Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Rout & Ruin

"When the hurlyburly's done,/ When the battle's lost and won.": Having come within a whisker of winning 50 percent of the popular vote, National's position on the Right has grown even more hegemonic. But what of the Left? What can we expect to see emerge from the rout and ruin in 2011?

“ROUT AND RUIN” was my bleak reply to the e-mail from Glasgow. A friend had asked “How bad is it?” What else could I say? Labour’s 2011 Party Vote was an eye-watering 165,000 votes shy of 2008’s. At 27.1 percent, the Party’s share of the popular vote was only marginally greater than the 24.2 percent it attracted in 1919 – the very first general election it contested.

The crucial difference, of course, was that in 1919 Labour was the new kid on the political block. Barely three years old, it was bursting with enthusiasm and eager to replace the ailing Liberal Party as the principal opponent of Bill Massey’s Reform Party government.

Fast-forward 92 years and it is Labour that is ailing. New Zealand’s oldest political party is being challenged on all fronts by younger, more vibrant organisations – most particularly the Greens. With close to 11 percent of the Party Vote, the latter’s level of support is now approaching half that of Labour’s, an ominous statistic for the party which used to be able to count on attracting seven votes for every one that went to the Greens.

Labour’s dramatic debut on the hustings in 1919 ushered in a decade and a half of extraordinary political turbulence that only ended with the Labour Party victory of 1935 and the creation of the National Party the following year. The 2011 general election result suggests that New Zealand may be about to re-enter the sort of agitated political air it last encountered in the 1990s.

The difference, this time, is that the turmoil within the party system is not being driven by the sound of ideologies clashing (or crashing) as they were (and did) in the days of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. This time it is the absence of strong ideological themes in our domestic politics that is generating the instability – especially on the centre-left.

What does Labour really stand for in 2011? It most certainly does not stand for the socialist aims and objectives proclaimed by Harry Holland’s Labour Party in 1919. Indeed, two of the most important policies promoted by Phil Goff’s Labour Party in 2011: the introduction of a Capital Gains Tax; and lifting the age of eligibility for superannuation from 65 to 67; could just as easily have emerged from a moderate conservative party.

Moderation has also been the watchword among Green Party strategists in 2011. Gone are the apocalyptic, doom-saying Green Party MPs of yesteryear, and in their place we find the coolly rational Dr Russel Norman, laconically peddling non-threatening economic solutions in a pale green suit. Dr Norman openly proclaims his party’s intention of taking Green politics “mainstream”: moving out beyond the gentrified streets of the inner-cities to the sprawling suburbs of “Middle New Zealand” where modern elections are won and lost.

There was a time when Labour was extremely competitive in these leafy suburbs. But the Greens’ emergence into double figures, Party Vote-wise, suggests that the well-educated, environmentally-conscious, middle-class New Zealander with a social conscience – the demographic that has provided Labour with its winning electoral edge for the best part of three decades – may, finally, have completed its migration from red to green.

But a Labour Party reduced to what are now its core demographics of Pakeha superannuitants, low-paid Pasifika and Maori, and beneficiaries of all colours and creeds, offers a very poor match for the politics and policies of moderation. The diminishing parliamentary assortment of middle-class professionals, civil servants and trade union officials that sits atop Labour’s demographic rump look less-and-less like the people it purports to represent. So much so, now, that the notion of the brown, the poor and the elderly one day deciding to cut out these middle-men and women, and represent themselves, is acquiring an aura of inevitability. Hone Harawira and his Mana Party will be hoping so.

But Mana has a lot of growing to do before it can hope to compete with the party that re-emerged from the electoral shadows with a pundit-smiting 6.8 percent of the Party Vote: NZ First.

Winston Peters’ success hinges upon his instinctive grasp of the issue that will increasingly come to dominate the politics of the next decade: the issue of economic sovereignty. How to foster not only the domestic control and utilisation of the nation’s resources, but also the cultural and political confidence required for their successful defence.

In this respect, as a party identified with economic sovereignty and national identity, NZ First may prove to be the opposition party with the greatest potential for growth. Because the New Zealand electorate has given Winston Peters and his new caucus that rarest and most precious of gifts: the opportunity to learn from past mistakes, and lay claim again to the gratitude of posterity.

Proof, indeed, that “rout and ruin” can be overcome.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 November 2011.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Farewell To Old New Zealand?

Dreams Of Old New Zealand: A glimpse of the curving North Otago shoreline and a swathe of bright blue sky

LAST NIGHT I dreamed of Oamaru. I was born there 55 years ago in the big public hospital which overlooked the little seaside town. In those days, public hospitals were almost always built on hilltops. Set there by the State, they quite literally “watched over” the citizenry they were erected to serve. It was reassuring.

Why was I dreaming of Oamaru? I’d like to think it was because, on the eve of the 2011 General Election, I was reaching back into my past for answers about the present, and the future, of my country. That, at some point in the dream, someone would step forward and answer all the questions my conscious mind has been asking me since the campaign began.

But the unconscious doesn’t work like that, does it?

In my dream the person with the answers was me. A hall-full of people was waiting for Chris Trotter to get up and sing. But he couldn’t sing. His guitar had no strings, and he had forgotten all the words to his songs.

I looked down at the audience from the stage. All the faces were friendly, expectant and curiously familiar. The big doors at the end of the hall stood open, framing a glimpse of the curving North Otago shoreline and a swathe of bright blue sky. Then somebody shut the doors; the audience fell silent; and I woke up.

Except it won’t be a dream from which we wake on Sunday morning; it’ll be a brand new political reality to which we open our eyes. And unless I’m very much mistaken, the most important aspect of this new reality will be how few points of connection it has with our nation’s past. Old New Zealanders, like me, will feel like those people left standing on the quay when a big passenger liner pulls away. One by one the paper streamers connecting us to the departing world will snap. The ship will sail away and we’ll be left behind.

The people on board the ship will breathe a huge sigh of relief. For the past three years they have grown increasingly impatient with Old New Zealand and its passé traditions. They know that the egalitarian values it persists in celebrating have no currency in their brave new world.

A brutal and unreflective fatalism defines these New New Zealanders. For those lucky enough to be born to the right parents, life is good. Is it their fault they’re lucky? Losers’ children (with the right sort of genes) will scrabble and claw their way out of whatever hell-hole they’re born into – and why not? No one’s going to condemn them for the crimes they commit getting out and climbing up. The consideration of others is a choice people make – usually at their own expense. The only real crime is getting caught.

