The Dim-Post

September 8, 2015

State of play

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 8:50 am

The Herald has a story about Key defending his response to the refugee crisis:

Prime Minister John Key has defended the scale and pace of his rescue package for Syrian refugees, saying if it was rushed it would jeopardise the success of resettlement and could mean refugees from other countries missed out.

Mr Key yesterday announced New Zealand would accept 750 Syrian refugees over the next three years, including 600 in an emergency intake above the usual annual quota of 750.

The cost of resettling the refugees is estimated at $49 million in addition to the current $58 million annual cost of resettlement programmes.

I wish we could do more. But I think this is better than last week’s response to the crisis, which was to do nothing. I also think Key is doing this against the wishes of the majority of his caucus. Print and most broadcast media have called for action on this issue but if you listen to even a few minutes of talkback radio, the sentiment there is overwhelmingly opposed to it. These aren’t refugees, the argument goes: they’re welfare bludging terrorists. And the dumbest, most awful people on talkback are a useful barometer of what National’s backbench MPs think on any given issue.

But this will be popular with the broader public and if Key is to maintain his status as our most popular Prime Minister ever he needs to do what’s popular, not what he or his party actually want. We’re less than a year into Key’s third term and this is now a very odd-looking National government. Of the main goals for the term, campaigned on during the election, RMA reform is dead; killed because the Nats ran a guy they knew was under police investigation as an electorate MP in Northland, then lost that electorate and their majority when that scandal exploded in their faces. Key’s dream of changing the flag to the silver fern on black is almost certainly dead, because he set up the process and committed the money before finding out that the copyright on that image isn’t available, and that the public prefers the current flag to the knock-off alternatives. They’re not going to make their surplus, or, if they do then they’re forecast to go straight back into deficit until at least 2018. 

But they are still making good on their other big election promise: free doctor’s visits for under-13s. In some ways the third-term Key National government has been one of the best left-wing governments we’ve ever had. They raised core welfare benefits for the first time in almost forty years, and now they’ve raised the refugee quota for the first time in thirty years.

What’s happening here, I think, is that all the energy that normal governments put into developing new policies and implementing agendas is going into maintaining Key’s popularity, the perpetuation of which has become a goal in itself, not a means to an end. National party policy is routinely botched – like Key’s mishandling of the flag change, very similar to Nick Smith’s decision to build houses on Auckland land that the government didn’t even own, or discuss the legal status of with local iwi – because the core role of this government is to generate events like the Parliamentary announcement of the All-Black line-up or source adorable puppies for the leader to take selfies with. These propaganda pieces are never botched because they’re core business. And government policy is now a subset of this public relations machine. Rather than justifying policy it determines it. Which is enormously empowering to the left, because it means we get to set government policy from opposition if we can just make it popular enough.

September 3, 2015

Nothing will come of nothing

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 7:41 am


The nightmare of the Syrian refugee crisis intensified again overnight. The above image of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach in Turkey has been published across most European news media. The rhetoric in the UK has gotten uglier with David Cameron refusing to admit more refugees, describing the families fleeing the civil war between ISIS and the Asad dictatorship as a ‘swarm’ trying to break into the UK for their private economic advantage.

John Key has, as usual in international policy, adopted Cameron’s position although his rhetoric is softer. Key refuses to take in more refugees as a response to the crisis because ‘it won’t solve the problem’. Well, it won’t stop the civil war in Syria – that’s true. But if we can reduce, even by a fraction the number of children suffocating to death in delivery trucks or washing ashore as corpses then that would be a great thing.

We’re not doing that – yet – because migrants present both upfront costs and political risk. Key’s mother was a refugee from the Nazis though, and you’d think that if any politician could see the virtue of giving these families a new chance on the other side of the world and to sell that to the public it’d be him. But Key didn’t get to where he is today by empathising with and helping helpless people, even though he’s ultimately only here because someone else did that for his family. His instincts are to help those who can help him and then extract maximal benefits from the exchange. And this mentality works for him personally, obviously, but it points to the nihilism in the dark heart of the transactional politics Key is such a master of: impoverished refugees have nothing to offer him, so they get nothing.

