Friday, August 30, 2013

The mythical place known as 'the Center'

My master’s program has some incredible people with incredible backgrounds and its being taught by even more incredible people with incredible backgrounds but that’s a different blog. But everyone here is fascinated by what I used to do. Politics is not straight forward in America and affecting change here is like dropping a 1 cent penny in the Potomac River. Not so in New Zealand. They ask me what I did in my two jobs and when I tell them, they are genuinely amazed by how much I got to do. The one recurring question I get asked is “So is the Labour Party like the Democrats?” In terms of a short answer, I guess yes, but if I am being honest, Labour is nothing like the Democrats and neither is National.

There are a lot of stuff this National Government has put up with/supported that even Democrats would consider too ‘socialist’. Working for families, the public healthcare system, ACC, Welfare (yes I know they have completely gutted it but…) and many other policies that Democrats would be scared to even talk about. (By the way, socialism is a term that is thrown around to be synonymous with social democracy. I have not the heart nor the patience to teach Americans what socialism is although you would think that at this level of education they would know!)

So it comes back to the question of – what is the center? Dr Duncan Grant has written an article in the Herald in which he argues Labour has to move to the center to win the election. They could move to the "far left" but what is that? Do they have to be “center left”? Or do they have to be just center? So far John Key has gotten away with calling the current National government a ‘moderate center right” government but their actions speak louder than words. While they haven’t removed existent key social development and economic policies, which may be considered “left”, they have trimmed, hedged, and hollowed policies and legislation wherever they can to stamp their ideological mark. But the New Zealand center is different to the American center so they can’t be like the Republicans. Hell they can’t even be like the democrats. Their ideological mark for purposes of New Zealand is to the right. But it is how they have marketed it that gives us the feeling that it is “center”. It is language and nothing else.

The center moves. The center is whatever we say is the center. The center is whatever we can convince the media to say is the center. There is no center. It’s a made up universe where presumably one can find unicorns. It does not exist. On a piece of paper sure, in reality - no.

The issues of the next election will be the economy. It will be jobs but not just jobs, it is wages too. It will be the overall health of the country, which looks frail. Despite the razzle dazzle of GCSB, sky city laws, changes to the employment laws, changes to the RMA, Tony Ryall’s colourful announcement of more doctors, people are on long waiting lists, people who are on welfare for whatever reason are poor and there is a lack of jobs for them to go to, people cannot afford houses, people rent in houses that are less than adequate, and employees have lost rights. Well, all of us New Zealanders have lost rights with the enactment for various justice legislations and now GCSB and TICS. Are these left issues? Do only people on the left care about child poverty? Labour can be accused of focusing on gay marriage, abortion, and euthanasia but unlike this Government, Labour has been capable of focusing on more than one thing in opposition. Even with considerable less resources than the Government, it has pointed out the state of our housing situation, pointed out that a lack of capital gains tax unfairly targets income earners, pointed out child poverty is something that can be measured and can be fixed, pointed out the fact that the government’s welfare reform hasn’t changed public spending (we just spent it on selling shares instead of looking after our most vulnerable), pointed out the holes in our education system of which there are many, pointed out that asset sales are a failure and harmful in the long run. These are not left issues. These ARE the issues and Labour must tackle all of these issues in Government.

I agree this is Labour’s election to lose. The Government is not in a favourable position and even with the high they had in 2011 they have a 1 vote majority in the House and 4 vote majority on good days. If we make this about Labour and National, yes there is a large gap, but if it’s between the left and the right, the center occupies a sliver that anyone can take. This election the center will be somewhere else. This is not the same center as in the 2005 and 2008 election. People voted for NZ First in 2011 because they wanted them in opposition. I have a feeling that people will not vote of NZ First because they will not want them in Government.