It’s why the Captain of this happy little ship, John Key, is so incredibly popular among passengers and crew alike. He epitomises the strategies for success they long to emulate. Mixing sunny smiles and cheery waves with the most ruthless and unforgiving displays of political management. His enemies called him “the smiling assassin” – never understanding that his friends have come to admire both the killings, and the “aw-shucks” grin that accompanies them, in equal measure.

The most frightening thing about the new ship of state is the number of people who have scrambled aboard for no better reason than the proximity of wealth and power. Even in the bowels of steerage their excitement remains undimmed. They can feel the beat of the band through the ship’s bulkheads, and smell the champagne and caviar wafting through the ventilation shafts. They have no idea that their real purpose is to satisfy the First Class passengers’ pathological appetite for social torture. That, in the neoliberal theatre of pain, the flesh of the poor is the ultimate prop, and their suffering the only acceptable tribute. Not even their children will be spared.

Perhaps that’s why I awoke so suddenly from my dream. Perhaps the closing of the doors was the signal that it was about to descend into nightmare.

And I'm left wondering: is my use of the departing ship metaphor ill-judged? Is it really possible for us Old New Zealanders to avoid embarking alongside the New on Mr Key’s voyage of the damned? Aren’t we all aboard that ship? All inescapably bound to its fate? Aren’t those paper streamers attached to the world we are leaving behind? Isn’t the moment of their breaking also the moment we must bid farewell forever to Old New Zealand?

I don’t believe it is. Neoliberal values are like those plates African tribeswomen insert in their lower-lips. They are alien to the true shape of humanity and are only accommodated by constant application and severe distortion. Once accomplished, however, the effect is much admired by those who have already endured the process. And those who have not are, naturally, despised.

But we plate-less ones at least retain the natural shape of our humanity and inhabit a world in which it is still possible to whistle to, smile at, and kiss one another. In this sense, we Old New Zealanders have indeed been spared the horrors of Captain Key’s voyage.

I dreamed last night of Oamaru and awoke fearing the onset of nightmare. But it need not be so. For hasn’t Oamaru become the capital of that strange art-form known a “steam-punk”? Past and future can be merged to create a potent new hybrid of magic and science. Old songs can find new singers, and old guitars new strings. And, if we all try hard enough to remember, perhaps, in time, the right words will come back to us.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Coronation or Conundrum?

Giving Or Taking?: With all the polls showing National on track to win an outright majority of the votes cast, the Prime Minister is heading for an electoral coronation. If NZ First crosses the five percent MMP threshold, however, New Zealand faces a conundrum. Will NZ First, by abstaining on Confidence and Supply motions, allow "King John" to govern, or will that wily old kingmaker, Winston Peters, permit Phil Goff to seize his crown?

TOMORROW’S ELECTION will be either a coronation or a conundrum. The pollsters predict the former: that National will canter home with more than half the votes cast. If the voters confirm these prognostications, then Mr Key will more than merit the monarchical moniker. He and his party will have achieved what no other New Zealand prime minister or German chancellor has ever achieved under the Mixed Member Proportional system: outright victory and the ability to govern without the irksome baggage of coalition. If that is the result, then “King John” it’ll be – and who’s to say him nay?

For the Election to become a conundrum two things have to happen. First, and most crucially, Winston Peters’ NZ First Party must rise above the 5 percent MMP threshold. If it doesn’t, then Mr Key’s Government is almost certainly safe. The second thing (and, naturally, it’s closely related to the first) is that National’s percentage of the Party Vote has to fall to the mid-forties. If Mr Peters gets up, and National drops down below 45.5 percent, then it’ll be fair to announce: “Houston, we have a problem.”

Our problem might best be described as a case of multiple and mutual political allergies. Mr Key is allergic to Mr Peters, and Mr Peters is allergic to Mr Key. Fair enough, you might say, there’s no love lost between those two. If Mr Peters adds his 5 percent (6 seats) to Labour’s 32 percent (39 seats), the Green’s 12 percent (15 seats) and Mana’s 1.5 percent (2 seats), then it’s all over. Phil Goff becomes Prime Minister and Mr Key remains uncrowned. (We’re assuming, of course, that Mr Goff’s allergy to Mr Harawira miraculously vanishes on Saturday evening.)

If only it were that simple.

But, unfortunately, Mr Peters’ allergies extend far beyond Mr Key and the National Party. He also claims to be allergic to Labour’s Mr Goff, the Greens’ Russel Norman and Metiria Turei, and Mana’s Hone Harawira. National’s unforgiveable sin is its plan to sell state assets. Labour’s, the Greens’ and the Mana Party’s unpardonable transgression is their support for what Mr Peters’ calls “Maori separatism”. Accordingly, Mr Peters has declared a plague on all their houses. NZ First, he says, will take itself off to the Opposition Benches and there maintain the strictest political celibacy.


That could be good news for Mr Key. Let’s assume his worst nightmare with National sliding down to “just” 45 percent of the Party Vote. That would entitle it to 55 seats. Now let’s assume that “the good voters of Epsom” elect Mr Banks, but Act, itself, receives only 1 percent of the Party Vote. National gets one ally. If Peter Dunne holds Ohariu, National has two allies. If the Maori Party wins three of the Maori seats, National’s allies number five and it is able to form a coalition controlling 60 of the 121 seats. That’s a healthy margin above Mr Goff’s 56 seats.

Not so fast. Before he can form a Government, Mr Key must be able to inform the Governor-General that National commands a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives. Can he do that? Only if Mr Peters gives him a firm undertaking that on matters of Confidence and Supply he and his colleagues will abstain.

But, if NZ First undertakes to abstain on votes of Confidence and Supply that’s tantamount to allowing Mr Key to form a government. Is it possible that Mr Peters, having confounded the critics and led his party back to Parliament, will then repeat his extraordinary decision of 1996 and re-seat his arch-enemies on the Treasury Benches?

No, the only way Mr Peters can “punish” his enemies is to pledge his party’s consistent support on matters of Confidence and Supply to Mr Goff. There’s simply no other means of securing his political legacy.

