April 8, 2010

Flying business class: like a youth hostel in the sky

The latest episode in Duncan Garner's exposing of Chris Carter's travel shows two like-minded men really made for each other. Both men have opted to appear to be doing their job, rather than really doing it.

For a little-bit-lazy political journalist, what an easy story. Politician flies business class to Europe! Something few experience, but many can understand, having glanced at the forward cabin as they board the plane. And the sums involved are comprehensible, thousands rather than millions of dollars. But lets not romanticise business class travel. Sure, it's nicer and more expensive than economy, but you can have a lot more indulgence on the ground. If long haul economy flying is like sleeping in a tent on a hill and being served reheated food, business class is like sleeping in a youth hostel and being served slightly better reheated food. It's nicer, but it's not that nice.

But most people don't travel business class so it's easy to foment indignation at a politician getting a slightly better deal than others. Even in business class you can't avoid the fact that changing time zones rapidly screws your body clock. Nothing you can do but wait to adjust. The only thing that business class gives you nowadays is the option to sleep flat on your back. Especially if you're a tall guy, like Chris Carter. And if you really have to perform straight off the plane, then business class is probably worth it. It's just a little hard to believe that an opposition spokesperson going on a 3 week trip to Europe has to perform straight off the plane. Fly economy, and add an extra day to the trip, and it would all be OK. Probably no nasty TV3 coverage.

So it's easy to write a story like this, the information is all out there in public, and you don't really have to understand anything. Politician travels better than the public. But no-one should think that flying business class to Europe is a bunch of jolly good fun. You could have much more fun at taxpayers expense by going to a nice restaurant in Wellington and claiming that off the taxpayer. But $200 here and $200 there isn't quite as obvious a story as $10,000 on airfares.

Both are lazy stories. The real scandals, the real waste of millions of dollars are hidden, not in corruption which is easy to understand, but in bad decisions about government policy (like this one for example). But you have to do some digging and thinking and investigation to find out where millions of dollars are being wasted.

In much the same way as Duncan Garner appears to be doing his job as a journalist by exposing the easy stories Chris Carter appears to be doing his job as Labour's Foreign Affairs spokesman by going overseas. What could advance foreign affairs more? Except that once you've gotten over the jetlag is there really much to be gained by meeting some foreign officials? Not really, not for an opposition which is trying and not always succeeding at being an effective critic of the government.

The big challenge for Labour in opposition is not to know more about foreign affairs and be able to say you've met obscure foreigners, but to come up with some effective criticisms of the government, and some alternative policies. You can do that just as well, better, sitting on a chair in Wellington or Waiheke reading books and newspapers, and thinking a bit. Meeting obscure foreigners is great preparation for being in government, but it doesn't help you get out of opposition. Carter's criticism of the government's whaling "strategy" will do far more for Labour than any trip to Europe.

So, two men, Garner and Carter, misdirecting their professional energies into the appearance of doing their job, they are made for each other.

Posted by eroberts at 4:02 AM

September 1, 2009

Laws and language

The creativity of the Wanganui gangs protest against gang patch laws was amusing. Like the anti-smacking law we have a nice demonstration here of the ultimate ineffectiveness of laws, because language is not complete.

You can ban gang patches, but it turns out that within a day of the law going into effect it turns out that what Michael Laws really needed to ban was "visual demonstration of affiliation to a gang." Laws (on the statute book) need to be specific if they are not to be a license for police harassment. But when laws are written to address specific behavior, the targeted groups change their behavior.

Was it really the patches that intimidated the residents of Wanganui? Or a group of Maori men gathering in a public place? No one wants to admit they are intimidated by Maori men gathering in public, so instead we get the symbolic politics of banning gang patches.

And what is the line between a smack and a whack? How would you write a law that defined that? A certain amount of pressure, perhaps you could be allowed to swing your open-faced hand at your child at no more than x metres per second. The absurdity is obvious. How would you enforce that with no witnesses and no measurements? Thus, the choice between ruling smacking in or out of the law. There is no way to codify what a "reasonable" smack is. Similarly there's no way to anticipate what will signify gang affiliation, and write a law outlawing it all.