I have given this advice before and I give it again. Whoever the leader is of the Labour party has one shot to get rid of this National Government. John Key will call you names, the media will say you are too left, but you are going to have to find a way to speak on the issues that people right now care about. Lucky for you, you know what they are.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Americans then, Americans now - Syria

I have been listening to the Texas version of talkback radio and I must say I prefer it to Newstalk ZB and Radio Live and the likes. While the people are absolutely cray (there is no other words to describe it), for some reason that kind of crazy talk sounds normal in Texas. It doesn’t seem to behoove Kiwis.

There are lots of crazy opinions floating about namely that many don’t believe Assad is actually behind the chemical weapons attack. There is a belief that the rebels (ie Al Qaeda) are behind it and therefore the US has no business going into another war. There’s also the minor detail of the need for Congressional approval before any action can be taken. The recurring phrase I’m hearing as justification against military action is “look how Iraq and Afghanistan turned out, why are we going into war again!”

This is extraordinary. I was in the United States between 2001 and 2003, living in the Midwest, and I remember that opposition to either war (Afghanistan and Iraq) was seen as not supporting the troops, un-American and un-patriotic, and downright evil. At the very least you had to declared that you “supported the troops” to prevent the Vietnam like treatment of soldiers but that movement effectively silenced opposition to war. It is odd to see that people have finally woken up to the idea that those wars may have not been the greatest response to the terrorism/WMD ‘threat’ at the time.

In all honestly I don’t have a position on what should happen in Syria except that something should happen. How can I? I don’t get the intelligence briefings. I don’t understand what is actually happening on the ground. All I know that are the images of the lifeless bodies. I know THAT is unacceptable. The fact that chemical and biological weapons even exist is a terrifying thought. Where valuable scientific resources should be geared towards finding cures for AIDS and cancer, our society makes weapons to kill children.

What is happening in the Middle East is a complicated situation with no easy answers in the short term. What fascinates me is how Americans are reacting to this situation now compared to 10 years ago. They have war fatigue and they are tired of losing. They believe their military is spread thin, they don’t believe they are going to win this and they have very little faith in the information they are getting from their leaders. I don’t know if the blind trust they used to have in their President is gone because they don’t trust Obama specifically or if that trust was ruined by Bush but it certainly isn’t there now.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Labour Leadership - an excuse to rant

So after a 20 month battle with the polls, David Shearer resigned as leader of the Labour Party. I’ve worked for David and Phil Goff and I know being Leader of the Opposition is extremely challenging. While everyone likes to think it is hilarious to call Russell Norman the Leader of the Opposition, he does not face nearly as much scrutiny as a Labour leader does. And perhaps that is how it should be. Phil Goff and David Shearer faced a lot of criticism and they knew it would come with the job. Leader of the Opposition is a position that is necessary for democracy and when one takes it on, one takes on a huge responsibility. That said, David Shearer was elected to Parliament in 2009 and in a very short time he tackled one of the hardest public service jobs out there and I believe he did so honourably.

Where to now?

We have 3 people vying to be the new Leader of the Opposition and while I have opinions on all three, having worked in the Leader’s office while they have been MPs, what I think about them as people hardly matters. So I won’t be dishing out any secrets here. I do think however, that this is the last chance Labour has before the election to get the leadership right. In the lead up to the election people will love some policies and they will hate some. Some issues will be more interesting than others. Gaffes may define an election or they may be forgotten. How all of these matters are handled by the leader will be the defining aspect of the election.

For those in the left, this is an important election. We will have had 2 terms of a National Government enacting policies that are less than palatable. Whether it was the GCSB, the Sky City deal, the Hobbit deal, the erosion of workers’ rights, the erosion of our environmental responsibility, the lack of any economic growth that is measurable, deplorable state of income inequality, the fact that child poverty is even a slight concern let alone now a major problem, there are plenty of issues for us to fight and win on. Whoever becomes the leader must take on this responsibility knowing that they carry this burden on their shoulders. John Key can accuse Labour of being left wing. He will do that no matter who the leader is. What he thinks really doesn't matter.