Were I the Governor-General, I’d be praying that the coronation of “King John” spares me the conundrum of Mr Peters.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion-Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 November 2011.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Human, All-Too-Human

The Eyes Have It: If "Cuppagate" fails to put an end to the people's trust, John Key will have the general reluctance of human-beings to surrender their most cherished illusions to thank for his re-election.

RIGHT NOW there’s nothing more important than Bradley Ambrose’s recording. Those who lament the salience of “Cuppagate” in the current campaign simply don’t understand the nature of electoral politics. General Elections are a bloodless form of warfare, waged with symbolic weapons. Like it or not, the disputed digital recording of the Key-Banks conversation in Café Urban has become the most potent weapon in the struggle between those who want to keep John Key in office and those who want to remove him.

Team Key need their man to be seen as the victim of a media conspiracy. That’s why they have cast him as the public’s champion, barring the way to the slippery slope down which unethical journalists are preparing to toss the whole nation. That is why he’s had to resist every call to authorise release of the recording. Because if he relented then nobody would be safe. Invoking the memory of Milly Dowler, the Prime Minister’s ranged himself alongside Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant. Like them, he’s standing in front of an out-of-control media juggernaut and crying “Halt!”

The news media cannot quite get its head around Mr Key’s tactics. Most of the time politicians are extremely wary of journalists and their vast audiences. Spin doctors take great care to cultivate the most important media players and do everything they can to ensure that their employer’s messages reach the public without too much in the way of unhelpful journalistic interpretation. But, on those rare occasions when the media sets itself against a beloved leader, a helpless individual and/or a trusted institution, none of this applies. When the media allows its own conduct to become the focus of public attention the result is seldom pretty.

The American networks’ coverage of the police riot outside the Democratic Party Convention in 1968 is the most famous illustration of this phenomenon. News reporters and TV anchors were deeply shocked at the violence meted out, not simply to young anti-war protesters, but to many of the Convention delegates themselves. Images of berserk Chicago cops beating defenceless citizens were broadcast to the nation and the authorities condemned for allowing such violence to take place.

For more than a generation, America’s leading journalists had felt supremely confident they were speaking for the vast majority of decent Americans. But they weren’t. Following these historic news broadcasts, tens-of-thousands of phone calls, telegrams and letters flooded the TV networks. And these messages, far from condemning the Police violence, condemned the journalists for defending the protesters and criticising the authorities.

The US news media’s moral confidence never fully recovered from this experience. Deeply disillusioned, journalists were forced to accept that, far from being automatic defenders of media freedom, most citizens were suspicious of social critics, and resented the space and time news organisations made available to them.

People do not like to receive information which contradicts their most cherished assumptions. The 50 percent of New Zealanders who identify with John Key’s aspirational and anti-political persona do not want to be told that it is nothing more than a carefully constructed mask. They don’t want to know that behind the Prime Minister’s genial and easy-going manner lies a ruthless and unforgiving politician.

The harder the news media pushes for the Key-Banks conversation to be released, the more fearful his supporters become that they will be forced to change their favourable opinion of the Prime Minister. And since that’s something they’re desperately unwilling to do, they’re happily telling the pollsters they support his “principled stand”.

Horizon Research puts the Against Release/For Release split at 53 to 46 – and that may well turn out to be the way the votes are finally distributed between the parties of the Centre-Right and the Centre-Left. Only a handful of political junkies and policy wonks genuinely care about the parties’ policies. Elections are not won or lost on policy. (If they were, then National’s policy on asset sales would already have condemned it to defeat.) Elections, for most people ,boil down to only one question: “Who do you trust?”

Who do you trust to keep your job? Who do you trust to keep your house? Who do you trust to keep you safe? Who do you trust to give your kids a rich and fulfilling life?

Overwhelmingly, and for an unprecedented period of time, New Zealanders have answered those questions with the name of the Prime Minister. That’s why the National Party has put all its eggs into the single basket named “John Key”. It also explains why Mr Key and his party are going to such extraordinary lengths to suppress Mr Ambrose’s recording.

Protecting its contents has been transformed into an act of almost religious fidelity. John Key the people’s saviour must remain inviolate, lest John Key the calculating politician be exposed as human, all-too-human.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 November 2011.

Monday, 21 November 2011

If We Were A Nation Of Grown-Ups

Things To Come: A society in its adulthood was the subject of the 1936 film adaptation of H.G. Well's futuristic novel The Shape of Things to Come. Perhaps this Saturday we should all make an effort to put an end to New Zealand's arrested development and vote like a nation of grown-ups.

IF WE WERE a nation of grown-ups, the biggest battle at election time would be the one between Labour and the Greens. They would be arguing about the wisdom of persisting with a system in which the environment is treated as something external to economic transactions, or adopting a new approach in which all human-behaviour is judged according to the severity of its ecological impact. Because, in an age of anthropogenic global warming and peak oil, that is the only argument that matters.

A grown-up nation’s political energies would be devoted to resolving the outstanding ideological objections preventing a productive meshing of the social-democratic and social-ecological programmes. How to keep human welfare at the centre of government action without losing sight of the ecological costs such policies inevitably entail. Not only the Labour and Green parties, but also the news media and the universities would be devoting all their resources to this debate.

A grown-up nation would pause, in the midst of the debate, and give thanks that the parties of the discredited neoliberal past were no longer around to tout the interests of farmers and businessmen. Parties which treated the environment as either a massive sink into which their sponsors were permitted to pour their waste; or, as an inexhaustible quarry from which farmers and businessmen could appropriate the planet’s resources with impunity.

A grown-up nation would shudder at the memory of the politics of distraction in which parties like National and Act engaged. It would recall the way the corporate news media constantly whipped-up fear of crime for commercial gain, and how conservative politicians exploited public fear to justify the incarceration of thousands of citizens in dehumanising penal institutions. It would remember the way criminality and poverty were constantly conflated by the parties of the Right: to the point where whole ethnic and economically deprived communities came to be regarded as either dangerous animals to be controlled, or suitable cases for therapeutic treatment. It would marvel at how effective these tactics were at focusing people’s attention away from the all-too-obvious causes of poverty and crime; economic and social inequality with all their manifold manifestations: unemployment, inadequate and over-crowded housing, domestic violence, family break-up, physical and mental illness and substance abuse.

