National

Labour and the moral high ground

Since Andrew Little began his tightrope walk regarding whether Northland voters should or shouldn’t vote Labour, there has been much philosophising as to whether a “dirty deal” did or did not go down.

To my mind, quite clearly, no deal occurred. A deal requires some form of reciprocity. It requires agreement between parties. In Epsom, over the last few elections, a fair amount of conversation obviously went on between National and ACT; in 2011, the stage-managed “cup of tea” made it perfectly clear that a deal had been done.

In Northland, however, Labour’s actions were unilateral (unless some extremely surreptitious and plausibly deniable discussions occurred, that will only surface in a decade’s time in someone’s political autobiography). Labour realised they had no show of winning, figured Winston had reasonable odds of severely embarrassing National, and changed their message to give him the best possible shot. Serendipitous for Winston, but not something he had sought.

Nonetheless, given Labour’s (in)actions in Northland, can they continue to claim a moral high ground when, in 2017, National again gives David Seymour and/or Peter Dunne a free ride in their respective electorates?

Many journalists, commentators and, of course, Right-aligned bloggers, have been happily labelling Andrew Little a hypocrite. Moral high ground lost. The right to lambast National for Epsom-style deals gone forevermore.

Such analysis has, predictably, enraged many of the good folk over at The Standard (see ‘By-elections are FPP‘), while others on the Left such as Rob Salmond and Danyl Mclauchlan provide their reasoning as to why Northland and Epsom are Different. As Mr Salmond writes:

Here are three core differences:

  1. Labour was never going to win Northland, whereas National could win Epsom just by clicking its fingers. Labour’s motivation is to engineer a loss for its major opponent, while National is trying to engineer a loss for itself. Which of those do you think is more legitimate in a competitive environment?
  2. Labour’s actions in Northland were quarantined to Northland only. They only affected who is the MP for Northland. National’s deals, on the other hand, are specifically designed to work around New Zealand’s rules about proportionality. National’s deals try to engineer a 5-for-1 deal on ACT MPs (which is exactly what they got in 2008.) National’s deals rort MMP; Labour’s avoid FPP vote-splitting. Those are not the same thing.
  3. Labour’s actions were unilateral. Labour did not receive any assurance of anything from Peters before making the call to change tack. Labour looked at the facts on the ground, and changed its plan accordingly. National, by contrast, makes a big show of obtaining a quid pro quo in advance. Labour had a strategy; National made a deal.

Personally, I agree with the reasoning of Salmond, Mclauchlan and Bunji at The Standard. Yes, by-elections are FPP. Yes, there was no “deal”. Yes, Northland was never Labour’s to win. Northland and Epsom are indeed different.

The problem though is that, at a glance, they also look suspiciously similar. Which is why Gower and Garner et al are so easily able to characterise Labour’s actions as hypocrisy. And explaining is losing.

For those who care, the distinction between Northland and Epsom is patently obvious. To the casual by-stander though, Labour and National are just as bad as each other. And no amount of explanatory blogposts are likely to change that…

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Victory for Winston

And Winston Peters will be the new MP for Northland…

Until that final TV3 poll – the one showing Peters above 50%, with Mark Osborne languishing about 20 points behind –  I hadn’t thought Peters would get there. Nonetheless, it’s a convincing victory: a 9,000+ National Party majority has become a 4,000 majority for Peters.

So what now?

Will NZ First get a new MP? Throughout the campaign, Peters continually refused to answer questions as to whether, if he won, he would resign as a list MP. “The question hasn’t even crossed my mind,” seemed to be his stock response. Quite how the question could continually fail to cross his mind, given the number of times he had been asked it, escapes me.

Well, this morning, in typical Winston fashion, he told Radio NZ’s Morning Report that there was never a question as to whether he would resign as a list MP:

“Of course I’ll resign, I don’t know why it was ever a material question.”

Unfortunately, we’re still no clearer as to who will replace Peters from the NZ First list. Ria Bond, who’s next on the list, still hasn’t showed up, having, for reasons unknown, apparently been sent into deep cover by her party.