I note that there has been a lot of discussion on the voting of the new leader. The ‘right wing’ blogs are busy calculating who has what percentage of the power. I won’t be voting on the leader and frankly I don’t really care who has how much power. I think it’s pretty amazing that anyone other than the caucus has power. I’m not a hard core unionist but I know enough history to know that if they want to have a say in how the leader of the major left wing party is chosen they will have it by votes or by other channels. This at least is transparent. I commend it. They are also weighing in on the people themselves. Matthew Hooton was practically going to have an aneurysm yesterday (has someone checked up on him?). The general voting public doesn't spend time reading blogs (it will be a miracle if more than 1 person reads this), they are too busy struggling to create a better life for themselves and their children. Hidden amongst the 270,000 children living in poverty is a sleeping artist who could only dream of studying art in France. While the Government can't provide that, it can invest more in the arts here in NZ (this is an example not a policy expectation). We shouldn't all have to study engineering to contribute to society (yes, this is a dig at Steven Joyce).

I digress.

Basically my hope is that the candidates remember for the next 3 weeks what the big picture is and what needs to be achieved in 2014 no matter what the outcome. While I am excited for an open campaign, it should be one that allows the activists, the supporters, the members, and the caucus to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get straight to work on September 16 for whoever the leader is. There is no way the public will put up with another internal struggle, a staff ‘re-shuffle’, a gimmick with no value. But there are plenty of substantive issues that we in the left need to fight for and we need someone to be the face of that fight.

I am what they call a millennial. Someone who has left New Zealand reluctantly in search of a brighter future somewhere else after 5 years of disappointment. I want to come home and I want a good reason to do it.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

10 Questions for the PM

I know that the GCSB is all but a Dunne deal but as one of those concerned voters who is not an expert in the area (like 99.99% of all voters) I still have some lingering questions. Is there a journalist out there who wants to ask these questions on our behalf? I acknowledge that some of these questions have been asked. But I'd like to see them asked again.

1. What is the motivation for rushing this legislation through? ie. Why is there no time for an enquiry? Why are there not more discussions to ensure bi-partisan support for a piece of legislation that has such huge constitutional significance? [A little history lesson: When the Criminal Proceedure Bill went through which overhauled the justice system, the then Justice Minister Simon Power sought extensive consultation with the Opposition which was carried on by Minister Judith Collins].

Is it a- because the GCSB messed up in 88 cases and they are trying to close of legal liabilities b-because the Govt has made promises to foreign governments to cooperate c-have we been asked by foreign govt to enact these legislastions (+TCIS) if yes, then what was the nature of those negotiations ie what do we get in return?

2. John Key said that these powers were needed to thwart future terrorist attacks like the Boston bombing. Why with all the powers that the intelligence agencies of the United States has, were they not able to prevent those attacks?

3. The threats to New Zealand are classified. Fair enough. The operations of GCSB are also classified. Fair enough too. The oversight of the agency rests with the Prime Minister. Ok, acceptable. On what basis then, are New Zealanders meant to hand over these powers – blind trust in John Key and ALL future Prime Ministers?

4. For whatever reason whether it was confusion or honest mistake or deliberate disregard of the law, the GCSB has made mistakes, what steps is the Government taking to reform the organization to prevent future mistakes/confusion/disregard for the law or is that classified too?

5. In what ways are the GCSB systems superior to other Government agencies which will ensure they will not go down the same path as ACC, MSD, Immigration NZ, CYFs etc etc in terms of our private information that the GCSB inevitably will collect? If so, will they be sharing those secrets with other agencies if not, why not?

6. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. What happens if you DO have something to hide which is not illegal? We hide things from our family, friends, co-workers all the time. Why would we want the Government know about our personal life or is John Key saying that we have no right to hold have anything personal anymore?