A grown-up nation would long ago have devoted its energies to eradicating these contributory factors to human misery. It would remember the importunate shrieks and outraged imprecations of the tiny minority of obscenely wealthy individuals (in whose exclusive interests its institutions had been run) as a rigorous and strongly progressive taxation system systematically dismantled the edifices of privilege built up in the old regime’s final phase. It would congratulate itself on the radically democratic structures established in both the workplace and the community, and the speed with which these bodies were able to bring “the wisdom of crowds” to bear on the so-called “problems” of productivity and innovation. It would feel again the sense of wonder at how easily the processes of participatory democracy and consensus-based decision-making were incorporated into the institutions of local and central government.

If we were a nation of grown-ups these are the issues we’d be debating, and these the achievements we’d be gratefully and proudly recalling, five days out from a general election.

But we are not a nation of grown-ups. We are still a nation of moral and political infants reaching out desperately for the hand of a man who would see police constables raid the offices of newspapers and broadcasters rather than share with the voters the contents of a supposedly “bland” political conversation. We are a nation in which so-called “journalists” from major media outlets are perfectly willing to endorse (and even praise!) the state-enforced suppression of political information in the midst of a general election. We are a nation that worships wealth and fame. We are a nation profoundly ignorant of its own past. We are a nation obsessed with limiting government expenditure, but unrelentingly hostile to raising government revenue. We are a nation that still prefers to marginalise, blame and punish the poor rather than lift them out of poverty. We are a nation that is willing to do just about anything except accept what sort of nation we are.

We’re a nation with a lot of growing up to do.

We should all make a start this weekend.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Two's Company ...

Crowded Out: Act's leader, Dr Don Brash, who might have been expected to be included in this very public tea party, was actually one of the main topics of John Key's and John Banks' now notorious conversation - and not in a good way.

THE AMERICAN HUMOURIST, Mark Twain, once described a conspiracy as “nothing but a secret agreement of a number of men for the pursuance of policies which they dare not admit in public.” Generally speaking, voters are wary of politicians who agree privately to do things they’re too scared to announce publicly. What am I saying? “Wary” simply doesn’t do the voters’ feelings justice. “Mistrustful” would be a better word; “Suspicious” better still. Which is why, if the Prime Minister, John Key, hasn’t allowed the news media to reveal the contents of the notorious “teapot tape” by the time this column is printed, then he’s a damn fool.

But, even assuming he has relented, and everyone now knows exactly what transpired in Newmarket’s Café Urban  between the Prime Minister and Act’s Epsom candidate, John Banks, chances are the true victim of these wily politicians’ tête-à-tête is only slowly grasping his role in the larger conspiracy animating the National-Act tea-party.

Several months ago, at an undisclosed location (but you can be fairly sure it wasn’t Newmarket’s Café Urban ) a number of men and women came together to plot the overthrow of Rodney Hide. At the centre of the plot was the former Reserve Bank Governor and National Party leader, Dr Don Brash, who was convinced that when it came to keeping the National-led Government on the straight-and-narrow neoliberal path he was the only man for the job.

Dr Brash, you’ll recall, had been commissioned by the Prime Minister to lead a taskforce dedicated to closing the wages-gap with Australia. The good doctor’s hard-line neoliberal prescription for lifting New Zealand’s productivity did not, however, impress the Prime Minister, who more-or-less dismissed Dr Brash’s recommendations out-of-hand. Not surprisingly, Dr Brash felt slighted.

His mood was not improved when Rodney Hide’s perk buster reputation was forced to die for love, and David Garrett’s youthful enthusiasm for Frederick-Forsyth-inspired cloak-and-daggering transformed Act from what Dr Brash had fondly hoped would be an invaluable ideological thorn in the Government’s side, to an embarrassing whoopee-cushion under the Neoliberal Establishment’s bottom.

“Hell, I could do better than that!”, mused the Good Doctor, and then proceeded to prove himself wrong.

Dr Brash’s fatal error was to invite Auckland’s former Mayor and National’s former Police Minister, John Banks, to step into the soon-to-be-deposed Rodney Hide’s shoes as Act’s Epsom candidate. Now, the hapless Dr Brash claims to have known Mr Banks for years and years and years, yet in all that time he’s somehow missed the rather important fact that his bosom friend and business partner is an outrageous right-wing populist in the mould of Sir Robert Muldoon. Just how outrageous Dr Brash would soon discover when he mused in public about decriminalising marijuana.

Only then, I suspect, did Dr Brash become vaguely aware of the trap into which his eagerness to rehabilitate Act had led him. Far from becoming a rallying beacon for the neoliberal cognoscenti of the libertarian Right, Act was just an election-day away from reverting to what it had been under the unsentimental leadership of Richard Prebble: a repository for every red-necked, right-wing crackpot who ever ran a small business or operated a dairy farm on what had once been Maori land.

The meeting in the Café Urban: that much bally-hooed “cup of tea” featuring the Prime Minister and John Banks; it would, of course, send a message to “the good people of Epsom” about the desirability of giving “that nice Mr Key’s” government a reliable coalition partner; but that wouldn’t be the only message it sent. To those who knew how to read the tea-leaves in the bottom of the two Johns’ teacups, it also signalled that the electoral alliance being forged was not between conservatives and neoliberals, it was between the centre-right and the far-right. Between the genial and urbane Mr Key and the aggressive and provincial Mr Banks.

Why wasn’t Dr Brash invited to that much-hyped photo-op? Because as soon as the votes of “the good people of Epsom” have been counted, the members of Act’s Board will be holding an election of their own. And when those votes have been counted, Dr Brash will almost certainly find himself joining Mr Hide and Mr Prebble in the Ex-Leaders of Act Club.

Yep, the two Johns have played Dr Brash – and the country – like a guitar.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 November 2011.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

"The Most" versus "The Majority"

Out Of Many, One: The key constitutional requirement for the exercise of executive power in New Zealand is the confidence of a working majority of members of the House of Representatives. To suggest that the party which received the most votes cast must be a part of that working majority is both unconstitutional and undemocratic.

THE SEMANTIC DIFFERENCE between “the most votes” and “a majority of the votes” is about to become extremely important. Why? Because, constitutionally-speaking, winning more votes than any other party is nowhere near as important as winning more than half the votes cast and/or controlling more than half of the seats in Parliament.