August 17, 2015

Sense and ostensibility

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 7:15 am

Andrea Vance’s latest column starts with the Greens’ Rugby World Cup licensing fiasco:

Consoling beersies for the Greens, who spent much of the week as party poopers after initially opposing Seymour’s bill. They ended it as flakes, flip-flopping on their principles.

The whole episode points to a wider identity crisis in politics. In a blind taste test could you differentiate between parties?

Seymour stayed true to ACT’s roots as a voice for business. That does mark a departure from recent predecessor who put National’s interests ahead of all else, including their base support. With his bill, Seymour called out deficiencies in the Government’s alcohol reforms.

For some time, the Greens have positioned themselves as Parliament’s social conscience. Like death’s head at the feast, they made all kinds of rational objections to Seymour’s proposal.  But you couldn’t really hear them over the howls of “buzz kill.”

Perhaps tiring of their perennial Cassandra predicament, the Greens recognised this stance made them deeply unpopular. Quicker than you could say “Seymour is a populist” – they surrendered their principles.

I don’t think the Greens were acting ‘out of principle’. I’m sure they thought they were because they like to think everything they do is principled but I tried hard to figure out what, exactly, their principle was behind their opposition. They didn’t want ‘boozed up’ people spilling out onto the streets when schools were opening – which, c’mon, really? – only now they’re supporting a modified bill that allows exactly that, and congratulating themselves that the last week of toxic news coverage was a ‘win’ because Seymour might modify his bill.

The real reason for opposing the bill was that ACT was doing something populist, and ACT is the enemy and it’s generally a good idea to prevent your enemy from becoming more popular. But you can’t just say that out loud so you have to have an ostensible reason that the media and public will believe. The Greens didn’t so their opponents got to project their own motivations onto the decision. ‘The Greens are killjoys. They hate beer and rugby etc.’ Instead of blocking ACT’s popularity they enhanced it and made themselves deeply unpopular for no gain.

A core problem we have on the left, I think, is that very few of our MPs actually understand politics. Of course it depends on how you define the term – if you expand it to include policy and ideology and political history and hating neoliberalism then yes, sure, they know about that stuff. But on the actual core challenge of influencing the public to achieve power they are mostly demonstrably clueless. Worse, they’re blind to their cluelessness. ‘Bad at politics?’ They would snort. ‘Aren’t they MPs? Haven’t they risen to that height through their own political genius? Doesn’t that, by definition, make them awesome at politics?’

Are New Zealand First backbenchers ‘awesome at politics’? They are not. The leader of their party is and he needs people to fill out the rest of his caucus and his backbenchers are really just a bunch of nobodies who’ve lucked into that slot. And an awful lot of Labour and Green MPs have done pretty much the same thing. They’ve used parties founded by or led by people with political acumen as vehicles for entry into Parliament, stayed there, some of them for decades, while evidently learning nothing. How many left-wing MPs have won a seat off National recently? How many have taken down a Minister? Won cross-party support for a bill? How many have even increased the party vote in their own electorate?

Very few. National expects success from their MPs. If they don’t perform they ditch them. But both of our left-wing parties have contrived to build MMP parties that protect mediocrity and fail to incentivise electoral success. It’s a huge problem. We desperately need party structures that discourage MPs from making ridiculous unforced errors. MPs should be worried about what the 50,000 voters in their electorate will think of their decisions, not their friends in whatever faction empowers them, or the couple dozen activists who engage with them on twitter and support whatever they do.

The most successful opposition MP at the moment is Kelvin Davis. He’s also one of the newest MPs and his background is teaching. And he got in by winning a tough electoral race. That’s telling us something, I think, about the value of all those honors degrees in political science or backgrounds as political staffers or decades of parliamentary experience that his fellow, ineffectual opposition safe-seat or list MPs possess.

July 12, 2015

What we talk about when we talk about Chinese people

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 12:07 am

Today the Herald published a number of stories about:

The first picture has emerged of Chinese buying patterns in Auckland’s pressure-cooker housing market — and it suggests a powerful, big-spending influence.

