Monday, April 16, 2007

Wasting the bully pulpit

Labour's dismal handling of its election reform proposals demonstrates the same basic failure that almost cost them the last election: a failure to make the argument or even try to win over the public. There is a strong case to be made for public funding and greater transparency - but Labour hasn't made it. Rather than responding to the leaking of their policy by trying to convince the public of the need to prevent money undermining our democracy, they responded with sullen silence for most of the week. It wasn't until Thursday that any Labour MP spoke up for the proposals - and then only because the Brethren presented a target too good to ignore.

Maybe the government thought that their plans would not be popular with the public, and so decided to remain silent. But as I've pointed out before, you don't win arguments by not making them. By not even bothering to advocate for their policies, they yielded the battlefield to the Opposition, allowing National to frame the debate. In the process, they passed up a perfect opportunity to win over the public and have us pressure the opposition and the minor parties for reform, rather than allowing them to pressure Labour for the status quo.

Labour has made this same mistake over civil unions, "political correctness", public spending and tax cuts - the latter almost costing them the 2005 election. As for why they do it, it is because they apparently don't believe in political leadership. Labour party official and blogger Jordan Carter has been quite explicit: political parties are just "logs floating down a river". They can't lead public opinion; they can only follow it. There's a valid point here about the limits of political power. But there's also a mistake in viewing public opinion as a given, rather than as something politicians can change.

Theodore Roosevelt once referred to the US Presidency as a bully pulpit - by which he meant a superb platform from which to advocate for an agenda. Within New Zealand, holding the government benches is the best bully pulpit you can get. When a Minister says something, the media listen. The requirement for balance means they will seek out alternative views, but the government's position will be reported, allowing the public to assess it on its own merits. Labour is systematically wasting this opportunity - and in doing so pissing away one of their biggest advantages. I don't know whether it is stupidity, or the hubris of seven and a half years in office in an MMP environment which has led them to draw the conclusion that everything can be dealt with by negotiating with other parties, and that the wider public don't matter - but either way if they don't start actually talking to us and trying to persuade us of their programme (to the extent that they actually have one), they will receive - and deserve - a good kicking at the next election.


"When a Minister says something, the media listen."

Why is a systematic bias towards the incumbent government inherently more democratic than allowing everyone to spend the same with full disclosure of source.

Incumbency bias means that challengers should have freedom to buy media attention to offset that bias.

How can you fail to see that lower limits on small & third party spending are inherently undemocratic

If you will not answer the earlier comments I/S please just answer that one.

Posted by sagenz : 4/16/2007 03:27:00 AM

As is often the case with this Labour government I find myself sympathetic towards the spirit of what they're trying to do and disgusted by the way in which they're going about it.

Election reform should be carried out by a transparent independent body in full view of the public and there should be no question that the reforms are about strengthening our democracy. Secretly rejigging the system so that it happens to massively favour the Labour party and gradually leaking the details to Clarks stool pigeon at the Dom-Post (Small) is not an acceptable way to carry out such a major reform of our electoral process.

The current system is flawed but if the government can't improve it in a way that doesn't look wildly unethical and corrupt then they should leave it the hell alone.

Posted by Danyl : 4/16/2007 06:59:00 AM

But as I've pointed out before, you don't win arguments by not making them.

Certainly, but I also have to wonder if Labour hasn't fallen prey to the intellectual and political arrogance that seems to affect long-term governments. Like a secular religion, I sometimes wonder if Labour is actually beginning to treat opposition as heresy rather than part of a democratic dialogue that, IMO, can only exist when you take 'the other side' seriously enough to acknowledge the possibility their arguments are make in good faith and may just have some merits.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 4/16/2007 07:21:00 AM

I sometimes wonder if Labour is actually beginning to treat opposition as heresy rather than part of a democratic dialogue

That's a lovely way of putting it, Craig.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/16/2007 08:01:00 AM

Yes Craig, very good point well put. I like it when you drop the invective but still use the wit.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/16/2007 08:11:00 AM


I give as good as I get :), but I do hope I come across as treating serious arguments made in good faith with the respect they deserve. It's not only about 'wasting the bully pulpit', but how a culture of bullying seems to be replacing civil debate in the politics, the media and even the civil service. I don't want to be too naive and pretend there was every a golden age where politics was conducted like a poli sci graduate seminar over tea and scones. But while I can be as cynical as anyone (probably more than most), I think any politician who develops an aristocratic disdain for the intelligence and good-will of the hoi polloi needs to get the hell out.