It is, for example, quite possible for a party to hold the largest number of seats in the House of Representatives and yet find itself relegated to the Opposition benches by a combination of parties commanding a majority of the seats. This is because, under our constitution the Government must retain the confidence of the House to go on governing. The Parliamentary Opposition can test this with a motion of No-Confidence, which, to be carried, must be supported by more than half of the participating Members of Parliament.

That even the slightest confusion over “most” and “majority” continues to exist is one of the most pernicious legacies of the First-Past-the-Post (FPP) electoral system.

In order for FPP to produce a majoritarian outcome the electorate must be restricted to a choice of just two parties. If there are only two candidates contesting each electorate then the winner will attract not only the most votes but also a majority of the votes. FPP elections are contested electorate by electorate and the party accumulating more than half of the parliamentary seats is declared the winner and invited to form a government.

In its whole political history, New Zealand fulfilled this requirement for just eighteen years. From 1936 until 1954 our electoral landscape was dominated by two mass parties: Labour and National. No other political organisations came anywhere near them in terms of voter support. As a result, it was not unusual for the winning party to attract more than 50 percent of the popular vote. In the snap-election of 1951, for example, held in the wake of the infamous 1951 Waterfront Dispute, National received 54 percent of the votes cast.

In 1954, however, the Social Credit Political League brought New Zealand’s pure two-party system to an abrupt end. For the first time in our history, the monetary reformers of Douglas Social Credit fielded candidates in a General Election, attracting a very creditable 11.2 percent of the votes cast. Under our current MMP electoral system the Social Creditors would have been entitled to proportional representation, but in 1954 Social Credit failed to win a single seat and it was National, with just 44.3 percent of the popular vote (a whole 0.2 percentage points ahead of Labour) which ended up forming a government.

And so it continued for the next 42 years. Though the Social-Creditors’ support rose as high as 20.6 percent of the popular vote, it never won more than 2 parliamentary seats. More importantly, neither Labour nor National was ever again sufficiently popular to win more than half of the votes cast. In 1978 and 1981, not even winning the most votes was enough to make you the Government. In both of those elections National secured a parliamentary majority with fewer votes than Labour.

It was in this grossly inequitable FPP context of parties winning less than half of the votes cast but securing well in excess of half the parliamentary seats that the voting public’s propensity to confuse “winning the most votes” with “winning a majority of the votes cast” began to take hold. The semantic confusion was in no way lessened when, in the General Election of 1993, the Alliance Leader, Jim Anderton, pledged his support to the party which won the most votes. Fortunately for Mr Anderton, he was never obliged to keep his promise. But, if he had, it would have seen the left-leaning Alliance backing an incumbent National Government which 62 percent of the electorate (including his own followers) had failed to endorse.

The confusion was exacerbated three years later in the first General Election conducted under the new MMP voting system. In spite of the fact that 66 percent of the electorate (including his own followers) had declined to endorse the incumbent National-led Government, the NZ First Leader, Winston Peters threw his support behind the party with the most (33.8 percent!) votes.

With the 2011 General Election less than a fortnight away, alarm is already being raised at the prospect of any party other than the party winning the most votes being allowed to form a government. Already, any combination of parties commanding a majority of parliamentary seats – but excluding the party with the most seats – is being derided as a “Coalition of Losers”. Already, conservative commentators are issuing thinly-veiled threats that such a government would face mass protest action.

Decent New Zealanders will reject such threats. Those making them are behaving undemocratically and unconstitutionally.

If 51 percent doesn’t beat 49 percent – then what does?

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 November 2011.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Like A Lamb To The Slaughter: The Powers-That-Be are not about to let a Labour-Green-NZ First-Mana combination take power - not while National can lay claim to winning more votes than anybody else. That's why the Greens are already being fattened-up for the role of National's "responsible" coalition partner. Would you care for some mint sauce with that cabinet seat, Russel?

CAN’T YOU HEAR THEM? The wheels spinning within wheels? The subtle change in the whine of the engine? The Machine is changing gear. The Powers-That-Be are preparing to offer us something new. A National-Green Government.

Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the way this election is being covered. Whose stocks are being talked up? Whose leaders are being praised for their “realism” and economic “savviness”? Let me give you a hint: It isn’t Labour.

Of course, it’s only an insurance policy at the moment. Something to reach for if everything goes horribly wrong on Election Day. But that’s the thing about insurance – it’s very hard to acquire after the event. You’ve got to be ready.

Ready for what?

Could be a number of things.

Could be the polls wildly overstating National’s support. Could be the voters, not relishing the prospect of Mr Key governing alone, deciding to cast their ballots elsewhere. Could be that instead of receiving 56 percent of the Party Vote, National has to make do with just 46 percent.

Could be that, when told to jump, “the good people of Epsom” refuse the fence. Could be that, faced with two (very) old National faces, the Epsom voters opt for the comparatively youthful features of Mr Paul Goldsmith. That would put Act out of Parliament, and leave the Prime Minister dangerously bereft of trustworthy coalition partners.

Could be a sudden, last-minute surge towards the Left. An unexpected wave of support that pushes the Greens up to 15 percent of the Party Vote and heaves Labour, coughing and spluttering, into the mid-30s. Hone Harawira could stride up the beach with Annette Sykes under one arm and John Minto under the other. That would leave Phil Goff perilously close to being able to cobble together some form of Centre-Left government.

Could be that Old Brown Eyes – Winston Peters – croons his way back into the hearts of the over-60s. Could be that they warm to the idea of NZ First sitting on the cross-benches, wielding one of those “Stop/Go” signs: Asset sales? Stop! School meals for the children of the poor? Go! Could be that, in the pundits’ opinion, Winston’s return presages John Key’s departure.

That’s why the Powers-That-Be have to be ready.

Editorialist and political commentator, John Roughan, pointed the way last weekend:

“National’s winning margin this time could be nearer 10 points than 20, which means it could be displaced by a Labour coalition. What would happen then? I suspect the electorate would feel cheated. The result wouldn’t seem right. The government would be held in general contempt. Nothing it did would command much respect. A small army of MMP’s old advocates would come to its defence, reminding us that it had always been possible under MMP for a winner to be defeated by second and third. That would not help at all. We would resolve to change not just the government at the next opportunity but to elect a party that promised to fix the system.”