But where to now for National, having suffered an embarrassing by-election spanking? Presumably, they want Northland back, come 2017. Their best bet is probably to ignore Peters as much as possible. He’s made a lot of expensive promises that he cannot possibly deliver. So National should simply do in Northland what they promised – build their roads, build their bridges, get their ultra-fast broadband up and running. Then they can compare their record against Peters’, who will be found wanting.

Oh, and they need to find a decent candidate, and find one early. Northland is a large electorate, geographically. In 2017, Peters will have the advantage of incumbency, and his name is already known no matter where in Northland you go. That’s a lot of ground for any candidate to make up…

And Winston Peters proves me wrong…

So there I was, confidently predicting that Winston Peters wouldn’t risk the humiliation of losing in the Northland by-election…

At the end of the day, perhaps the most important point is that Winston Peters really doesn’t like losing. He won’t put himself forward as an outside chance. His ego simply won’t allow the likely humiliation of losing to an as-yet-unknown National candidate.

Which is why this blog is called Occasionally Erudite, rather than Always Erudite… For of course Mr Peters announced last week his candidacy for the Northland by-election.

So what’s Peters doing then?

I presume, firstly, that Peters really thinks he can win it.

Presumably, Labour knows they can’t win. But they know they’ll look like hypocrites if they pull their candidate, given their previous denunciations of National’s stand-a-candidate-but-don’t-actively-campaign-against-ACT/Dunne deals. Peters will therefore be expecting a “go-slow” campaign from Labour; a nudge and a wink to say “we don’t mind if you vote for Winston”.

A nudge and a wink still won’t be nearly enough though. Mike Sabin received 18,269 votes in the last general election, or 52.74% – that’s a majority of 9,300 over Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime. In the party vote, National received a healthy 49%, with Labour well back on 16.6%, only just ahead of NZ First on 12.8% and the Greens on 10.8%.

It’s a huge ask for Peters to over-turn such a majority, especially since he can’t count on the entire anti-National vote flowing his way; Willow-Jean Prime will certainly continue to attract a share of the vote, regardless of any Labour “go-slow” campaign.

The major factor that Peters will be counting on will be turnout. Turnout always decreases in by-elections. If the left can mobilise a significant proportion of its 2014 support, while Mike Sabin’s former voters stay home in an apathetic funk, then, just maybe, it’s conceivable that Peters could scrape over the line. And Peters’ political star power will undoubtedly drag a few voters over his way.

Given that a win for Winston will mean National is reliant on two, rather than one, support parties, there’s certainly an incentive for left-leaning voters to support Mr Peters. Conversely, it also provides an incentive for right-leaning voters to flock to the National candidate’s banner.

Regardless of whether Peters does or doesn’t win, he can be reasonably assured that the National majority in Northland will no longer be as healthy as it was after last year’s election. That’s Peters’ backup “victory” – plucky underdog slashes governing party’s majority…

Dinner at Donghua’s

Remember when David Cunliffe and Labour were under all sorts of fire for their links to Donghua Liu? There were questions about $100,000 worth of apparent donations from Liu to the Labour Party (an issue which seemed to collapse under the weight of some dubious NZ Herald reporting and Mr Liu’s somewhat impaired ability to recollect specifics); and Mr Cunliffe was being stitched up regarding his failure to recall a letter written on behalf of Liu eleven years previous.

Here was what Bill English had to say last year, as he put the boot into Labour:

“In the next few days the Labour Party has to come clean about every contact with Mr Donghua Liu and every donation from him… The reason the Labour Party has to explain all those contacts and donations is that no one trusts what David Cunliffe says about the donations and the contacts with Mr Donghua Liu.”

Well, all of the time that National was needling Labour about alleged undisclosed donations from Liu, there was a $25,000 undisclosed donation to National.

It’s been revealed that National’s Botany MP, Jami-Lee Ross, received a $25,000 donation from Mr Liu in August 2013. It’s only just being disclosed by Mr Ross, after having been returned to Liu in November 2014.

It’s the cynical nature of the whole affair that gets me; cynical in so many ways.

Firstly, the donation was made less than a month after both John Key and Jami-Lee Ross were present at Mr Liu’s house for a private dinner. Yet, when Key was questioned in May 2014 (approximately eight months after the dinner) about his links to Liu, a National spokesperson said:

“As Prime Minister and the leader of the National Party, Mr Key attends a number of functions up and down the country which are attended by a large number of people. While we don’t have a record of who attends these events, Mr Key recalls seeing Mr Liu at various functions, including a dinner as part of a National Party fundraiser.”