The futility of our language now against future behavior doesn't mean we shouldn't have laws about social behavior, but we should be modest about what they can achieve.

Posted by eroberts at 10:59 PM

October 30, 2006

Shopping your ideas

Earlier this week the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that there was no governmental purpose in denying same-sex couples the benefits of marriage, and that the state had six months to remedy this. Gay marriage, per se, did not have to be one of the remedies, civil unions would also do.

In passing I'll note that this ruling has attracted much less public attention than previous rulings in Massachusetts and Vermont, which might suggest that American politics is heading towards some kind of compromise on this.

While there has been less debate about the decision you don't have to look hard to find [mostly Republican and right-leaning] people criticizing the courts for making this decision. It's telling that the conservative response is to criticize the venue of the decision—the courts— and not (entirely) the decision itself. It's fair to say that until very recently conservative parties in Anglo-American democracies saw the courts as the bulwark of tradition and order against populist change.

It's striking that in America there is a populist right that sees the judiciary and the common law as anti-democratic and revolutionary. Historically conservatives saw the courts as a bulwark against populist democratic change. There are traces of this attitude in Australasia, Canada and Britain, but it's less pronounced because social movements have not used the courts to try and achieve social change quite as much. Perhaps that is for the better, since changes are achieved with democratic support, but I suspect that it reflects rationally different choices in political strategy contingent on legislative and judicial structure.

Now, I'm no lawyer, but one of the defining characteristics of Anglo-American government is that laws are made both by the legislative/executive branches (statue law), and by judges interpreting the law in cases (common law). In almost every setting groups seeking social change use both mechanisms to try and affect change. This is such an established, bipartisan part of our broad political heritage that current critiques of it by people opposed to gay marriage are, I suspect, largely disengenuous.

For the sake of argument, wandering away from the issue at hand, look at the movement for the 8 hour day. Unions campaigned for this at three levels

  • Trying to achieve it through contracts with individual employers
  • Multi-employer contract negotiations (particularly the Australian and New Zealand arbitration systems
  • Legislative restrictions on working hours.

The 8 hour day was not achieved in any country in one go; it was achieved incrementally through success in different legal venues. Same with most other social changes one cares to look at.

Venue shopping by political and social movements is an inherent part of the Anglo-American political and legal structure. If some groups really do feel those rules of the "game" are unfair and should be changed, that's a problem, but I'm inclined to guess that for now they're being disengenuous and will happily shop their own ideas round whatever sympathetic legislature or court they feel will take them.

Posted by eroberts at 3:45 PM

October 19, 2006

Party politics

I got this email today:

Dear <redacted> member,
Do you ever wish you could quit your day job and work to take back Congress? Well, on Election Day, you can come close: Take the day off work on Tuesday, November 7th and be part of something big.

Skip your annoying commute. Skip those endless meetings. This election is the best chance we've had in years to change the direction of our country. And we have a plan to put dozens of races over the top by making hundreds of thousands of get-out-the-vote phone calls on Election Day—but we can't do it without your help.

Can you take the day off work on Tuesday, November 7th to help win this historic election?

It made me think again why making an election day a holiday is a good idea. It's fair to assume that being able to take a solitary day off for the election is not something everyone can do. It's probably easier if you are a professional worker not serving other people. Hard to say how that affects Democrats and Republicans. Teachers can't take a day off, and they tend to vote Democratic. Soldiers probably can't take the day off, and they tend to vote Republican. Now, it's clearly not the case that election day being a work day is the reason that turnout in American elections is low, since many other countries have their elections on a weekday and manage significantly higher turnout than in the United States. Moreover, the wide variation between the different American states in turnout, none of which have holidays for election day, must indicate that other factors are at work.

