections, Stories, Work
Maxim Institute - real issues - No. 327 13 November 2008 www.maxim.org.nz

Faces behind the facts
Electorate seats change hands
Working for what we want

Election media examined
Maxim Institute contributes to discussion around bureaucratic cutbacks
Review of electoral law


The 2008 election was remarkable. The National Party won the highest proportion of the party vote in any MMP election, giving it a strong mandate to lead a government. And while it is the party vote that matters most in determining which parties can form a government, the mandate which the National Party won was further strengthened by the number of electorate seats it gained. This is important, as electorate MPs are directly accountable to the constituents who elect them and the change indicates that electorate seats still matter, strengthening a government's authority to govern.

The change from the 2005 election shows just how great the shift in the share of electorate seats was. In 2005, National and Labour won 31 electorate seats each. In 2008 National increased its number of electorate seats to 41 out of its total of 59 seats in Parliament. Labour dropped by ten to 21 electorate seats, meaning that 22 of its 43 MPs are now from the list -- MPs who do not represent an electorate. There were surprise changes to a number of electorates, such as West-Coast Tasman, Waitakere, Auckland Central and Rotorua and other significant changes such as the thwarted attempt by Winston Peters to regain the Tauranga seat -- and thereby keep his Party in Parliament.

The designers of MMP preserved electorate seats because local MPs have a unique role as the conduit between local interests and the general interest expressed in Parliament. This means sitting MPs cannot afford to become complacent or to rely on the party list to return them to Parliament, as some MPs have recently discovered. It also means that a political party's mandate to govern is about more than just winning the party vote, since electorate MPs represent local communities who grant them the authority to govern. In the final analysis, this election shows the pivotal importance of serving local communities, as well as wider communities of interest.

Read the Chief Electoral Office's 2008 General Election - Preliminary Result http://2008.electionresults.govt.nz/


We have just finished an election campaign in which a blizzard of facts, figures and reports were thrown at the public, and duelling statistics on things like crime, education and taxes. The huge amount of information dumped on us means that it is becoming increasingly easy to become abstracted from the human faces behind the statistics. Whether it is African children needing sponsorship, the victims of human trafficking, or the poor and disconnected in our own country, it often seems that when organised into tables and sorted by demographic, people become an assemblage of facts without flesh, and figures without a human face -- and even when we do see them, they are all too easy to ignore.

We need a medium which will tell us the same truth as research reports, but one which is able to move us, to touch our hearts, and compel us to act. In fact, we need stories. An article in the Journal of Development Studies released earlier this year suggested just that -- that the hidden power of the novel is a much undervalued spur to thought and action. Ask most people what they know about life in Afghanistan and they are much more able to summon up images of what they read in The Kite Runner (one of the books referred to in the study) than they are to talk about what they didn't read in Supporting the Development of Children's Groups and Networks in Afghanistan: Reflections on Practice and Possibilities. While, of course, a novel such as The Kite Runner would never survive the rigours that an academic publication goes through to ascertain its validity, it becomes an immensely powerful force when taken hand in hand with real research, as a testimony to the same truth, and an engagement with the same facts. By putting flesh, putting a face on human suffering, it somehow ceases to be a statistic, a social problem for the solving, and becomes a real and burning issue, affecting the lives of real people.

The power of a novel differs from that of a report -- it comes from its recognition that human beings have stories. Instead of merely words on a page, the story they encompass becomes one we can relate to, one in which we can join. The world is far from simple and there are issues that matter deeply all around us. But amidst the 'cacophony of voices' we need to hear the voice of the one -- whether it asks for justice or freedom or compassion. And in this lies the power of the writer because it is characters, faces and stories which have the power to connect us individually with the issues of importance, to persuade us that they matter, to bring them in all their force before our shaded eyes.

