Friday, March 24, 2006

It's going to be a long three years...

I tuned into The Panel [audio] on National Radio yesterday afternoon just in time to hear Chris Trotter opine on the reason for the current viciousness in Parliament: frustration from both parties at not being able to do anything. Labour is crippled by its dependence on Winston and United Future, and is unable to enact positive progressive policy. National came tantalisingly close to power, but lost out in the end and is likewise unable to impose its agenda. Which makes for a lot of frustration and anger on both sides, which can only be relieved by getting nasty and vicious and personal on each other in the debating chamber. Jeanette Fitzsimons is entirely right to point out that we really do have more important things to talk about - like the $11 billion a year we're shipping overseas to the foreign owners of our banks and other major companies, or what we are going to do to try and meet our Kyoto target, or how we can convince business-owners to ditch the "low wage, low skill, hire another warm body" paradigm in favour of actually investing in their businesses to improve productivity, or why food-bank usage is high even at a time of record low unemployment. Unfortunately, barring a Parliamentary realignment which either gives the government a clear legislative majority, or topples it, I don't think the current frustration-inducing situation is going to go away. Which means its probably going to be a very long three years...


There must also be a lot of frustration in Labour that they weren't more progressive when they could have been. Or at least I fervently hope there is, but I suspect there are a lot of Labour MPs feeling much more comfortable with the current state of affairs than they did in the previous two terms :-(

Posted by Span : 3/24/2006 09:45:00 AM

The tragedy is that by sitting on their hands they continue to alienate people who actually are left wing and progressive and who normally would vote for them. Whether they gain sufficient support from the centre to compensate for these losses remains to be seen.

Posted by Amanda : 3/24/2006 10:53:00 AM

It's part of this paralysis about Government's feeling they can't lose any votes. I have a dream that one day we will reach a mature approach to MMP, where the Government losing a bill is not seen as The End Of All Things. Then at least Labour could be putting up progressive things, even if it didn't have the numbers, and showing their supporters what they would do if only they could do it. But I guess these things have to get through caucus first, which may be even more difficult than the House itself...

PS good to see you around the traps more MTNW :-)

Posted by Span : 3/24/2006 11:10:00 AM

How does Labour choose its electorate and list MPs? Is this done locally, or does a centralised clique make the decisions?

Would it be possible for a grassroots movement (like Militant in the 80's UK) to try and drive Labour to the left?

Posted by Rich : 3/24/2006 12:41:00 PM

This has been discussed quite a bit in the past - I think Jordan, Idiot/Savant and I had a bit of a three-way conversation going about the usefulness or not of this strategy about a year ago.

Electorate MPs are chosen locally, although National Office has a sizeable say and could ultimately probably force a selection they wanted.

List MPs are worked out like this:
1. Regional lists are created, ranking only that region's candidates.
2. A central committee is elected (quite large) which then deals with the regional lists and puts them together into the final list.

That said, last time caucus MPs block voted to have themselves included in caucus ranking order, in the first however many spots it was.

Posted by Span : 3/24/2006 12:49:00 PM

Labour will keep winning as long as the opposition is as reactionary and mono cultural as it is. Brash is a creature of the (18?)80's and the ACToid activists out there are plain crazy.

Its dangerous strategy though to rely on fear of National winning to keep you in power. All that means is if National ever do get themselves organised enough to not frighten the bejesus out of anyone who isn't over 40 and white it'll be all over for the red machine.

Posted by Sanctuary : 3/24/2006 02:06:00 PM

MTNW & Span: While I share people's concerns about Labour not being left enough, to be fair this time round I don't think they're "sitting on their hands". Bluntly, they have a very tenuous hold on Parliament, and they just don't have the numbers to get progressive legislation through. All they can do is hold power simply to stop National from taking it and fucking everything up (except of course that national would be likely to have an equally tough time doing anything they wanted to do). While I think that stasis is better than going backwards, it's not inspiring, and it is intensely frustrating.

But yes, I think Labour should be putting up legislation when they don't necessarily have the numbers, if only through member's bills. You don't win the argument by not making it in the first place, and putting up legislation at least gives them the chance to have the public pressure National and the middle parties for a change (assuming it is well-chosen). Unfortunately, their desire to avoid looking weak is stopping them from doing this - with the result that they are dying the death of a thousand cuts.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/24/2006 03:40:00 PM

Rich: they could, theoretically - but that would require joining the Labour Party. And OTOH, parties are just vehicles; if you can hijack even a small part of one at gunpoint, and can stomach the moral compromise of filling out a membership form, then go for it.