All those caveats aside making election day a public holiday is still the right thing to do. Everyone is legally entitled to take time off to vote, but to help turnout the vote and participate in other aspects of an election requires you to take your holidays off. In a country that celebrates and proclaims its democratic traditions, wouldn't one day off in the year to take part in democracy be small but symblic. America does its nationalistic public holidays very well (Memorial Day, July 4th and Thanksgiving specifically) but what could be more American than to participate in the nation's democratic events?

If you look at the history of American election days it's quite clear that election days used to be opportunities for boisterous public displays, and not a lot of working. Making election day a non-work day again would return to a grand American tradition. In the 19th century Minnesota made election day a public holiday by legislation. It's been done before.

The other good reason for making election day a public holiday (or a weekend) is that then you can have an election night party. The election night party is, I think, a small but important part of Australasian culture that derives from the convenience of having elections on Saturdays, and being able to sleep in the next morning with nothing to do (for most people).

Having elections on a Tuesday when you have to work makes voting like running to the store after work. You do it. You go home. You make sure you have everything ready for Wednesday at work. There is a better way. Make election day a holiday.

Posted by eroberts at 1:08 PM

October 10, 2006

That 70s show

This sentence in the New York Times:

And in a month in which Republicans have sought to discredit Democratic challengers as advocates of big spending and high taxes, 52 percent of respondents said that Democrats would make the right decisions on how to spend taxpayers' money, while 29 percent said Republicans would.

prompt another round of my perennial thought that if only ordinary voters knew enough history they'd know that cliche of Democrats as deficit-spending wastrels is not historically accurate in the long run. I'd say, and this is a hypothesis, that this perception of Democrats really only dates from the 1970s.

The emphasis here is on deficit spending. Like the various Labo[u]r parties around the world, it's a fair characterization that liberal, social democratic, populist leaning parties spend a little more than right-leaning parties do. But deficit spending? Not so much. Go back to the 1930s and you see Labour and Democratic parties spending more to get out of the Depression, but given the circumstances, perhaps not deficit spending enough. It took the deficit financed World War II to get most of the western countries out of the depression and back to full employment. War, of course, is a perennial historical justification for deficits. If you win. If you're borrowing good money to fund a war gone wrong, that becomes unpopular.

Like Vietnam. This, I would guess, was the beginning of the perception that Democrats were weak on national security, and couldn't control the budget. The two are related -- I'm not sure that that gets enough attention. Then you have the oil crises of the 1970s, and the Australasian and British Labour parties, the Canadian Liberals, and the Democrats were all in power during at least one of the oil shocks of the 1970s. That was when government deficits became a problem for western countries, and the Labour/Liberal/Democratic parties were all, unfortunately, for them left standing when the music oil stopped. Would conservative parties have done any better at adjusting government spending in the midst of the oil crisis? I don't know.

Going back to the Great Depression suggests an answer. In Britain and Australia where the Labour parties held the finance ministry at the start of the Depression "responsible" balanced budgeting was the order of the day, and it saddled both parties with responsibility for the Depression that the Republicans, and the New Zealand Reform (conservative) party also experienced. The somewhat unfair perception that left voters with, was that the conservative governments were responsible for most of the misery of the Depression. Somewhat unfair, because it reinforced stereotypes that were already out there that conservative governments were less likely to spend on the poor.

Conservative governments would probably also have run up large deficits during the oil shocks (and did, later in the 1970s in Australia and New Zealand). But conservatives running budget deficits doesn't reinforce stereotypes already out there, while it does for liberals.

Posted by eroberts at 1:11 PM

January 25, 2006

Canadian election

How about that Canadian election,eh? I guess the only way I could lose more readers would be to say I was thinking about this entry while I was running. Well, I was!

(I shamelessly stole this graphic from the cbc.ca site). If you were the Liberal party you'd have to be somewhat pleased with this outcome. When the Conservatives lost in 1993--ushering in the Liberal government that has just lost office--they were reduced to just two seats. It was one of the most, if not the most, ignominious defeats of a government in a Western democracy.