A steady diet of poll-driven fruitcake isn't leadership; but neither is a culture of 'perception management' where citizens are treated like brain-damaged children.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 4/16/2007 09:08:00 AM

Do you think blogs are affecting this? It seems as if the bullying is less tolerated on political blogs, I wonder what blogs the politicians visit. I think you may have an essay in the making with your points outlined here, especially with your identification of, "A steady diet of poll-driven fruitcake isn't leadership; but neither is a culture of 'perception management' where citizens are treated like brain-damaged children."
It is obvious how heavily the research is relied upon, but surely the limitations must be apparent.
Lead with the head but appeal to the heart wins campaigns, I'm sure, but fake "heart" is the kiss of death, no?
Oh, and you don't need to give as good as you get, really, you're way better than them anyway, LOL.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/16/2007 09:22:00 AM

The problem with freedom to buy media attention is that it only applies to the rich.

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 4/16/2007 12:22:00 PM

I agree with CMT... someone shoot me now!

More broadly, Labour is beginning to seriously piss me off. They don't seem to have a legislative agenda worthy of the name, what they are throwing up they don't seem interested in passing, and they aren't explaining why. I mean, even if St Helen stodd up and said "we think everything is perfect so we're going to leave it as it is" that would be something. I would disagree, but at least I'd know *why* they're not choosing to govern.

I do wonder if perhaps they're going to run their next election campaign on a "give us majority govt because this minority stuff clearly isn't working".

(Moz, but google doesn't like my password again today... sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't)

Posted by Anonymous : 4/16/2007 01:01:00 PM

Sage: I'd have thought it was obvious that the position of Leader of the Opposition is also a bully pulpit - and one National has been making excellent use of while Labour wastes theirs.

Danyl: I think there's a pressing need to reform the system before the next election (a view backed by the Justice and Electoral Committee, with National's agreement), and there's no longer time for a Royal Commission (which I should add the people clamouring for at the moment didn't ask for when the issue of electoral funding reform was first raised - bad faith all round, it seems). But the COG is right - the quicker the bill is public and we can see the specifics, the better, and the least they can do is get some input from the Electoral Commission.

Craig: I think it might be worse than that, and that they think argument (at least outside the narrow sphere of inter-party horse trading) is irrelevant, and that the wider public is irrelevant except at election time.

National is quite compellingly showing that they are wrong. I may disagree with what they stand for, and with some of their methods, but they at least recognise that politics is a battle for public opinion, and set out to change it to their advantage.

(Oh, and it needs to be stressed that the term "bully pulpit" has nothing to do with bullying; its the same sort of archaic usage as "bully for you").

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 4/16/2007 01:38:00 PM

Moz: I do wonder if perhaps they're going to run their next election campaign on a "give us majority govt because this minority stuff clearly isn't working".

Given the electorate's suspicion of majority government (as seen quite compellingly in the 2002 election), I think that would be suicidal. Though I do think they'll say "give us workable coalition arrangements rather than Winston".

Of course, it will all get much easier if Winston retires.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 4/16/2007 01:41:00 PM

This interesting post poses fundamental questions about political leadership in a democracy. As citizens, do we elect certain of our number to govern wisely on our behalf? By 'govern wisely' I mean look carefully at issues and make considered decisions about them that are in the best interests of the country, accepting that sometimes those decisions may conflict with our personal views.

Or do we elect people who try to anticipate what a majority of us feel about any given situation? Bearing in mind that this is not real governance, but is simply a means of seeking and holding power.

I prefer the former: active government, in which ministers decide on policy, then seek to convince people of the merits of that approach through open and reasoned argument, or sometimes makes a tough decision even after the people have not been convinced. This is the only way that really difficult decisions facing the country, such as NZ's response to climate change and peak oil, can be dealt with.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/16/2007 04:48:00 PM


I have posted on my blog on my view that you have misinterpreted my post that you cite in this post. Have a look if you like.

Craig et al, in that post I also note my own weariness with the style the government sometimes adopts. I don't think it does it because it is cynical or arrogant. I just don't think they are very good at thinking about it - that they get caught up in the policy debates, and sometimes forget what it looks like from outside the system.