Key could recall “a dinner”, but presumably chose to conceal the fact that the dinner was at Mr Liu’s own home.

Secondly, there’s the way in which the donation was kept hidden. Throughout all of the mock outrage from National about what Liu had donated to Labour and when, the party knew that $25,000 was sitting in a National Party bank account. It’s inconceivable that Jami-Lee Ross wouldn’t tap his party leader on the shoulder and say, “Heads up – remember that dinner with Donghua Liu? Well, he gave me $25,000 that month.”

Ross, Key and whoever else was in the loop would have known that at some point the donation would have to be declared. So Ross waits for a month or two after the general election, sends it back via Liu’s lawyer, and pretends that it was surplus to requirements and therefore returned. The donation gets officially declared in Ross’s post-election return, but by then Cunliffe is a distant memory, National is well and truly re-elected, and there’s now another two and a half years to the next election – plenty of time for the public to forget about Dongua Liu.

But National’s cynicism aside, there are some questions regarding the status of the donation. If it was a donation to the National Party, it should have been disclosed in National’s Party Donations Return that was filed on 30 April 2014. It wasn’t.

Mr Liu has described the donation as being through the “Botany Cabinet Club”. If that’s code for Jami-Lee Ross’s personal campaign, the party wouldn’t need to declare it. Instead, it’s up to Mr Ross to do so in his post-election return (as he’s done).

However, Mr Ross has stated that he didn’t end up needing the $25,000 because a $24,000 donation from the National Party covered his expenses. So why would Ross be seeking donations for his electorate campaign, if the party was going to be covering him? Or, to look at it the other way, why would the party cover Ross’s campaign expenses when he’s already got $25,000 sitting waiting in the bank account?

As with anything involving Donghua Liu and politicians, more questions seem to lurk…

And John Key didn’t consult either…

Following yesterday’s discovery that there will be no minor party involvement in the oversight of our spy agencies, Andrew Little was castigated for his failure to consult with either the Greens or NZ First regarding his nomination of David Shearer to the Intelligence and Security Committee.

As I wrote yesterday, there is a legal requirement for the Leader of the Opposition to consult with all other opposition party leaders before making a nomination. This puts Labour in the strange position of essentially having to argue that, despite having already announced Shearer’s nomination, consultation can still occur prior to the nomination being officially made. (At present, the nominations aren’t yet official.)

John Key was approached for comment on Little’s decision, but as far as I can see, none of the reporting yesterday focussed on the issue that both Andrew Little and John Key had consultation requirements. Section 7 of the Intelligence and Security Committee Act 1996 requires the Leader of the Opposition to consult with all other opposition party leaders, but  it also requires the Prime Minister to consult with the leaders of all parties in government.

John Key has confirmed he’ll be nominating National’s Chris Finlayson and Amy Adams. Surely, given that ACT, United Future and the Maori Party all have confidence and supply agreements with National, Mr Key must therefore have consulted with David Seymour, Peter Dunne and Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox before coming to his decision?

Well, Peter Dunne yesterday tweeted:

FWIW no-one has consulted me under either 7(1)(c) or 7(1)(d) [the relevant consultation sections of the Act]

Maybe Mr Key, like Little, intends to get around to “consulting” with the other party leaders prior to the nominations of Finlayson and Adams becoming official.

Nonetheless, if that’s the defence that both major party leaders intend to rely on, it makes a mockery of the duty of consultation. What it shows is that both Key and Little consider the statutory duty of consultation as nothing more than a nuisance; an exercise in ticking boxes before doing precisely what they want.

And we’re supposed to blindly trust them to protect our rights and interests as they oversee the spies…

UPDATE (18/02/15):

Oddly, Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox has confirmed on Twitter that the Maori Party were consulted:

So why was the Maori Party consulted, but Peter Dunne wasn’t? Was ACT?

Ill tidings for oversight of spy agencies

We mere citizens don’t get to know too much about how our spy agencies operate and what they get up to. There are good reasons for that. A spy agency that gives out all of its secrets probably isn’t going to function particularly successfully.