Losing an election is never a great thing, but every party needs its time out of office. And frankly the Liberals were due their time in opposition. But at 103 seats, and facing a Conservative minority government, the Liberals could be back in power at the next election. Or not. Democracy is like that. 103 seats is plenty enough as a base to retake power at the next election. But it's not so many that anyone will see the Liberals as a potential alternative government in this parliament. In short, they have the space to regroup, elect a new leader, and come back next election.

You have to wonder how much of their agenda the Conservatives will actually accomplish. Neither the Bloc nor the NDP are their natural allies. Legislation will inevitably be modified to gain the support of two other parties.

The American media will probably repeat a canard about parliamentary politics, the idea that the largest party in parliament always forms the government. Not so. Not always so, at least. The largest party is typically offered the first chance to form the government, but if they can't ... there's nothing to stop the government being lead by the smallest party in parliament. Now, in this case, the Conservatives will get their chance. The Bloc and NDP will probably support them on a confidence vote so the Conservatives can get a government started. But after that everything will be up for negotiation. I'd put good money--or a fruitcake--on the next election being in 2008.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:03 AM

October 4, 2005

Still not quite there

This was the fourth election under MMP, and the New Zealand media still have a little way to go in understanding it.

Jim Sutton, Labour's Minister for Trade Negotiations and Agriculture lost his electorate seat at the election by about 6,000 votes. Interestingly, the party vote in this partly rural South Island electorate only went to National by about 900 votes, which should give some pause to the notion that there was a big city-country divide.

Now there's all kinds of talk that Sutton might lose his seat in Cabinet because he lost his electorate. To which I say, huh??

No one has questioned Sutton's capability as a Minister, a role in which he's advanced New Zealand's interests by negotiating several free trade agreements (Chile, Singapore), helped keep up the pressure on the protectionist EU and United States to liberalize trade, and done a good job in managing Labour's relationship with the agricultural sector. He's not the most dynamic member of parliament, and he will probably never be leader, but he's been a competent, diligent Minister in a government that has had some less than competent and diligent Ministers.

Whether or not he wins his electorate is immaterial to those qualifications for being in Cabinet.

Moreover, with his opponent, Jo Goodhew—by all accounts a capable and personable candidate—ranked 31 on National's list, while Sutton was 11th on Labour's, there was plenty of incentive for people in the electorate to vote tactically and get both Sutton and Goodhew into Parliament.

It also bears mentioning that Marian Hobbs—one of the few Labour MPs to massively boost her electorate majority, and Labour's share of the party vote in Wellington Central—has stepped down from Cabinet. That should make it a little clearer that electorate votes don't translate into Cabinet selection.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:47 PM

September 13, 2005

Business friendly

One thing often claimed by commentators and the right wing parties in the New Zealand election debate is that Labour has re-regulated the economy somewhat.

So, what to make of the rankings by the World Bank's private sector development group that put New Zealand at the top of the "Ease of Doing Business index"? It's a minor thing this late in the campaign, but can't hurt the government.

(via Marginal Revolution)

Posted by robe0419 at 11:58 AM

August 13, 2005

David Lange

David Lange, one of New Zealand's greatest prime ministers (1984-1989) has sadly died at age 63. The obituary in The Age (Melbourne) is a fair summary of his life.

I interviewed David Lange once, for a 5th form (high school sophomore) history project. Wonderful, generous, witty man.

His memoirs have just been published. I hope I can read them soon.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:30 AM

July 21, 2005

Why Americans might care about New Zealand's election

Like "worthy Canadian initiatives," foreign readers may yawn when they hear of "Elections due in New Zealand." Anyone still awake out there?

A brief primer on New Zealand politics can be found at the bottom of this entry.

For the first time since 1981 the likely winner is not clear in advance. Only a year ago the Labour government looked odds on to win another comprehensive victory. Now, the National party which was the dominant party in New Zealand politics between 1949 and 1984, has a chance to win a shot at government. Owing to the electoral system, any majority government would likely have to be a coalition with the populist and unpredictable New Zealand First party. Both Labour and National might well prefer to take their chances on running a minority government, seeking support on an issue-by-issue basis.

