How not to release policy

NZ Labour’s woes are well documented. The latest round of polls – both with Labour sub 25, are frankly, disastrous. On these numbers Labour will be lucky to get deputy leader David Parker re-elected, and the prospect of any new list MPs just looks like a fantasy.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. From my distant perspective, it looks like Labour is running some excellent on the ground campaigns. Some of the MPs look like they’re making great visits (David Shearer and Chris Hipkins seem to have had a really sucessful visit through the regional North Island). Kelvin Davis is getting good media from his work helping flood victims in his electorate.  I’ve heard that some electorates are smashing their voter contact targets. The fact that they’ve even managed to agree to targets at all amazes me (I have previously sat in a Labour meeting where the idea of targets was quite literally dismissed as “boss talk”).

And as Phil Quin pointed out on the Q+A panel the other week, Labour do have some very good policy positions. Chris Hipkins really needs to be commended for the work he continues to do with education – their school donation and class size policies are really solid vote winners.

Unfortunately, Labour seems to have since dropped them like a lead balloon.

Using Facebook as a sample of Labour’s external comms*, let’s have a look at what they’ve done with the education announcements…

2 July – Labour announce their school donation policy with a nice graphic on Facebook. Lovely stuff.

3 July – Cunliffe posts a story about how the PPTA back’s their policy. Nice touch.

5 July – Saturday of party congress. Cunliffe announces iPad for every child policy with another nice Facebook graphic.

6 July – Sunday of party congress. Leader’s keynote speech. Presumably in the speech Cunliffe announces their major policy of employing 2000 new teachers to reduce class sizes. But you wouldn’t know that from his Facebook page which stays completely silent on the matter.

7 July – David Cunliffe is awkwardly holding a sausage.


8 July – David Cunliffe meets the Japanese Prime Minister. Does he talk about education? We’ll never know.

10 July – A week after the key note speech a video of it is posted online. Without any mention of the policy. You have to watch the 36 minute video to discover that Labour wants to reduce class sizes.

10 July – Chris Hipkins launches Labour’s excellent education manifesto. It’s a beautiful document that really easily sets out some great policy. Does Cunliffe or the Labour Party mention it? Nope.

Number of mentions of Labour’s education policies after they’re announced: 0. Number of times David Cunliffe has mentioned that they are reducing class sizes on Facebook: 0.

Hell, it’s even depressing to look at a Facebook feed of all Labour candidates and party pages. The last time anyone from Labour talked about education was Grant Robertson three days ago.

Labour candidates should be told to post about it. They should be told to do a visit, then talk about how the education policy is relevant to that visit afterwards. People aren’t going to vote Labour because you have dunked yourself in a pool of icy water. They will vote Labour if they think that improving our kids’ education is worthwhile, and that Labour is the best party to deliver that. You have a good policy. Go out there and sell it!

In a week where Labour committed hundreds of millions of dollars to make worthwhile and significant changes to education, candidates should not be posting videos of ice water challenges. There are enough distractions from Labour’s core messages thanks to donations scandals, Kim Dotcom etc etc, Labour shouldn’t be using Facebook to create even more diversions.

And by totally going to ground and refusing to go out and sell Labour’s policy, David Cunliffe doesn’t even look like he wants Labour to win.


* Facebook certainly isn’t and shouldn’t be Labour’s only communication tool, but given they can easily use it to reach an audience of hundreds of thousands of people, they would be criminally negligent to ignore it. And sadly it doesn’t look like they’re picking up the slack here in any other medium.

A sensible move

If you’d done a focus group in 2007 about what people thought about John Key and National, I’m sure the word “aspiration” would have surfaced.

I haven’t got any of my own research to prove this, but it seems like a sensible way to frame yourself. There is certainly a place for negative messaging in politics, but a nice aspiration vibe about what you’re actually planning to do is a really good starting point.

Which is why I was so pleased to see this…

nzlabour target

Is an aspiration unemployment rate goal is not going to turn the economy around. The goal in of itself will of course not create any jobs. But it’s a great way to start a conversation about what Labour plans to do.

On its own it isn’t a game-changer, but it sure is a refreshing way of looking at things. Nice work.

The Policy Implications of Lorde’s Grammy Wins

So Lorde’s won Best Song and Best Pop Solo Performance at the Grammys. This isn’t really a blog post about that as such: instead, it’s a shameless attempt to use this as an attempt to talk about cultural policy, because I think it is important to acknowledge the extent to which policy choices created the space within which Lorde has been spectacularly successful. Lorde hasn’t received direct state support, but has benefited from a series of policy choices. Chris Finlayson will no doubt tell you it’s all part of a #goldenage, but if it is, it is not one he has had a great deal to do with.

The first, and absolutely most important position (both as government policy, and as a societal ideal) is feminism, for reasons which, I am sure, don’t need elaboration.