You get that? Is that clear enough for you?

Fail to allow the party which wins the most votes to govern and you can kiss MMP good-bye.

Never mind that our constitution guarantees power only to the party, or parties, commanding a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives. And forget completely that in spite of the fact that it won more votes than National in 1978 and 1981, Labour never got to form a government. All you have to remember is that if National wins more votes than any other party on 26 November, it must be allowed to go on governing – or else.

And you know already who the designated fall-guy, the patsies, are going to be.

Yep, poor old Russel Norman and the Greens.

They’re Mr Key’s insurance policy; his Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card.

And believe you me, once Russel and the Greens are ushered into the Powers-That-Be’s government-making machinery, saying “No” will not be an option.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 November 2011.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Vicious Spiral

Spiral Of Silence: The ability of opinion polls to materially shape the outcome of elections is strongly indicated in the academic research. If the Election Night result suggests that our major polling agencies somehow got it wrong, a great many New Zealanders will have every right to feel extremely angry.

IT’S GOING TO BE one of the most interesting “results” on Election Night, and quite possibly one of the most devastating. How closely do the “snap-shots” taken by the major opinion polling agencies resemble the actual election outcome?

It will be interesting because for the past three years the conclusions of the major polling agencies (Colmar Brunton, Reid Research, Research International, DigiPol) have sharply contradicted the intuitive assessments of many ordinary voters. To these folk the idea that John Key’s government is supported by more than 50 percent of decided voters is ludicrous. Again and again, you will hear people say: “I simply don’t believe National is that high, or that Labour is that low.”

Not surprisingly, the academic experts in the field of statistical research have reacted rather condescendingly when confronted with this response. Their stock reply has been to invite the doubters to consider the historical evidence. And why not? Averaged out in the so-called poll-of-polls, the agencies’ final “snap-shots” of the electorate have consistently, and accurately, mirrored the actual election outcome.

There are a whole host of personal and ideological reason why people may not want to believe the poll results, say the experts, but that does not mean that they’re wrong.

But what if they are wrong?

Over the past week there have been at least three statistics-based depictions of the electorate’s political preferences.

The latest, from Research International, confirms the findings of the other major polling agencies. National rides high with 52 percent; Labour flounders at 26 percent; and the Greens, on 12 percent, continue their impressive upward climb. No other party comes even close to crossing the 5 percent MMP threshold.

A very different picture emerged from the second survey. Conducted by a trio of Weekend Herald journalists led by Simon Collins, it showed National on 43 percent, Labour on 31 percent, and the Greens on 14 percent. The sample amounted to just over 500 persons, and the interviews were conducted face-to-face on the streets of the nation. Collins and his team readily acknowledged that the sample was skewed in favour of younger voters and that this was likely to advantage Labour and the Greens.

But what about the major polling agencies’ reliance on telephone interviewing over land-lines? Doesn’t this skew their results in favour of mature, middle-class, settled suburban voters willing to talk to pollsters? And doesn’t that person sound a lot like your typical National Party voter?

Isn’t it possible that the methodologies of the major polling agencies are consistently over-stating the level of public support for the right-wing parties? Let us suppose for a moment that they are, or that it is, at the very least, a possibility. Is this possibility of disortion acknowledged by the newspapers and networks who commission these polls? Or does each media outlet report “their” poll’s findings without the slightest reference to potential methodological shortcomings or contradictory data?

Which brings us to the third survey, released on 2 November by Horizon Research Ltd. This poll, conducted within methodological parameters radically different from those employed by the majors, presents a dramatically different picture of the 2011 election campaign. In Horizon’s poll, National stood at 36 percent, Labour at 30 percent, the Greens at 14 percent, NZ First at 6.5 percent, the newly-formed Conservative Party on 4 percent, Act on 3 percent, Mana on 1.8 percent, the Maori Party on 1.2 percent and United Future on 0.8 percent.

If those numbers are accurate, then the NZ First Party and its leader, Winston Peters, will once again play the role of Kingmaker in post-election negotiations.

It’s right about here that things turn ugly.

Using the Colmar Brunton poll as their guide, TVNZ decided to exclude NZ First from the minor party debates. Other media outlets (including Radio New Zealand and Sky Television) have done the same. Indeed, the reporting of the entire election campaign is being shaped, to an unhealthy degree, upon data supplied almost exclusively by land-line telephone interviews. Not surprisingly, a National victory is taken for granted. Labour is painted as a party of losers. The Greens are said to be making impressive gains. And Winston Peters is dismissed as irrelevant.

Overwhelmingly, this is the picture of the campaign being presented to the electorate. It is, therefore, highly likely that a large number of voters have already succumbed to the psephological effect known as “TheSpiral of Silence”.

Now consider this counterfactual.

Imagine that the newspapers and broadcasting networks have based their coverage of the election on the Horizon poll. That all the talk has been about the “knife-edge” election. That Winston Peters has found himself and his party at the centre of media attention. Public engagement in the campaign has been considerably higher – and so has the turn-out on Election Day. In short, the Horizon-based picture of the contest has been dramatically more inclusive than the major agency-based picture.

Which brings us back to Election Night.

How devastated centre-left voters will feel, and how justifiably furious, if the actual voting statistics indicate that National’s support was grossly exaggerated, and that Labour has fared considerably better than all of the major polling agencies were suggesting. Imagine their anguish if NZ First, in spite of being almost entirely shut-out of the mainstream news media, wins 4.9 percent of the Party Vote. And if NZ First’s desperately narrow failure to crest the 5 percent threshold turns out to be the difference between a National-led and a Labour-led government.

If that is the way the numbers fall on Election Night, hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealanders will not only be perfectly entitled to say “bugger the pollsters”, but they will also be entirely justified in asserting that the election has been stolen from them by a news media which placed far too much faith in what has proved to be the major polling agencies flawed methodology.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

No Time For Instant Verdicts

Guilty As Charged!: The modern news media's seemingly insatiable appetite for instant verdicts - especially on political performance - risks reducing the citizen's serious civic responsibility of rendering democratic judgement to the level of participating in a television game show.

THE RUSH TO JUDGEMENT encouraged by the modern news media serves us very ill.

If you doubt this, try the following thought experiment.