There are a couple of reasons Americans might care about the New Zealand election. The first is trade. Both the Labour and National parties are committed to free trade. New Zealand's commitment to further liberalization of world trade is not going to change with this election. Labour's trade diplomacy has been to support the ongoing World Trade Organisation negotiations, pursue free trade agreements with small countries (recently concluding an agreement with Chile and Singapore. This is not as crazy as it sounds), and to plough ahead with further economic integration with Australia. (For whatever reason, it has historically been the norm that New Zealand and Australian bilateral relations are strongest and most productively focussed on issues of joint concern when the domestic governments are not of the same party.)

Both parties would love to negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States. However, it's pretty clear that the current American administration does not really negotiate free trade agreements, it "negotiates" "free trade" agreements.

The Bush administration has pretty clearly demonstrated that it will put out the trade agreement it wants, and it's a take it or leave it offer for the other country, and American industries with an interest in the trade deal. That's not really negotiation. It's also not really free trade.

The Australian FTA proposal, a good template for what New Zealand might be offered, required Australia to substantially modify its pharmaceutical purchasing and pricing policies, and in exchange accept fairly limited access to the American market for its primary produce (meat and wool).

It's also clear that the Bush administration sees trade diplomacy as having a symbiotic relationship with security and military diplomacy. Australia was offered a FTA because it had been supportive of American foreign policy after 9/11.

Such are the realities of great power politics. It has been made fairly clear to New Zealand that a bilateral FTA will only follow when the New Zealand government modifies its foreign policy in other areas. For a while, the US clearly hoped that NZ might offer more than the 40 engineers it had sent to serve with the British in Iraq in late 2003. But now it's clear that the US is going to have trouble convincing anyone to pony up men or troops for Iraq, the sticking point in relations has returned to being New Zealand's ban on nuclear powered or nuclear armed ships entering its waters.

New Zealand's security position is relatively benign. Situated where it is, several thousand more miles from Asia than Australia, the country's perception of international threats is quite different. While Australia has legitimate security concerns because of its proximity to Indonesia, New Zealand has a much larger moat to hide behind. This is not to defend a blindness to the world situation, but merely to indicate that there are good reasons for New Zealand to believe it faces few external threats to its sovereignty in the near future. It may be that in 10 or 20 years, Indonesia or China or Vietnam, or some other large Asian country does pose a threat to New Zealand's security, but the cost-benefit on arming against low-probability, distant threats is small.

Similarly, because of New Zealand's geographic location, the public wonders why the US should find it so necessary to its global strategy to send nuclear armed or powered vessels. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the most common reason for foreign navies to visit New Zealand ports is so that sailors can have sex. I exaggerate slightly, to be sure, but "R&R" is a major reason for naval visits to New Zealand.

For both these reasons—public perception of limited external threat, and scepticism about New Zealand's importance to global strategy—the anti-nuclear policy remains very popular. Eighty percent of the population support the ban. This constrains any government that has to deal with the United States.

The National party put out feelers earlier this year about repealing the ban on nuclear powered vessels, and was pilloried in the press for doing so. Subsequent statements on the matter have been much more cautious, with the leader musing that any change might have to be approved by a referendum. Nevertheless, it's clear that the National Party is prepared to "modify" the nuclear ships ban, in pursuit of a FTA with the United States.

Thus, the results of the New Zealand election are likely to have some impact on relations at the inter-governmental level. My own view is that Labour's policy and instincts have been broadly right. The chimera of a bilateral FTA with the United States is not worth so much as to accept the approach of linking trade and military/security diplomacy. If the US market was much more important to NZ than it is, or the bilateral FTA could be expanded to include other countries, then the benefits might be greater it might be worth it.

But as it stands, bilateral trade agreements are clearly inferior to freer world trade, and it's not clear how long the Bush administration's linking of trade and security diplomacy will last. Putting one's diplomatic efforts into the WTO negotiations is likely to have a larger, long-term payoff for New Zealand. It is clear that any Bush administration-negotiated "free trade" agreement for New Zealand would maintain substantial barriers to real free trade in agricultural products. That's a shame, because American consumers are losing out on cheaper meat and diary products than they currently have.