Real-estate figures leaked to the Labour Party, which cover almost 4,000 house sales by one unidentified firm from February to April, indicate that people of Chinese descent accounted for 39.5 per cent of the transactions in the city in that period.

Yet Census 2013 data shows ethnic Chinese who are New Zealand residents or citizens account for just 9 per cent of Auckland’s population.

Cue a twitter and blogosphere storm in which people accused the Herald and Labour (mostly Labour) of race-baiting using misleading statistics. Keith Ng wrote this. Rob Salmond replied.

Let me back way up here and talk about what’s driving (some) of the interest in Chinese investment in Auckland property. Back in 2008 New Zealand signed a free trade deal with China. They quickly became our largest export market. We’ve never had a relationship like that with a country like China before. Their economy is more than fifty times larger than ours. It’s been growing at an insane rate, and it’s heavily protected but slowly opening up (the boom and bust in their stock exchange in the last few months is due to the recent legalisation of margin trading). We’re like a goldfish swimming alongside an aircraft carrier.

So our new relationship with China is going to impact on New Zealand and our unusually unprotected and unregulated economy in lots of different ways that no one predicted when the trade agreement was signed. Some of them might be good, others might be bad. A lot of people suspect that’s what’s happening in the Auckland property bubble – which almost everyone agrees is bad – is that speculation from investors in China are driving the price increases. But there’s been no way to tell because until a couple weeks ago the government refused to collect data on the residential status of property investors. All of the arguments have been based on anecdotal evidence which National has always dismissed as race-baiting.

Labour reckons that their leaked real estate data indicates that a large number of home buyers are Chinese, disproportionate to the population. The problem with that, as people have been tweeting at them all day, is that their statistical analysis also captures (a) New Zealanders of Chinese descent and (b) migrants from China, all of whom have as much right to buy houses in New Zealand as anyone, but the tenor of the stories strongly implies that they don’t, and that there’s something wrong with people from those groups buying houses in Auckland.

Politicians know that this kind of race-baiting really resonates with a huge section of the population. This is a country in which people were confiscating car keys off Asian drivers just a few months ago with the media and police cheering them on. So when a politician says ‘I’m not trying to be racist . . .’ and then says something that lots of Chinese people find deeply offensive I don’t think they should have the benefit of the doubt. It’s not up to Twyford (or me) to say whether he’s being racist or not – that’s a decision for Chinese New Zealanders, and a lot of them seem very offended. And in these cases the offense is usually intended. It’s baked into these kinds of tactics – accusations of racism ‘close the circuit’ in comms speak and amplify the story, winning sympathy with voters who think that the big race problem in New Zealand is white people being falsely accused of racism.

On the other hand, I do find the logic of what Labour are trying to say fairly convincing. In his post Keith converts the percentages in Labour’s analysis into raw numbers and seems to think that demolishes Twyford’s argument, but I think he’s wrong. I haven’t done a big fancy regression analysis to figure out the likelihood that the sales in Labour’s dataset can be accounted for by Auckland’s resident ethnically Chinese population, but I think the chance is very small. Maybe Labour’s right? Maybe a lot of the buyers in their data are foreign based Chinese investors?

Unfortunately we can’t tell based on what we’ve got. But we do need to figure out a way to talk about the ongoing impact of China on New Zealand without (a) the entire conversation being written off as racist or (b) offending Chinese New Zealanders. Feels like Labour’s just set us back aways there.

June 4, 2015

Thoughts on the leaked Labour Election Review

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 7:34 am

This was given to Labour’s caucus yesterday and leaked to Paddy Gower today:

  • Who leaked it and why? It’s a ‘bad look’ for the party, which has been plagued by leaks and the perception of disunity. It could have been pretty much anyone, but I have a theory . . .
  • The review seems to be a draft. There are review comments in the margins.
  • The draft states – in a diplomatic way – that the affiliates, ie the unions, have an awful lot of power within Labour, but that they don’t do much during elections or give the party much money.
  • Which I find interesting. Ever since the UK election I’ve been wondering about the role that unions play in left-wing politics there, in Australia, and here. Having these powerful external organisations running around stacking selections, picking MPs and playing kingmaker within the party, which then gets slaughtered when the public don’t like the candidates they picked doesn’t seem to be working out that well for anyone.
  • But I doubt former EMPU boss Andrew Little would agree with that, or the implied criticism of the unions in the review. So my theory is that Little demanded that point be removed from the final draft and someone who felt strongly about the point – and, perhaps, the role the unions played putting Little into power – leaked the draft.