But there were also more specific state choices. By the time Joel Little received his Grammy nominations, we’d spend $370,000 of NZOA money on his previous two projects, Goodnight Nurse and Kids of 88. (And let’s be clear, if you’d told me that Goodnight Nurse were incubating a future Grammy winner, I’d have laughed and laughed and laughed.) That state funding, quite apart from the value we got out of Goodnight Nurse and Kids of 88’s music, helped make sure that Joel Little could have a career where he ends up co-writing Royals.

When Labour came into office in 1999, we had made noises about a policy of introducing a youth radio network to sit alongside National Radio and Concert FM. In the end we didn’t implement it, choosing instead to trade it away for a voluntary NZ content quota on commercial radio. The NZ quota helped, along with the direct NZOA support, to protect an ecosystem, to sustain a New Zealand music industry. This meant that when the opportunity came along, there were professional, skilled people in place who could capitalise on it.

In future, what conclusions can we draw? Well, there’s the importance of nurturing and protecting developing artists, and making it possible to move through viable career paths. But I think the most important take away is that bold arts policy works. If you had asked what the point of the fifth Labour government’s music policy was, a teenage girl from Devonport beating a creepy rapey man from Hollywood to a Grammy with a song about inequality and cultural distance would definitely be one of the answers. That’s not to say that you can make Lorde happen by shifting levers in the Ministry of Culture and Heritage — but you can make Lorde possible, and more likely, that way.

The Honours List

There’s nothing really happening in New Zealand at the moment, so I thought I would write about one of the guaranteed news stories of the New Year, alongside youths behaving badly and the weather: the honours list. The list, as it always is, is a mixed bag. Too many lawyers, local body politicians and rich people, but on the other hand, services to ecclesiastical embroidery and hand knitted lace design make a welcome appearance — and why does Mary Harris only rate the QSO?

Left wingers tend to ignore the whole thing, as it seems a rather frivolous and mostly pointless exercise in Establishment self-congratulation. For us, a man’s a man for a’ that. And that’s fair enough — but we still shouldn’t desert one of the more prominent marks of official respect to a collection of fusty monarchists and preening, would-be lords. Instead, what would a progressive honours system look like?

Firstly, there’s a fair bit of administrative tidying up we could do, starting with the elimination of the monarchical basis of the system. At present, we maintain the absurd fiction that the Queen is the fount of all honour in New Zealand, and graciously bestows honours on her most loyal subjects. (This has the unfortunate side effect of leaving the honours system tied up with the royal prerogative, and subject to executive willfulness.) Instead, let’s put the honours system on a democratic basis, with a clear legislative underpinning that makes it clear that the people of New Zealand are the fount of honour, not the monarch. And that includes the removal of knighthoods and dameries — which, apart from anything else, are currently absolutely incoherent aspects of our system: Jim Bolger holds our highest honour, and isn’t a knight, but Michael Cullen holds a lower honour and is. Because PC. Or something.

As part of the legislative underpinning, we should establish a transparent, non-Cabinet process. In other Commonwealth realms, the decisions around honours are made by independent committees of civil servants and representatives of civil society. In New Zealand, it’s a group of Cabinet ministers. There’s no reason we couldn’t have a transparent and independent process here.

And let’s have more radicalism. The honours system talks about who we are as a nation. It’s a way of expressing our national aspirations. And so let’s try and push the honours system away from a backpatting exercise for the establishment, and try and challenge ourselves with our honours. Ed Milliband’s choice of Doreen Lawrence for a peerage was a great way of using the stodgy system against itself, as well as a due recognition of a commitment to justice just as real, and just as important, as any Judge of the High Court. We should look at the honours list and feel challenged, not smug.

The economics of Christmas

Very excellent piece in the Guardian today, entitled The state has privatised Santa and nationalised the elves

Santa’s critics note that higher profits and productivity have not resulted in higher pay for the elves. They were seeing their real incomes squeezed even before the Fairy Tale of Wall Street had an unhappy ending in 2008, and then took pay cuts rather than lose their jobs. With welfare being cut, most plumped for a job over the dole even if it meant a cut in living standards.

Santa accepts that the workforce has made sacrifices. But he insists these are vital to keep the company going at a time of cut-throat global competition. The elves have to understand, he adds, that the alternative to zero-hour contracts and pay cuts would be that the jobs would be outsourced from Lapland to a lower-cost grotto in the far east.

Should David Cunliffe buy back flogged off state owned assets?

Apparently David Cunliffe’s seriously considering buying back the sold-off state owned assets. I have never been a fan of this solution to the problem. It suggests that a Labour government’s main role is furiously Ctl-Z backwards through the last National government’s acts, in an attempt to undo their actions.

First of all, at this point it sits awkwardly with NZPower. NZPower is premised on a group of predominantly private generators, who are then heavily regulated. Within that framework, the regulator acts in the public interest, while the power companies look to their own self-interest. If we are going to buy back the power companies, we need to go further and abandon the SOE model (as Giovanni Tiso puts it “And – again, to state the bloody obvious – you don’t need to privatise SOEs to be neoliberal. You just run them as private companies”), and establish a model for public enterprise that isn’t just running them as private companies. NZPower’s attempt to mediate the issue then becomes redundant.