While I'm not privy to whatever has been said between governments, the debate in public about the nuclear ships ban suggests that neither side has worked behind the scenes for a compromise. On the one hand, the Bush administration waxes loud and long about the importance of democracy. On the other, it then puts pressure on friendly countries to ignore what their voters believe. We saw this in the run-up to invasion of Iraq when the Chilean government was caught between 90% domestic opposition to the invasion, and the government's desire to maintain good relationships with the United States.

The way forward for the next New Zealand government (nothing will happen until after the election), Labour or National, should be to inform the American government privately that they would welcome a conventional ship visit, and to suggest a suitable vessel. After all, information on the power source of American navy ships is publicly accessible in Jane's Fighting Ships.

The other way forward is for the governments to co-operate on soft power issues. I've said before (but am too lazy to link to it) that one of the flaws in America's official soft-power strategy at the moment is the hubris that the United States is the only force for democracy in the world. World's oldest democracy, blah, blah, blah ... If only it were true. A little recognition that other countries have substantial experience with democracy as well, might actually help in spreading democracy. As well as the older democracies (like New Zealand), it seems that the lesson of the last twenty years from places like South Africa, Chile, Taiwan, South Korea, Spain, and Mozambique is that democracy can grow and flourish in diverse conditions and cultures.

The trouble with democratization as a diplomatic goal is that democracy is a process, not an outcome. American official pronouncements speak as if repealing legislation, like the nuclear ships ban, with 80% popular support, were so easy. It's not, and it's even harder when governments appear to have been walked into that position under pressure. New Zealand's election will have little consequence for many Americans, but it will be interesting to observe whether the Bush administration has learned much about diplomacy in friendly countries. When an administration can't even manage its relationships with its friends, its no wonder they struggle with their enemies.

Potted introduction to New Zealand politics

New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy, with a unicameral parliament. The executive is drawn from the members of the legislature (=House of Representatives). The Prime Minister is the head of the Cabinet, and [generally] the leader of the largest party grouping in the House of Representatives. The House has 120 Members of Parliament (=MPs)

Elections must be held at least every three years, but the government can call an early ("snap") election at any time if they feel like it.

The voting system is called "mixed-member proportional," and is less complicated than it sounds. Everyone casts a "party vote," and an electorate (=district/constituency) vote. The party vote determines the overall party make-up of the parliament. Once the winners of the 65 electoral districts have been determined, parties are then enough list seats to get them up to their required number of seats. So, let's say a party wins 1/3 of the party votes, and 30 of the [geographic] electorate seats. They are entitled to 40 seats in parliament. Their next 10 members are then drawn from the remaining 55 seats that are distributed to make seats in parliament proportionate to votes across the whole country.

The two main parties are the Labour and National parties. The Labour party dates to 1916, and is one of the younger social democratic parties in the western world. It tends to support somewhat more generous social welfare programs, and government intervention in the economy, and more independent foreign policy. However, is is very supportive of free global trade, and Labour party treasurers have nearly always supported conservative fiscal policies. It governed from 1935-49, 57-60, 72-75, 84-90 and 1999 to the present.

The National Party dates to 1936, and is similar to the British Conservative party or the Australian liberal party. It has historically been identified with the urban wealthy and employers, and the rural farming communities as its core supporters, but has supported the welfare state enough to win lower and middle income votes. It first won office in 1949, and governed from 1949-1957, 1960-1972, 1975-1984, and 1990-1999.

Both parties are, compared to America, socially "liberal." Reflecting New Zealand's secular culture, there is a very small constituency for bringing religion into politics. Indeed, recent New Zealand prime ministers who have been church attenders have gone out of their way to stress that they would not let their religious beliefs influence their politics. Abortion has not been a topic of major political debate since the 1970s.