Unfortunately, our spy agencies, just like the police, sometimes don’t appear to know the law. And sometimes, even when they do know the law, they choose not to follow it.

Which is why it’s rather vital that there’s oversight of our spy agencies. In New Zealand, that oversight is provided by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. It’s a five person committee, made up of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, two MPs nominated by the PM, and one MP nominated by the Leader of the Opposition.

Now you’d expect that the committee that makes sure the spies aren’t breaking the law would be lawfully appointed, wouldn’t you?

Turns out that Andrew Little didn’t appear to have read the relevant law. Section 7 of the Intelligence and Security Committee Act 1996 provides that the member nominated by the Leader of the Opposition must follow “consultation with the leader of each party that is not in Government or in coalition with a Government party”.

Little has nominated Labour’s David Shearer, which has provoked howls of outrage from the Greens and NZ First, both of whom say they were not consulted.

Russel Norman had previously been on the Committee, but was not nominated by Labour this time round because he’ll be stepping down as Greens’ co-leader in a few months. Little didn’t nominate the other Greens’ co-leader, Metiria Turei, because he wanted someone with “skills, understanding and experience”.

Labour’s view appears to be that there’s no breach of the law, because David Shearer hasn’t yet been officially nominated, and the party will consult with the Greens and NZ First before the nomination is confirmed. Quite what that “consultation” will consist of, given that Shearer’s name has essentially been put forward as a fait accompli, remains to be seen.

National, meanwhile, has announced that it’s nominees will be GCSB and SIS minister Chris Finlayson and Justice minister Amy Adams. They’re both National, meaning that no minor party will have a role in the oversight of the GCSB or SIS.

Now here’s the worrying party. John Key has previously signalled that the Government intends to introduce a new round of tougher surveillance laws this year, further eroding our rights. So he supports Labour’s stance, because:

“A range of opposition voices from the minor parties could railroad the process.

“I don’t think the committee was terribly constructive over the last few years, I think it was used less as a way of constructing the right outcomes for legislation, and more as a sort of political battleground.”

In short, John Key doesn’t want dissent. He wants as little scrutiny of our spy agencies as possible.

Here’s Russel Norman responding to Labour’s decision:

“I think it’s a bad call. It means it’s the old boys’ club – Labour and National – both of whom have been responsible for illegal spying.

The Greens were the only ones on [the committee] with clean hands . . . the spy agencies will be extremely happy. The duopoly of illegal spying will be maintained without any independent oversight.”

The spy agencies will indeed be extremely happy. They’ve been given an indication from Key and Little that, for the next three years, oversight of their activities will be rather less stringent than it has been in previous terms.

Peters for Northland? Not likely.

Last week, the NZ Herald reported that Winston Peters was considering contesting the Northland electorate by-election, following the resignation of National’s Mike Sabin:

Speaking from Te Tii Marae at Waitangi today, Mr Peters claimed he had been inundated with calls asking if he would put his name forward for the position.

“New Zealand First is seriously going to consider the issue,” Mr Peters said. “It’s a possibility. I’m a local here, I come from here and I know more about this area than a whole lot of other pretenders. I got a whole lot of phone calls. That’s why I’ve been interested.”

I’d have to say, I’d be highly surprised if Peters does in fact end up standing as a candidate. Remember his musings ahead of the last election about running in East Coast Bays against Colin Craig? Or his flirtations with running against John Key in Helensville ahead of the 2011 election?

Peters loves headlines, and he’s well aware that speculation about whether he might stand in prominent electorate battles is guaranteed to provide headlines.

Nonetheless, Peters would have only an outside shot at winning. With Sabin’s 2014 majority sitting at over 9,000, any opposition candidate is going to have a hard road ahead, no matter what their public profile.

Yes, Peters was born in Northland, and he’s got a bach up there, but given his history of representing Tauranga, and his having subsequently been based in Auckland, there would still be the strong whiff of opportunistic carpetbaggery should he stand.