Other thoughts:

The late start under a changed leadership team left too little time to allow Labour to prepare and implement an effective campaign. In general, Labour’s campaign preparation was inadequate.
What’s not said: a symptom of the disunity within the caucus is that senior staff are routinely purged whenever there’s a leadership change. It’s made it hard for Labour to recruit high calibre staff – what if you leave your job, and then there’s a coup a month later and your events-based contract is terminated? Cunliffe sacked Shearer’s popular, very effective press secretary and then took four months to hire his own cousin, who doesn’t seem to have been regarded well. They were still placing senior staffers into the leader’s office a couple of months before the campaign started.
The campaign was undoubtedly hindered by a shortage of financial resources. The finance available was less than in earlier campaigns, though only a little less bycomparison with 2011. Labour must do better in this respect in 2017.
Labour must build greater confidence in its ability to win and to form a successful government, and – in addition to building its database of online donors – it must use high-level business and other contacts, supported by a strengthened group of professional fundraisers on the staff team, in approaching the corporate sector and other potential sources of funding for donations
What’s not said: Many people have pointed out that the Greens raised more money than Labour during the last election. What they don’t say is that a huge component of the Greens’ fundraising is that they tithe their MPs. Why don’t Labour do the same? It would solve all of their fundraising problems overnight. It’s far less problematic than a party that represents ‘the workers’ being dependent on the corporate sector. And it would be a great symbol – the caucus could show that they’re MPs because they care about the party, not because its a higher salary than most of them could dream of outside of Parliament, and that they’re committed to its survival, and not just building up their own property portfolios.
Action should arise from a review of the voter targeting and other work undertaken during the election to engage the “missing million”. Integrated with this, high quality research must be undertaken on patterns of non-voting and the best way to target those  people. Labour’s input to the Parliamentary select committee review of the General
Election and Labour’s Justice spokesperson should focus on why 1 million people didn’t
vote, and what could be done to address that
What’s not said: A lot of people spent an awful lot of time and money trying to get ‘the missing million’ to vote in 2014. The conventional wisdom on the left is that the missing million stopped voting because there was no alternative to ‘neoliberalism’. Well, the Cunliffe-led Labour Party was very left-wing. The Greens were even more left-wing. Mana/Internet were very left-wing. The missing million didn’t vote for any of them. I’m all for research into this group of voters, but the lesson of 2014 is that targeting people who don’t vote instead of people who do is political suicide.
Labour must emphasise its values (fairness, social cohesion, freedom of choice and action) as it differentiates its values from those of its opponents, as values earn trust from voters
What’s not said: How do those values differentiate Labour from any other party in Parliament?
There is an urgent need to clarify the Party’s legal status, required not only for ethical reasons of increasing transparency, but also to enable the Party to more effectively use resources available to it, in particular funding. It could also clarifythe responsibilities and accountabilities of entities and individuals within the organisation. Labour needs to be proactive and agree a legal model that is realistic about the competitive nature of politics but also increases the effectiveness of the Party organisation.
What’s not said: What does this actually mean? I’m not sure. It sounds like a turf war. Do the regional Labour organisations own property that the central party would like to get its hands on?
The Party’s organisational structure should reflect the dual role of the Party –  the maintenance of a viable disciplined political organisation and the need to develop a sustainable effective campaigning capacity to win elections. It requires clarity as to where the authority lies for what function.
What’s not said: This section is too long to fully quote, but reveals that Labour does not have an executive committee or a campaign committee, both fairly staggering organisational gaps in a modern political party. It also questions the role of the sector groups -Maori, Rainbow, Pacifica – which sounds like another brewing turf war.
The real question appears to be how the Party identifies candidates and then prepares and supports its candidates before, during and after the election. There needs to be greater central coordination of candidates . They are the advocates and the public face of the Party so much of the success of the election campaign depends on them. One of the tasks of the Executive should be to address this issue.
What’s not said: Labour had some embarrassingly terrible candidates in the last election. But one of their biggest problems is that too many of their candidates are unionists or staffers imposed by the party on electorates that they have no connection to, and who keep running in that same electorate even as the electorate and party votes sink lower and lower. Building up the local branches and letting them identify high quality candidates seems like the obvious solution there, not further centralisation. That would be lots of hard work through, instead of a simple organisational change.
That’s probably the reviews biggest failing. It looks for quick fixes – mostly organisational – rather than systemic sustainable change to what is clearly a troubled party with a toxic culture in its caucus. There’s plenty of other points, but most of them are either obvious or meaningless twaddle. It seems like a very poor document after eight months of work from the party’s intellectual brain-trust.