7. We retrospectively changed the legislation when the Police conducted video surveillance that was contrary to the law, we are now changing the legislation because the GCSB has done something contrary to the law (whether by mistake/confusion/disregard). How can the public have confidence in the rule of law when the perception is that law doesn’t apply to those who enforce the law?

8. The Prime Minister has claimed that the Law Society, the Human Rights Commission, Dame Salmond, the Privacy Commissioner, the former head of GCSB, Constitutional expert Sir Geoffrey Palmer are wrong on their analysis and he is right. The advice on which he has formed that opinion is presumably classified. In the absence of that, if the public cannot have confidence in the above people/institutions on this matter, can they have confidence on them on any other matter and if not, is the Prime Minister suggesting that we take his word on every matter and would he find that notion acceptable if anyone else other than himself was Prime Minister? Would he have that faith in any other Prime Minister? What about in a Labour led government?

9. Who was the willing seller and who was the buyer in the Dunne/Key GCSB deal? What was sold and what was bought?

10. The legislation does not prevent the information from being shared with foreign agencies. The PM has provided no explicit assurances that it will not be shared. New Zealanders are fundamentally opposed to that, given the recent revelations on how the information is stored and used. Presumably however, in exchange for this information sharing we are getting something in return. What is it? (This is related to Q1)

I personally believe that the PM has backed himself into a corner where he now cannot back down without looking foolish. This is the part where in an argument a party will realize they are wrong but to save face will continue the same argument. It happens. But I feel the time has come where the shaming of the PM is less important than stopping this law from passing. Hysterical name calling of the PM will only strengthen his resolve. We need to give him an out. He needs an out that would be reason for this to not go through other than all the reasons that are already out there regarding why it shouldn’t. It needs to be something else. I suggest that all of the smart and intelligent people out there are need to sit down and think about how we can give the PM an out that will make him stop and reconsider without losing his dignity.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Campbell Live and Democracy - 50 Shades of Political Participation

It has been a while since I have blogged mostly because my previous employment didn't allow me to. But now that I am going to be a poor uni student living in my parents' basement (metaphorically of course), I figure its time for me to do something other than be perpetually outraged at friends and family. I moved to Austin on Saturday but haven't stopped following the GCSB/Snapper/Child abuse saga in between my jet-lagged naps.

There have now been two episodes in New Zealand on the public perception of the GCSB. I must say I was quite surprised that people were 1) willing to be on TV talking about it and 2) had a position either way. A New Zealand journalist posted on FB wondering if people who were outraged about John Key had even read the bill. Even though I am a politics nerd and a legislation geek, apart from the offensive section, I admit I have not read the whole bill. Nor as a voting citizen I believe I should have to! There is plenty being written about it and plenty being talked about it and I think I am smart enough to come up with a pretty intelligent position without reading the Bill itself. I can also understand the Parliamentary processes under which it is being passed i.e. with a 1 vote majority and in a very short amount of time. I can see that the select committee submissions are largely critical and that is enough for me to have an idea that his is not a good thing. I have taken the time to read what Thomas Beagle and the Law Society have had to say about it and I have read Dame Anne's piece in the Herald.

I commend Campbell Live for taking on issues like Child Poverty, Christchurch Earthquake and now GCSB, issues that the Government wants to fix via good PR rather than substantive policy work. Issues that ARE political because ideology dictates outcomes. There is an attitude within the current government that because of the election outcome, there is a carte blanche to do whatever they please. The recent polls aren't helpful either. They only seek to reinforce the government's position and weaken the opposition's resolve. I am not a polls analyst nor do I have some kind of radical position on the way they are done or how often or the purpose. But there is no doubt that they contribute to the confidence not only of those who govern but the voters as well.

Coming back to my original point which the readers might not yet see, I think that it is great that Campbell Live is canvassing the views of the ordinary people. I don't think that every person has to be an expert. We don't have to be an expert to vote. I think this is great for encouraging public engagement, which is really important in a healthy democracy.