There are several smaller parties in parliament, the New Zealand First party, a populist party opposed to immigration from Asia, and supportive of more government intervention in the economy; a Green party, a small "Progressive" party, and the "United Future" party who are slightly conservative on social and cultural issues, but liberal on economic issues (in the sense of favoring less regulation and government spending).

Posted by robe0419 at 1:42 PM

May 6, 2005

Quick thoughts on the British election

I managed to avoid the time-suck that would have been following the campaign, and went to the theater last night so didn't even follow the results streaming in.

  • Get used to saying "Prime Minister Gordon Brown" -- it'll be happening soon enough
  • A smaller but still very workable majority will be good for the Labour government. There's nothing so bad for a government as complacency that the major opposition party is an embarrassment to itself.
  • Long-term predictions are a fool's errand but I'll make one: Labour will win again in 2009/10.
  • Good on the Liberal Democrats for their best showing in 76 years.
  • It won't be long before Helen Clark is claiming that this bodes well for her own upcoming election. Sound like BS to you? It is, but I don't think any Labour leaders believe the trans-national Labourism they spout whenever a Labour party wins.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:06 AM

April 11, 2005

Don't you know there's an election on?

There's going to be an election in Britain in three and a half week's time. Guardian coverage recommended (or Grauniad, for those who can remember the 1980s profo-reading standards ...)

The residency requirements if you're a citizen are not that strict -- I should have stayed a little longer last year and registered.

Luckily the next three weeks are full of academic and personal deadlines, so I won't have the time to spend following yet another election I cannot vote in!

Posted by robe0419 at 2:18 PM

October 9, 2004

Is the Australian Labor Party like the Canadian Conservative party?

No matter how good the economy is, no matter what the electoral system; Any government that wins a fourth term is blessed with a weak opposition party.

There should be little spill-over to the American election, though if Bush gets truly desperate he might try. With just 850 troops on the ground in Iraq, Australia's commitment is symbolic rather than substantive.

Anyone who tries to draw analogies between Howard and Bush has not been watching either closely. Howard's a shrewd survival-oriented politician, in charge of his own destiny; and he already put distance between himself and Bush when he scaled back Australia's commitment in Iraq. If Kerry wins, Howard will shift with the times, and support his policies too.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:37 PM

September 20, 2004

About that Australian election ...

If you went to the Sydney Morning Herald website to see what the polls were saying about the Australian election you would have learnt ... the two contradictory facts below. Guess it must be close.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:58 PM

August 29, 2004

off to the races

They're having an election in Australia on October 9. The Sydney Morning Herald is probably the best place for coverage. The best blog coverage is probably at the Road to Surfdom.

It bodes ill for my own personal productivity, what with the U.S. election also on. Aside from the kick-in-the-pants that is having to take PhD prelims, one reason I got stuff done in 2003 was that there were no elections in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, or the United States. [no-one should remind me that I wasn't marathon training last year either ....]

In any case, why should American readers care about the Australian election? One word. Iraq. Australia is the first of the three countries that made major troop contributions at the start of the war to hold an election in the wake of the failure to find the weapons that were the war's apparent rationale.

Those issues of trust and national security which will be important in Australia, are also critical to the U.S. election. Obviously the political culture and institutions are quite different in many respects. Notions that a Howard victory/defeat points to a Bush victory/defeat would be reading too much into tea leaves diluted by the Pacific ocean.

Like in Britain, like in the United States, the government that went into Iraq is facing an opposition that has not been able to capitalize nearly as much as it should have been able to on the deceptions made by the government.

I'm no fan of John Howard, but he has the singular advantage that George Bush doesn't, of being able to run on a pretty good economic record.

The related reason that Americans should pay attention to Australia's election is to see if the Bush administration continues its 0 for many record in trying to influence elections and referenda in foreign countries. After its success in helping win the German election for the Social Democrats, getting the Korean president that it didn't want, and seeing Hugo Chavez win a referenda; the Bush administration surely won't want to try and "help" John Howard out with praise or an endorsement during the campaign, right?