May 8, 2015

Greens’ co-leadership campaign and pro-James propaganda pitch

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 10:38 am

A few people have asked me what’s happening with the leadership campaign. And the answer is: it’s pretty much happening now. The actual delegate vote takes place at the Green Party AGM at the end of the month, but the branch meetings where members direct their delegates how to vote are already underway. So if you’re a member of the party – or want to be so you can have a say in the contest – get in touch with your local branch.

I’ve been helping James Shaw out with his campaign. Up until now its been impossible to tell how things are going, but now that the branches are voting we have a rough idea and I am cautiously optimistic. It’s going to be close but James could win. My reason for supporting him over Kevin Hague – who I have a huge amount of respect for – is pretty simple. The key role of a leader in a modern political party is to be the public face of that party, to front to the media and the public, and to win new voters. Maybe I’m just blinded by partisan bias, but I think James is going to be a lot better in that core role than the other candidates.

That doesn’t mean he’ll win. Kevin Hague also has a lot of great qualities, and they make him one of the most beloved guys inside the Green Party – which gives him a big advantage in a contest to become leader of it. But being the leader is about connecting with the public, not just the party’s own membership. The best thing for the future of the Green Party is to elect a leader who can grow it.

March 20, 2015

Grim up Northland

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 8:20 am

It’s already been a hell of a by-election, and it sounds like it might get even fiercer up there but I still think National will win. If you’re watching the TV news then the by-election looks like a train-wreck for National, but – just as in 2014 – the real election is happening off-screen

National will have a database profiling almost every voter in the electorate. In the next eight days every ‘Highly Likely’ National voter in Northland will get a call from a party volunteer or Curia staffer reminding them that the government’s majority is under threat, and advising them of where their closest advance-voting booth is. Scores of volunteers and young Nats will be mini-bused up from Auckland. They’ll door-knock possible soft-New Zealand First voters and repeat scripts that have been focus-grouped to induce anxiety and doubt about Winston Peters and New Zealand First among key demographics. They’ll be staffing booths in malls and canvasing pedestrians in town centers. They’ll mail out personalised leaflets to harder-to-reach rural voters. Peters is a good campaigner but he can’t compete with that. Short of any unforeseen catastrophe, National will win.

What’s interesting is that National has to work this hard to hold one of their safest seats. There’s a mixture of factors in play. The reason for Sabin’s resignation. Winston Peters’ political skills. The poor quality of the National candidate. But one of National’s main problems, I think, is that when they’re fighting against Peters and New Zealand First they’re fighting themselves. Winston Peters is, famously, a protege of Robert Muldoon, and his party is based on Muldoon’s legacy of populist, dirigiste conservatismNational is a big party and thus a ‘broad church’ but it was – for about twenty years – dominated by free market economic liberals, partly as a reaction against the economic disaster that Muldoonism inflicted on the country.