Read The Fiction of Development: Literary Representation as a Source of Authoritative Knowledge http://www.bwpi.manchester.ac.uk/resources/Working-Papers/bwpi-wp-2008.pdf


The University of Sydney has released the second paper in their Australia at Work study, which follows the lives of over 8,000 Australians and considers how their working lives have been changed over time by employment laws and policies. The second paper, Working Lives: Statistics and Stories, asks Australians about their experiences in work, considering what have become the standard practices for working culture and the impact that this culture and surrounding policies have on their personal lives. The report provides interesting insights into Australian work culture and the role that work plays in individual lives.

Fewer than one in nine families retain the traditional sole 'breadwinner' model, with most opting for a 'neo-traditional' structure, where one partner works full-time while the other supplements the income with part-time work. Long-term working relationships are quickly becoming a distant memory, with over 25 percent of the Australian workforce changing employers in the last year alone.

The study also considers the delicate and difficult balance between work, spending and the rest of life, highlighting that the notion of a ''standard' of 38 hours per week' is far from a reality for most. The average full-time employee works over 45 hours per week, while those who are self-employed reported an average working week of 52 hours. Unsurprisingly, nearly 35 percent of 'male breadwinners with children' reported the desire for less working hours. However, these working hours must be balanced against spending, with the report suggesting that part of the cause for long working hours is the desire for material possessions. This affects high earners as well as low, as '12 per cent of respondents in households with a total income exceeding $156,000 per year still do not make all their debt repayments on time.'

The report shows some of the complicated mixture of factors faced by working families. We all have a juggling act to perform between work, family life and the lifestyles we aspire to. The report hints at the agonising choices faced by so many families -- do we cut back on our consumer-driven lifestyle, in the process questioning some of the assumptions of the culture of materialism, even inside ourselves? Do we give our children and our families less time than we should, in order to preserve for them a more comfortable life than otherwise? And what does it say about our culture in the West when so many families fail to earn a living wage without the other partner's supplement? We cannot and should not succumb to nostalgia for a mythic past of perfect balance between work and family life, but at the same time, we should not ignore the very real and deep questions the report raises about Western working culture. If we really want 'work-life balance' then we cannot ignore these questions -- something's gotta give.

Read Working Lives: Statistics and Stories http://www.australiaatwork.org.au/assets/Australia%20at%20Work%20W2%20Working%20Lives.pdf



The University of Canterbury has released preliminary results of a study into the media and the way different political parties were portrayed in the lead-up to this year's election. The report shows that media focused more on negative than positive press, and that 'the economy,' 'tax' and 'law and order' were the most popular topics covered. The National Party received the most negative media coverage, totalling 43 percent of their total coverage, while the Maori Party received the most positive, at 29 percent of their total coverage.

Read New Zealand Media Coverage of the 2008 Election Study http://img.scoop.co.nz/media/pdfs/0811/New_Zealands_Media_Coverage_of_the_2008_Election_Study__Preliminary_Results.pdf


With a new government in sight, conversations are quickly turning to what effect this will have on wider policy. One significant area that John Key and the National Party campaigned on was the cutback of government spending on bureaucracy. As part of this discussion Radio New Zealand's Morning Report interviewed Maxim Institute CEO Greg Fleming about the possible ways this may be outworked. One suggestion made by Mr Fleming was the integration of several departments, including the Families' and Children's Commissions.

Listen to the Radio NZ audio


An Expert Panel, set up in September to review electoral law in New Zealand, is seeking public submissions on the first stage of their review. The three experts -- Associate Professor Andrew Geddis, Dr Jean Drage and Professor Stephen Levine -- are from various universities around the country and have begun the first part of their review, looking at the 'administrative structure' of our electoral system. This includes the relationship between the different agencies, public accountability and transparency and any perceived -- or real -- political interference. Public submissions are open until Wednesday 17 December.

Visit the Electoral Review website


'But words are things, and a small drop of ink, Falling like dew upon a thought, produces That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.'

Lord Byron, 1788-1824


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