Imagine that there were 24-hour news channels like CNN, Fox News and Al Jazeera covering the Battle of France in 1940. Imagine the breathless reports of Germany’s surprise attack through the Ardennes, and the journalists’ consternation at the speed of the Wehrmacht’s advance. Consider what the endless parade of pundits and military experts would’ve made of the French Government’s chances of survival. Or, how the British electorate would’ve responded when pollsters offered them the choice of pursuing the war under Churchill, or making peace under Sir Samuel Hoare. Who’s to say that a British Government, harried by the 1930s equivalent of the far-right Fox News channel, might not have bowed to the public fear of invasion and signed an armistice with Adolf Hitler?

All very well, you might say, but in wartime the news media would simply not behave so recklessly. And, if it did, the Government would, quite rightly, impose very tight restrictions on what it could and couldn’t say.

When ballots, not bullets, are in play, however, we are unwilling to even contemplate placing restrictions on press freedom. As a result, our politicians, journalists and commentators all fall prey to the news media’s insatiable demand for instant stories and instant judgements.

The Leader of the Opposition stumbles over his party’s fiscal projections in The Press’s “Leaders Debate” and the Prime Minister is more-or-less instantly proclaimed winner: not merely of the debate (which he was) but of the election itself.

Forty-eight hours later, the Labour Party releases its fiscal outlook, making nonsense of the National Party’s claims of a $14-17 billion “hole” in the Opposition’s numbers. What are the journalists supposed to say then? That their earlier call was incorrect? That the election is not, quite, a foregone conclusion? That the Prime Minister has been shown up as economically innumerate?

Hardly. One precipitate judgement is simply built upon another, until the electorate’s head begins to spin and the entire electoral contest becomes a shimmering mirage – as untrustworthy as it is alluring. Parched though the voters may be for clear, cold, facts, these hastily generated illusions will not quench their thirst.

Indeed, one of the results I’m most eagerly looking forward to on Election Night is how closely the public opinion polls’ “snap-shots” of the electorate’s preferences match up with the hard-and-fast electoral judgements finally deposited in the ballot-box. Will the National Party really receive more than 50 percent of the Party Vote? Or, will the Government’s tally much more closely replicate the 45-46 percent of the vote anticipated by the political “share-traders” investing their money on iPredict?

If iPredict’s numbers prove to be closer to the actual result than the result predicted by political journalists and commentators on the basis of the opinion polls, then the electorate is entitled to feel very annoyed.

The electoral effects produced by poll data which consistently reveals a huge gap between the principal contending parties’ levels of popular support are well attested in the academic literature. Voter perception of the political efficacy of their ballot may be influenced to the point where they forego participation in the election altogether. Alternatively, voters of more malleable political allegiances may be persuaded to abandon the “losers” and clamber aboard what has been repeatedly depicted as the “winner’s” bandwagon.

Pondering these issues, the question arises: Is it wise for the news media to devote so much effort to telling the voter who’s “ahead” and who’s “behind” – as if elections were indeed nothing more than horse-races? Surely, the most important democratic function of the media is to subject the various political contenders’ claims to the critical scrutiny of expert witnesses? Publishing dispassionate critiques of contending policy; broadcasting fair and balanced accounts of the candidates behaviour on the hustings; and then allowing the voters to make up their own minds. Isn’t this the media’s most important contribution to the electoral process?

In a country whose largest cities publish only one daily newspaper, political neutrality is even more essential. Commentators from Right and Left can provide readers with an indication of the mood of their respective patrons, but we should never forget the words of Guardian editor, C.P. Scott, who wisely reminded his readers that while “comment is free”, “facts are sacred.”

And is not the existence of Winston Peters and NZ First a fact? Why, then, has he been excluded by so many media outlets from the minor party debates? Yes, he’s contentious, and yes, a maverick. But then, so was his namesake in 1940. The world has reason to be grateful that the media organisations of 1940, fighting for the very life of democracy, knew better than to offer instant verdicts, or demand rushed judgements.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 November 2011.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Glad Tidings, Or Cruel Game?

Un-Persons: National's welfare policies only work politically because there are a huge number of voters who instantly relegate solo mothers and their children to a place outside the circle of respectable citizens. Only when paid employment reclaims them from the ranks of "the undeserving poor" do welfare beneficiaries stand the slightest chance of being accepted as a "decent, hard-working New Zealanders". Such is the cruel reality behind Mr Key's Pollyanna-ish "glad games".

IN ELEANOR PORTER’S classic children’s novel, Pollyanna, the orphaned heroine startles her misanthropic guardians with what she calls “the glad game”. No matter how bleak her prospects, Pollyanna always finds something to be glad about.

Listening to the Prime Minister wax eloquent about his government’s new welfare policy, I couldn’t help thinking of Pollyanna. Forty-six-thousand New Zealanders are to be purged from the welfare rolls over just four years, and Mr Key is glad. Why? Because, according to the Prime Minister, unemployed, sickness, invalid and domestic purposes beneficiaries will have individualised care wrapped around them like a cuddly blanket.

It’s a lovely thought. Thousands of young solo-mums will have their lives sensibly organised by an army of highly-qualified case-workers. Job training will be made available to all, while their kiddies are looked after in top-notch child-care centres. New MSD swipe-cards will keep these eager job-seekers safe from the temptations of booze, tobacco and God knows what else. Their weekly rent will afford them warm and commodious accommodation.

And all of this will be achieved at the very reasonable cost of just 50 million additional dollars, spread over four years. Presumably, this “new money” will be added to the $130 million per annum already spent moving beneficiaries from welfare to work. So, let’s see: $50 million divided by four equals $12.5 million per year to be spent assisting 11,500 beneficiaries (46,000 divided by 4) into the paid workforce. Hmmm? That’s just $1,086.95 per beneficiary.

Can professionally trained case-workers, high-quality child-care, affordable and appropriate housing stock and effective job-training services really be provided for just $1,086.95 of additional resources per person?

And what about the Government’s boast that getting 46,000 beneficiaries back into the workforce over four years will save the taxpayer one billion dollars – that’s $250 million a year. Or is it? Don’t forget, the estimated annual cost of getting 11,500 people off the welfare roll is $130 million + $12.5 million or $142.5 million. Which means that the annual net benefit to the taxpayer isn’t $250 million, but a much more modest $107.5 million. The saving over four years is more likely to be $430 million – not $1 billion.