But in the last six years National has undergone a dramatic transformation. They’re no longer ‘economic liberals’ in any meaningful sense. (Although they probably still think they are, much as aging ex-hippies with property portfolios and luxury cars might still consider themselves anti-establishment rebels. People like to cling onto idealistic conceptions of themselves long after any attempt at living up to the ideal has gone.) National is no longer a party of economic or individual freedom – they’re a populist conservative party of economic intervention, mostly indifferent to or openly hostile towards individual freedoms. Their points of difference with New Zealand First are so trivial they’re reduced to running around Northland warning provincial voters that a Peters win might jeopardise a free trade deal with South Korea. That’s the big policy gap between Muldoon’s disciple and the modern National Party.

I don’t know what the long term political consequences of National’s shift means. Muldoonism was very popular even when it bought the country to the brink of economic collapse because it was a form of government exclusively devoted to maintaining its own grip on power. To paraphrase Citizen Kane: It’s no big thing to win elections – if all you want to do in government is win elections.

February 19, 2015

Neologism needed

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 6:11 am

Fierce debate rages in the comments thread of the previous post over whether the Andrew Little/David Cohen invoice fiasco is, actually a fiasco or just a trivial nothing. A routine clerical error. A beat up. A beltway issue.

It’s ironic, because David Cohen has written extensively about the term ‘beltway’. It comes from Washington DC, he points out, which has a beltway but Wellington doesn’t so we shouldn’t use it (This is the level of analysis Andrew Little paid a thousand dollars for). But this seems like the opposite of a beltway issue. If you’re preoccupied with policy and ‘political issues’ then an MP paying an invoice late is so trivial as to be laughable. What about Sky City? What about Mike Sabin? What about defense procurement? But to contractors and small business owners, clients who don’t pay their bills are a huge deal. It can destroy your business. So how are those people going to view a political leader who claims to champion contractors and small businesses in order to win their votes, while at the same time failing to pay a contractor who is screaming at him to do so? Very poorly, I suspect.

(On top of this is the absurdity of the contractor being a right-wing columnist who gleefully published about it and is now leaking his correspondence with Labour to mainstream media outlets.)

We need a neologism to refer to issues or political stories that baffle (mostly left-wing) political parties and their activists but resonate strongly with hundreds of thousands or millions of actual voters (Cunliffe’s ‘man apology’ is another great example). The term should probably contain the word ‘beltway’ because if it catches on that would irritate David Cohen.

February 17, 2015

Same as it ever was?

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 8:53 pm

If I could distill the Labour Party’s woes over the last six years into just two words, I’d probably choose ‘bewildering stupidity’. The causes are manifold and complex, but the symptom is that Labour and its leaders often do bewildering, obviously stupid things despite the fact the things they are doing are obviously stupid. Think about David Shearer holding up dead fish in Parliament as his poll ratings flat-lined, or Goff dying his hair orange the day before making a major speech, or Cunliffe railing against secret trusts while financing his leadership campaign through secret trusts . . . The list is very, very long. And today:

Labour leader Andrew Little has hurriedly paid an overdue bill but apparently only after the Government used it to embarrass him in Parliament.

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce attacked Little over his stance on employment law changes after revealing Little had not settled his bill with National Business Review columnist David Cohen.

Writing in the NBR last week Cohen confirmed he did paid work for Little to help him secure the Labour leadership but four months later was still waiting for the cheque.

It seems obvious (to me) that hiring a right-wing columnist to do your PR while you campaign for the leadership of a left-wing political party could go wrong in all sorts of ways. Being a former unionist Little has contrived for it to go wrong in a way that makes him look like a total hypocrite, by not paying Cohen, which gave Cohen ammunition for a column in the NBR and Stephen Joyce a way to mock the new Labour leader in Parliament and embarrass him on the evening news. I mean, doesn’t the former boss of the EPMU have an old and trusted ally to help him with his PR? Apparently not, but why not?

Sure, this isn’t as egregious as National’s Sky City deal, or sending our troops to Iraq so we can stay ‘part of the club’. But Key, Joyce et al have reasons for the questionable stuff they do. They have agendas. It’s deliberate; calculated. They have reasons! Labour just does random bewilderingly stupid shit for no comprehensible reason. All the time. People write columns about how Labour should ‘move to the center’, or the left or whatever, but addressing the bewildering stupidity issue should be their primary goal.