But also, over the past thirty years the NZ state has divested itself of large chunks of key infrastructure. NZ needs to re-establish democratic control of those aspects of the economy that we feel should be under that control. This will require a programme of nationalisation and municipalisation.

The first targets for that programme should not simply be those assets last sold off by the privatisers, but should be determined by a clear analysis of the country’s economic strategy. The Labour Party often writes policy by a simple process of reaction: this policy is about that bad thing the National party has done, this policy about that. But on this issue we need to go beyond simply undoing the last bad thing National did, and answer some deeper questions about the proper role of public enterprise in NZ.

Will we buy back Contact? Why not? Functionally, they are the same thing — is it simply a matter of historical precedence?) It may be that renationalisation of Chorus is on the cards: would it be better to own Chorus, and 51% of the power companies, or would it be better not to own Chorus and own 100% of the power companies?

These questions, that go deeper than simply shifting SOEs to MOM and back again, which require fundamental readjustments to the neoliberal SOE model, and a clear analysis of what in the economy needs to be subject to democratic control and why, are certainly harder. They are certainly not as easy or simple as “will you buy back Meridan?” But they are certainly key to any attempt to re-establish social democracy in New Zealand.

Should Joe Hockey be looking up to Bill English?

My new local cafe stocks a range of newspapers, and I’ve been finding myself reading things like the Australian Financial Review (Australia’s equivalent of New Zealand’s NBR). Yesterday I almost spat out my morning coffee while reading an incredible op-ed from Jennifer Hewett.

She spent several hundred words extolling the economic skills of Bill English, claiming that the New Zealand economy should be the envy of Australia.

I have to give her credit for originality – it’s certainly not a line of logic I’d heard before.

My friend and fellow ex-pat New Zealander, Marcus Ganley, has written an excellent piece for Crikey pulling the op-ed apart. Read his full post here.

While National have got the treasury’s books on a path to surplus (made far easier due to the strong fiscal management of the 5th Labour government), they’ve done it at the expense of actually looking after the economy. Growth has been stifled and unemployment is simply too high.

As Marcus says…

Taking the size of the economy in 2008 (when the National Party was elected) as the base, the New Zealand economy is 1.18 times bigger today. This compares with Australia, where the 2013 economy is 1.25 times bigger than in 2008. Growth under the previous New Zealand government averaged just under 3.5% per year.
Under Clark’s government from 1999 to 2008, unemployment in New Zealand was continually below Australia’s. From 2005 to 2007, unemployment in New Zealand was below 4%. In 2005, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development statistics unemployment was in New Zealand was 1.2 percentage points lower than Australia. This has changed completely under the National Party. On the latest OECD figures unemployment in New Zealand is nearly 1.7 percentage points higher in New Zealand than Australia. At the same time, the wage gap between Australia and New Zealand has increased by nearly $NZ90 per week since the election of the National Party government.
At its essence government is about priorities. Strong fiscal management is important. It ensures government services are sustainable and avoids placing undue burden on future generations for the services provided today. However, fiscal management is not everything. Before heaping too much praise on New Zealand’s National Party, it is worth looking at the economy as a whole.
If Joe Hockey took the time to visit New Zealand, I can’t say he’d be impressed with our economy. It’s a country full of empty shop fronts, low value exports and dire unemployment.

Momentum building for a Living Wage

Those in New Zealand who have begun campaigning for a Living Wage will be interested by a piece in the Guardian this morning about the situation in Britain.

David Miliband has joined forces with his party leader brother Ed behind Labour plans to deliver a “living wage” of well over £7.20 an hour – rising to more than £8.30 in London – for millions of workers in both the public and the private sectors.

The Miliband brothers, whose relationship has been tense since Ed narrowly defeated David in the 2010 leadership contest, are working closely together on how to make the living wage – as opposed to the lower minimum wage – the new norm and a core economic policy for Labour at the next election.

Miliband the elder, who is still outside the Shadow Cabinet, seems to be returning to the fold. This sort of “re-unification” of the British Labour Party can only be seen as a good thing, and puts the party in a stronger more united position to take the fight to the coalition.

Here in New Zealand, Labour Leader David Shearer pledged his support for the idea six months ago. With wages static and costs rising, it is easy to see the Living Wage being a big part of the conversation come 2014.

Income inequality can be seen from space

Great article over at Boing Boing. Income inequality can be seen from space…

How? It’s surprisingly simple. Turns out, demand for trees in neighborhoods behaves a lot like a luxury item, as opposed to a basic necessity.

Tim De Chant at The Per Square Mile blog wrote about research on this a couple of weeks ago. Then, he went out and found examples, using images from Google Earth.

Research published a few years ago shows a tight relationship between per capita income and forest cover.

…They found that for every 1 percent increase in per capita income, demand for forest cover increased by 1.76 percent. But when income dropped by the same amount, demand decreased by 1.26 percent. That’s a pretty tight correlation. The researchers reason that wealthier cities can afford more trees, both on private and public property. The well-to-do can afford larger lots, which in turn can support more trees. On the public side, cities with larger tax bases can afford to plant and maintain more trees.