Not forgetting, of course, that for there to be any net benefit to the taxpayer at all sufficient new jobs will have to be created to: 1) absorb the normal number of school-leavers and graduates entering the workforce; 2) re-employ workers in businesses which have been sold, shut down or failed; and 3) provide jobs for the 11,500 “Jobseekers” the Government intends to purge from its rolls every year for the next four years.

That’s a very big ask – especially for a government recovering from a global economic recession which added 60,000 people to the welfare rolls. The Prime Ministers glad-game notwithstanding, New Zealanders’ employment prospects remain bleak.

Isn’t it more likely that the $1,086.95 per person of “new money” will be expended on the “services” of a vastly expanded army of “assessors”? Medical professionals (many of them, perhaps, retired, or holding overseas qualifications) who will be expected to tell thousands of sick citizens that they have been “re-assessed”, and that, overnight, they have quite miraculously become “job fit” and, therefore, ineligible for Mr Key’s new “Jobseeker Support” payment?

And, isn’t it equally likely that the Ministry of Social Development will hire scores of new, minimally-trained, case-workers to harry and prod, prod and harry solo mums and unemployed workers into taking any kind of work, no matter how intermittent or unsuitable, so that the number of citizens in receipt of state support can be shown to be trending downwards?

Or, perhaps, the MSD won’t hire any new staff at all. Perhaps the responsibility for managing those receiving Jobseeker and Sole Parent Support payments will be contracted out to private enterprise. The more jobseekers and sole parents they purged from the welfare rolls, the higher the profits of these private agencies would climb.

It’s what happens in Australia – and it’s what the Welfare Working Group set up by Mr Key’s government recommended.

Pollyanna transformed a whole town by refusing to be beaten-down by circumstances, and by unlocking in her neighbours an altruism they’d long been encouraged to repress. Is it a similar, altruistic, game Mr Key is playing with New Zealand’s beneficiaries? Or will he just be glad to see them gone?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star on Friday, 4 November 2011.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Remembering & Forgetting

Masterful Evocation: Labour's opening television broadcast recalled its electoral base to their party's history and values, firmly locating its contemporary leadership within a strong and compelling narrative. The work of film-maker Dan Salmond, the broadcast ranks alongside the very best examples of New Zealand political propaganda. Following National's deeply flawed effort, Labour's production gave its campaign an impressive kick-off.

IT’S EASY TO FORGET how little people remember. Scholars call it “political amnesia” – the curious inability of modern voters to keep a coherent historical narrative in their heads. When tested, voters’ political recall closely resembles those “flashback” scenes in movies about people who have lost their memories. The images and the words follow one another in a rapid, disjointed, almost random, stream. The hero knows they mean something, and that buried deep within them is the answer to his or her problems. And the movie’s plot is all about putting the garbled elements of the hero’s story back into their proper order.

Watching the opening broadcasts of the major political parties I was forcefully reminded of how disjointed and decontextualized modern political communication has become, and what a powerful effect the recovery of historical memory can have on people’s political perceptions.

Labour’s opening message demonstrated the latter effect with extraordinary panache. Seldom have I seen the historical record used to such telling political effect. The 20-minute broadcast re-told Labour’s story, from its birth in the trade union movement of the early 1900s, to the watershed elections of 1935 and 1938. It used original newsreel footage to chronicle the creation of the welfare state, and we were reintroduced to the Labour pantheon: Mickey Savage, Peter Fraser, Walter Nash, Norman Kirk, David Lange, Helen Clark.

Most significantly, we were reminded of the anger and division which accompanied the implementation of Rogernomics. For the first time, Labour held a mirror up to this, the most shameful moment in all its long history, and did not flinch or turn away.

A lot of the effectiveness of this technique is due to the fact that our own history, and the history of political parties, are inextricably interwoven. Our parents and grandparents were there during the Great Depression; they remember the difference Labour’s policies made to people’s lives. Just as we recall Rob Muldoon’s trashing of Labour’s superannuation scheme in the 1975 General Election. By putting those images up on the screen, Labour’s film-makers stirred the viewers’ own memories. Theirs become ours, and in a potent demonstration of political alchemy, ours become theirs.

Placing Labour’s leader, Phil Goff, and the party’s spokespeople, into this living historical context allowed them to show us how and why they’d entered politics. Suddenly, they ceased to be “politicians” seeking our vote, and became instead people whose own family and personal histories had led them to embrace the values of the Labour movement.

There was Phil, seated alongside his eighty-seven-year-old Dad, recalling the privations of a working-class family in the 1920s and 30s. We met Damien O’Connor, who seemed to have absorbed the West Coast Labour tradition through the pores of his skin. And David Cunliffe, the parson’s son, imbibing the redemptive message of the Carpenter through the busy spiritual commerce of the Manse. And, most tellingly, we encountered Jacinda Ardern, windswept amidst the remains of the once thriving forestry town of Murapara, recalling the waste and ruin of the 1980s.

It was as stark and evocative as the black-and-white film of its historical newsreels. Labour was no longer running from its past, it had turned and, for better or for worse, embraced it with love and with pride. “This is who we are”, said Labour’s opening broadcast. “We’re as ingrained in the history of this country as coal-dust in a miner’s palm. We fought, both metaphorically and physically, to make this a country the world could admire – and we’re ready to do it again.”

The contrast with National’s opening broadcast could hardly have been greater. Where Labour’s message had been about the many, the Government’s story celebrated just one: John Key. The overwhelming impression was of a political figure stripped of everything but the quality of his suit and the glibness of his tongue.

The Prime Minister stood in the dark, his audience barely more than deferential shadows. Clearly, the production was inspired by the “town hall meetings” so beloved by presidential candidates in the United States. It didn’t take the viewer very long, however, to understand that this, unlike those, was a carefully scripted affair; and that every question “from the floor” had been crafted to show the PM off to best advantage.

And he was alone: his caucus colleagues, his Cabinet team, nowhere to be seen. Our future, our “aspirations” (to use a favourite Key-word) were presented as being in the hands of a single individual. This man who knows the answer to every question that is put to him – but only because, one way or another, he wrote them himself.

But history is never the work of just one man. Every person stitches the thread of their life into the tapestry of their times. Labour’s opening was a celebration of that fact; National’s shrouded it in darkness.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 November 2011.