February 13, 2015

On Hooton on Sky City

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 9:07 pm

Matthew Hooton had a column in the NBR today about the Sky City deal that loads of people have already tweeted and linked and Facebooked, but I wanted to make a couple of quick comments about.

Firstly, that is just a really great piece of political commentary and part of the reason for that, I think, is that it pulls back the curtain on a major political news story and tells us why something is happening. Most political punditry focuses on what’s happening, and/or what the pundit thinks of it, or what should happen, or wants to happen, or what the different political parties say about an issue. Hooton is an political insider so he takes us deeper, explaining the history and the personalities and the processes, and how they interact with each other.

Jonathan Lynn, the co-creator of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister once said that he wanted his show to explain to people how government worked. How power and influence were wielded. How decisions were really made. And that, he explained, is why he never wrote any scenes in the House of Commons. There is some politics in the House, and much theater, but no government. Nothing that truly mattered. It’s a quote that came back to me this week when Winston Peters questioned the Prime Minister in Question Time about whether he dyed his hair, and ‘why the carpet didn’t match the curtains.’ You could just about hear the columnists in the press gallery sighing with relief. ‘The Prime Minister’s pubes! That’s this week’s piece sorted.’ Hooton’s column is a reminder that political commentary can be very vital. It doesn’t have to be trivial nonsense.

Having said all that, Hooton can write this particular piece because he isn’t a political journalist. He doesn’t have to maintain a good relationship with the Prime Minister’s office. He doesn’t rely on National’s press secretaries to feed him stories and tips. On the contrary, a lot of the people he’s writing about here are his enemies and commercial rivals. But my point is that political columns about government and ‘what’s really going on’ are a lot more important than whatever is happening in the House, or whatever trivial gaffe someone made, and they’re also a lot more compelling. It’d be nice to have more of them, and that’s supposed to be the point of having gallery journalists who are ‘political insiders’.

My other point disagrees with Hooton a bit. He wrote:

Mr Joyce’s botulinum-grade arrogance is making the debacle worse.

Mr Joyce genuinely believes his commercial background consolidating provincial radio stations makes him a match for Mr Morrison’s quarter century of experience in the Asian and Australasian gambling industries.

The SkyCity team is laughing at him the way Kerry Packer laughed at Alan Bond over Channel Nine and Toll Holdings laughed at Michael Cullen over KiwiRail.

Despite having no experience in the procurement and management of half-billion-dollar construction projects, Mr Joyce and the prime minister’s chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, took it upon themselves to deal directly with SkyCity over the terms of the convention centre contract and the associated regulatory-relief package.

The problem with government Ministers negotiating directly with Sky City goes a bit deeper than individual hubris, or incompetence. Sky City is a profitable regulated private monopoly. The best way for it to make more money is to win concessions from the government, and it can – and probably has – invested many hours and millions of dollars paying lawyers and accountants and lobbyists to try and figure out how to extract value from the state and the taxpayer. But Key and Joyce – who represent the taxpayer – don’t have many hours and millions of dollars to throw away trying to beat Sky City at the negotiating table. They have a country to run. This can only be a very peripheral issue for them. (Even now that the deal has exploded into a public relations fiasco Key is busy committing our troops to Iraq. You like to think he’s paying a bit more attention to that than the convention center.)

So Key and Joyce will never be able to out-negotiate Sky City because of the massive asymmetry in resources between the two negotiating partners. This isn’t a new problem (although this government seems to think it is). The problem of how the state and the private sector interact in free market democracies has been with us for a while now, and solutions to all of these problems of influence-peddling and conflicts of interest and information asymmetry have been solved and implemented in New Zealand for several decades. We have the SOE model and the State Services Commission and laws and processes and the Auditor General and basically a whole fucking public service to avoid this exact situation which Key and his Ministers have blundered into. This disaster stems from the right’s contempt for the public service. They’re just bureaucrats. Glide time. It’s all walk-shorts and red tape. The idea that those hated bureaucrats were actually an apparatus designed to protect Key, Joyce et al and prevent them from making a huge, predictable and easily preventable mistake wouldn’t have occurred to them.

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