And yes, NZ First received 12.8% of the party vote in Northland in 2104, but that was mostly at the expense of Labour, which received just 16.6% of the party vote. NZ First didn’t stand a candidate last election, and Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime received 25.9% of the electorate vote, just shy of the combined Labour-NZ First party vote of 29.4% party vote.

At the end of the day, perhaps the most important point is that Winston Peters really doesn’t like losing. He won’t put himself forward as an outside chance. His ego simply won’t allow the likely humiliation of losing to an as-yet-unknown National candidate.

Labour and the polls

When Andrew Little was first elected to the Labour leadership last year, everyone I knew seemed a little dumbfounded. No one, whatever their political stripes, thought him a good choice, with their reasons generally ranging from his apparently humourless personality to his union credentials. Labour had doomed itself, was the general consensus.

Of course, Mr Little then failed to make a right hash of things. In fact, with his “Cut the crap” soundbite, he got a fair bit of positive press coverage, and seemed to have united many Labour Party doubters behind him.

Nonetheless, despite that good initial run of form from him, the mood from the streets of Gisborne, Rotorua and wherever else I wandered remained circumspect. People expected Little to come a cropper sooner or later (perhaps sooner rather than later), and they were hardly likely to switch allegiance to (or back to) Labour until the party had shown it could offer some degree of basic competency.

On Sunday, we had the first television poll of the year: TV3’s Reid Research poll. There was good news for Labour – it was on 29.1%; up 3.5% (or up 4% on its election night result) and close to the near-respectability figure of 30%. And 55% of voters thought that Mr Little was “potentially a better match for Mr Key than his predecessors”.

Leaving aside the usefulness or otherwise of including the word “potentially” in that last polling question, the results really aren’t great news for Labour. For a start, National was up 5.3% to 49.8% (or up 2.8% on their election night result). Labour’s rise in support didn’t come from National…

It’s the post-election summer, and until this frenetic last week, politics has been off everyone’s agenda. With no media exposure, the smaller parties have suffered:

  • The Greens were down 5.1% to 9.3% (or down 1.4% from election night), having had little more than bad publicity since the election after their lacklustre 10.7% showing.
  • NZ First is on 6.9%, down 1.9% on its election night result (although down just 0.2% on the pre-election TV3 poll).
  • The Conservatives are on 2.7%, down 2.2% from the last TV3 poll and down 1.3% from the election.
  • Internet Mana are on just 0.6%, down 1.4% from the last TV3 poll and down 0.8% from the election.

Labour and National have basically just profited from the usual post-election lack of exposure that the minor parties tend to suffer. Labour’s 29.1% leaves the party no closer to governing. National’s back in governing alone territory.

And Andrew Little’s preferred Prime Minister rating was just 9.8%. It’s not a dreadful debut, but it’s still 2.5% less than the terminally disliked David Cunliffe was polling.

Really all that can be said about the TV3 poll results are that there is still more than two and a half years to run until the next election, so it’s early days yet. Plenty of time for Little and Labour to build on an error-free Parliamentary term. Or plenty of time for an implosion.

(Almost) unconditional support : ACT forgets to play its hand

On National Radio’s Morning Report show this morning, ACT leader David Seymour provided an excellent example of how not to negotiate. With Environment and Housing Minister Nick Smith set to announce tomorrow National’s proposed changes to the Resource Management Act, Seymour was asked whether he would be supporting the yet-to-be-announced changes.

The response was a clear affirmative. “It is extremely urgent that New Zealand reforms its Resource Management Act…” Therefore, he’s got National’s back on this one.

So what are the reforms? Well, we don’t know. They haven’t yet been announced.

Does Mr Seymour know? Has he been given a pre-announcement heads up, to ensure that his support is based on some actual intel, or is he simply making the assumption that the changes will be identical (or almost identical) to the proposed changes that were abandoned prior to the last election? It’s an assumption, he confirmed on Twitter to me this morning, based on where Mr Smith’s “thinking is usually at”.

To be fair, it isn’t completely unconditional support that is being offered. On Morning Report, Mr Seymour reserved his right to pull back, should the changes, once announced, be materially different from his assumptions.

Of course, we all know that ACT went into the 2014 election promising to repeal the RMA. Here’s a quote from former ACT leader Jamie Whyte during the election campaign:

The problem is not with the administration of the RMA. The problem is with the very conception of it. The RMA is an assault on property rights that stifles investment and economic growth. The restrictions it puts on using land for residential development are the reason housing is so expensive.