OTOH, as Span points out, the ability of the national office to interfere in candidate selection means that it may come to nought.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/24/2006 03:46:00 PM

Sanctuary: I'm afraid I don't share your confidence. Governments have a natural lifespan, and Labour seems to be nearing (if not already past) the end of its one. If they keep going the way they're going - unable to do anything, while the scandals and arrogance of power keep piling up - then they're looking at electoral defeat next time they go to the polls. And if people hate them enough, they'll even vote for Don Brash.

We have some hope: that Labour won't lose too badly, and might just be able to deny National power through the coalition process again - but its a small one. And if Winston retires and takes NZFirst with him, we may really be looking at a National majority government.

Still, a lot can change in two years, and what Labour needs to do is hang on long enough for Brash to be rolled. That might at least take the hard edge of the eventual National victory.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/24/2006 03:51:00 PM

Icehawk: never underestimate the effects of personal antipathy in politics. This stopped Labour getting together with the Greens in 2002, and it stopped them from cutting a deal with the Maori Party in 2005. The question is why they're not burying the hatchet with the latter and trying to work out a reasonable left-wing platform they can agree on. It's got to be better than the shit they're having to do at the moment...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/24/2006 05:09:00 PM


Look, I take the point you're trying to make but I think Labour - and National to a lesser extent - need to accept that we had a free and fair election of September 17, 2005. The voters did not deliver the Labour Party, or the center-left, a decisive majority and it's time (to coin a phrase) to move on.

Frustrating? Sure, it's no picnic to those of us on the other side of the fence. But Herald columnist John Armstrong detects a rather more worrying trend in Parliament :-

When a politician not prone to hyperbole describes Parliament as a Star Chamber fuelled by a new McCarthyism, you have to sit up and take notice.
Jeanette Fitzsimons struck a chord on Tuesday by expressing her absolute disgust at the current bout of mud-slinging and character assassination.

Something is rotten in the state of Parliament. But the rot is not confined to throwing dirt and raking muck.

While there has been a major advance in select committees flexing their powers, the progressive debasing of some of Parliament's other mechanisms for scrutinising the Government and holding ministers to account is arguably more damaging.

The deterioration in standards is most evident during question-time - the Opposition's daily opportunity to grill ministers.

By no means are all ministers guilty of the practice. But there has been an unmistakable trend towards more and more ministers giving perfunctory replies or, in the worst instances, ignoring questions.

This week Parliament was treated to the ludicrous, yet disturbing sight of a minister pretending not to be a minister in order to duck questions about his breaching collective Cabinet responsibility - a constitutional convention which has also become a moveable feast.

The slow suffocation of question-time does not make headlines, but it is as insidious and as destructive of the institution of Parliament as personal attacks.

[...] Yet, Fitzsimons' speech was also highly political. She blamed Opposition parties for Parliament becoming New Zealand's version of the Spanish Inquisition.

That is not fair. National had every right to go after David Benson-Pope after he made misleading statements to Parliament. National had nothing to do with Parker's demise.

If things have got worse in the House - and behaviour varies greatly from week to week - that is down to two crucial developments over the last decade: the advent of a multi-party Parliament and the arrival of television cameras in the chamber.

The fierce competition among Opposition parties for the attention of those cameras has exponentially boosted the scandal quotient because that makes the news, whereas debate on more weighty issues does not.

These factors have contributed to question-time becoming even more of a political circus. The hour-plus session is rarely informative. Ministers are hardly likely to parade the failings of their policies or their departments in front of the cameras.

Or their own failings. It is indefensible, but it is possible to understand why Benson-Pope's memory was so selective for so long.

However, he escaped punishment. He has not necessarily lowered the benchmark for what is acceptable. The benchmark will be lowered only if the next minister who misleads Parliament is not punished.

Benson-Pope is also the product of a climate where some ministers do not even bother to make any effort to answer Opposition questions. The rules are lax. The Speaker is relatively powerless. The minister can fulfil standing orders by "addressing" the question in the most vaguest of terms.

It is one thing to fudge answers. It is another to effectively treat the questioner's right to ask a question with contempt.

This is a source of great frustration on the Opposition benches - and a major factor in inciting the kind of disorder which helps give Parliament such a poor reputation.

National puts the deliberate obstruction down to a mixture of ministerial arrogance and bureaucratic secretiveness.

In an unusual move, National's shadow Leader of the House, Gerry Brownlee, this week pleaded with the Government to address the standard of replies, both to spoken and written questions.

Labour is unlikely to oblige. It lives in morbid fear of history repeating itself and that it will suffer the same fate as the third-term National Government between 1996 and 1999.

That administration fell victim to charges of sleaze and croneyism. Labour believes the current dirt-digging is designed to have similar effect.

While there is some co-operation between party whips to try and calm things down, all bets are off when the attacks in the chamber once more get personal. Parliament's standing suffers accordingly.

Sorry for the long quote, but I think Armstrong makes many fair points I've not heard before.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 3/25/2006 10:43:00 AM