Apropos of my post on Thursday that touched on American ability to change foreign people's minds; if the Bush administration can't give the subtle assist to friendly foreign governments that they want to give, we should be sceptical that the Bush administration could make the right moves in a country more hostile to American involvement.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:09 PM

June 29, 2004

the collective will in Canada

Yesterday's election in Canada produced a hung parliament, a situation often as challenging for journalists as for the politicians.

(Note, for example, the WashingtonPost article which suggests that the Governor General will have a substantive role to play in the process! Yes, and Paul Martin is the second coming of McKenzie King ... But I digress)

No, the real confusion is for the journalists in parliamentary democracies who struggle to make some sort of sense out of the collective result, often implying that individual voters wanted a hung parliament and divided government.

An article in the Globe and Mail said:

The electorate decided that Mr. Martin deserved to lead the country, but gave the Liberals the message that they must be less arrogant and power-hungry. The Liberals got 36.7 per cent of the popular support compared with 29.6 per cent for the Conservatives and 15.7 per cent for the NDP.

Really? It sounds like actually about a third of the country wanted the Liberals to continue in office (some of whom might have been holding their metaphorical noses as they voted), but that the remaining 2/3 of the country, certainly the 1/3 that voted for the Conservatives would actually be quite disappointed.

(Since neither the Bloc Q. nor the NDP were realistically expected to lead a government, it's hard to tell in the absence of preferential/instant run-off voting who voters for these parties preferred between the Liberals and Conservatives).

It's a fundamental misunderstanding of how parliamentary democracy works to suggest that electorates or countries as a whole have some sort of collective wish for a hung parliament.

When one party wins a majority [of seats or votes] it's easy to write that up as the country generally preferring that party. But when no-one wins a majority most people are likely to be disappointed, and it's the gritty [pun intended] reality of parliamentary debate and coalition formation that takes over from where the electorate left off.

As to the actual outcome of the election ... I've probably paid more attention to the Canadian election than most people in the United States, even in a state bordering Canada, but that's not saying much (!) and there's certainly a lot about Canadian politics I don't get ... with that disclaimer ...

the Conservatives: One of those situations where the press seems to be saying "great campaign, not such great results" and not wondering how both those things could be true at the same time.

Electorates may or may not prefer divided governments (the evidence is that they tend to do so by voting for different parties at different levels in a federal system), but they certainly tend to give governing parties only so long before they give the other party a chance. And if the Conservatives couldn't win this time after 11 years of Liberal government, and some obvious scandal, they really are waiting for the Liberals to absolutely implode.

As for the Liberals, refreshing a party in office is notoriously difficult and generally relies on a weak opposition (which the Liberals have). So, the Liberals could be like the Menzies government in Australia in the 50s and 60s, and just go on and on for two decades, with this as their only stumble.

They have the prospect of a stable coalition partner in the NDP, but there's one slight catch -- they fall 2 seats short of a majority (assuming that the Speaker comes from the majority party as she/he does in other British influenced parliaments).

In any other country, you'd probably then think that the Lib/NDP coalition would court support from the Bloc, but here's where the peculiarities of Canadian politics get tricky (and maybe beyond my judgment).

Dealing too closely with the Bloc probably reduces the chance of the Libs making any inroads in the West, so to get a majority the Libs/NDP will probably try to either (1) peel off some members from the Bloc (or the Conservatives? One MLA switched before the election), or (2) get issue by issue support from Bloc members, who tend to be somewhat more social democratic than the Conservatives.

Neither strategy is risk free, but then nothing ever is, and it's better to be in government than out of it.

One advantage that the Lib/NDP coalition could have is that the real polarities in Canadian politics seem to be between the Bloc and the Conservatives with their regional bases, and different views of how the Canadian federal system should work.

The Libs and the NDP aspire to be truly national parties, though as the parliament is made up of members elected by plurality in geographical constituencies the parties can't craft a truly national message.

Perhaps though in this hung parliament the Liberals should call the bluff of the Bloc, offering them participation in goverment in exchange for giving up some of their agenda, or calling the bluff of both the Bloc and the Conservatives by proposing some devolution of federal functions.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:27 PM