Nonetheless, from a realpolitik perspective, why would ACT simply blindly agree to support National’s proposed changes? If the changes are essentially what National tried unsuccessfully to push through last year, then National will struggle to get support from Peter Dunne or the Maori Party. If National doesn’t want to water down its proposals, then that leaves just ACT. And given ACT’s hatred of the RMA (except, of course, where it stymies intensive development in Epsom), surely this would be a perfect opportunity to press for additional changes?

With National able, on every piece of legislation, to go to just one of ACT, United Future or the Maori Party, opportunities to extract a pound of flesh aren’t going to come along often for those three minor parties. ACT seems to have just blown a prime opportunity to extract concessions on one of the party’s main election policy platforms.

Collins cleared; Slater lied

On the same day as the Cheryl Gwynn report was released, we also got the release Justice Chisholm’s report into Judith Collins and the allegations that she undermined former-SFO head Adam Feeley.

The report was ordered after the release of an email from Cameron Slater, detailing Judith Collins’ apparent involvement in a plot to undermine Mr Feeley. The email stated:

“I also spoke at length with the Minister responsible today (Judith Collins). She is gunning for Feeley. Any information that we can provide her on his background is appreciated. I have outlined for her a coming blog post about the massive staff turnover and she has added that to the review of the State Services Commissioner. She is using his review of these events to go on a trawl looking for anything else. It is my opinion that Feeley’s position is untenable.”

Cameron Slater’s explanation was that he had “embellished” his email:

“Embellished is a good word. It’s better than a lie, isn’t it?”

At the time, I wrote that if Slater had merely embellished, rather than lied, there were still grounds for Collins’ resignation, given the following statements of fact contained in Slater’s email:

  • Slater spoke to Collins, and the conversation was at least partly about Feeley.
  • Slater discussed with Collins his Whaleoil campaign against Feeley.
  • Collins stated that she intended to pass on Slater’s blog material to the State Services Commissioner.

Essentially, for the Chisholm report to clear Collins’ name, Justice Chisholm had to find that Slater was a liar. Well, that’s pretty much what happened. Here’s the report at para 272:

“The final point concerns Mr Slater’s evidence. When he was interviewed by the inquiry he was in the unenviable position of trying to justify the contents of some of the emails while at the same time doing what he could to protect Ms Collins. On top of that he was trying to remember conversations that took place about three years ago. While I believe that Mr Slater was genuinely trying to assist the inquiry, I decided that his evidence should be approached with great caution, especially where it conflicted with other evidence or the documentary record. However, having said that, there was little in Mr Slater’s evidence that directly supported the proposition that Ms Collins had undermined or attempted to undermine Mr Feeley.”

The report sets out pieces of the transcript of Slater’s evidence to Justice Chisholm, and on several occasions Slater openly admits that he lied in his email correspondence to make himself look big.

I had assumed that it would be almost impossible for Collins to be cleared, as finding definitively that she had had no involvement in the anti-Feeley conspiracy would undoubtedly be difficult. Nonetheless, the report finds no evidence whatsoever to implicate her. The documentary record supports her evidence, and indeed supports the evidence of all those spoken to as part of the inquiry (Cameron Slater’s evidence aside).

The report has certainly received its share of criticism. Several people weren’t interviewed, who perhaps should have been, including Cathy Odgers. Nonetheless, in Ms Odgers’ case, she had provided a lengthy affidavit, which was accepted by Justice Chisholm. Frankly, I find it hard to see how additional interviews with Odgers or Mark Hotchin could have helped implicate Collins. Cameron Slater was the alleged conduit of information to and from her, and Collins essentially lived or died by his evidence.

And so, Collins has been cleared. Can she make it back as a Minister? You’d have to assume not. The multitude of negative headlines she’s generated since the Oravida scandal must surely have resulted in severe concerns from her colleagues as to her professional judgment and personal character. Stranger things have happened though. If a few currently-serving Ministers suffer meltdowns in their portfolios (a la Corrections), she might just find a pathway back to redemption. In politics, nothing’s impossible…