That's not to excuse it, because to do even this isn't particularly excusable. I do know most of these people. Cynical and arrogant they ain't, but wrapped up in the bubble and the rush - they are, all too often.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/16/2007 05:06:00 PM

Labour's not leading because it's exhausted the initiatives it thinks it can get through Parliament. It's just going to be one long drift until 2008.


Posted by Anonymous : 4/16/2007 05:06:00 PM

Strategist: a mixture of both. We don't surrender all input, Hobbesean-style, as the first model suggests; but at the same time we don't expect politicians to be mere slaves of public opinion.

The idea of actually engaging with the public is key here. If politicians have a contentious policy, I expect them to go out there, argue for it, and try and convince us. They may fail, but the mere act of trying is important in a democracy. It's taking the public, and the idea of democratic governance and popular consent, seriously. And of course, they might succeed, in which case there are some political benefits. Unfortunately, labour seems to have given up on this - and as someone who takes democracy seriously, and who also thinks some of their policies have merit and that the public could be convinced, that pisses me off.

M'Lud: I wouldn't quite say "exhausted" - there will be stuff after the budget, including election funding reform and climate change - but there are definite constraints due to their coalition arrangements. What Labour can do is constrained by the minor parties - but what the minor parties can do is in turn partly constrained by public opinion (this applies more to Peter Dunne than it does to Winston; Winston has a core constituency which he represents; Dunne at least pretends to be the voice of "middle New Zealand", and so if middle NZ changes its mind, he does too. We've seen this on student loans and allowances, and on climate change...)

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 4/16/2007 05:32:00 PM

I/S - yes, agree with what you say re. a mix of both approaches.

Another aspect of the problem may be that the forums through which politicians choose to engage with the public are not conducive to arguing and debating complex issues, e.g., 3-minute prime time tv appearances, carefully stage-managed visits to kindergartens, focus groups.

Jordan's comment - about politicians getting "caught up in the policy debates" pretty much summed up the problem. This, of course, is debate in a very narrow sense - involving a handful of ministers, political advisers, and senior public servants, plus a clutch of briefing papers. It's a very cosy and comfortable system, and makes it easy for ministers to avoid real debate.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/16/2007 05:56:00 PM

Jordan: I think your caveat is covered by my noting that you made a valid point about the limits of political power. I don't think parties have limitless capacity to change public opinion - but they have some (and looking at national's performance over the past yearm rather more than you seem to admit). That aside, what's clear is that Labour isn't even trying. No matter how you explain it (beltway syndrome is also an explanation), I think we both agree that its a failing.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 4/16/2007 06:28:00 PM

I think there's a pressing need to reform the system before the next election

Maybe, but it now appears that their chances of bringing in state funding before the next election are non-existent. I suggest this is largely because the way they went about it stank to high heaven.

If they'd set up an independent commission a year ago instead of trying to covertly game the system they'd probably be voting in bi-partisan state funding legislation as we speak.

Posted by Danyl : 4/16/2007 09:35:00 PM

The dangers of complacency must have alerted the unctuous state to the fact, that a large percentage of disgruntled constituents are hacked off with this encroaching government, who are intent on eroding civil liberties. I am appalled and disillusioned by their lack of decency.

Posted by dad4justice : 4/16/2007 10:15:00 PM

Jim Anderton is good at engaging with the public and arguing a case based on principles and evidence. He gave a couple of thoughtful, candid speeches over the summer that penetrated my cynicism about politicians. But he was jumped on by the media for showing independence in a comment on foreign policy while acting as duty minister. So it isn't just the Labour leadership that keeps government MPs from showing a bit of spirit.

Margaret Wilson is another who can lead and argue forcefully for a policy. I think her talents are wasted in the Speaker's role.

I also think right wing hatemongers should take some of the responsibility for Labour's leaders not being more forthright, as should those politicians who shamelessly pander to bigots, hoping to get their vote. And the media, for playing up the dark side of life and encouraging the impression promoted by the rabid right that NZ is going to hell in a handbasket under Labour. Perhaps being a small target is a good option under those circumstances. But it can't be good over the longer term. I, too, would like to see the Labour-led government actually lead.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/16/2007 10:41:00 PM

Strategist: they have other options - press releases and policy documents for one, speeches to industry for another. The media reports on these, they distill and quote the essential points. An argument can be made (and now is being made for electoral transparency, finally). The question is why they so often choose not to do it.

(I should point out that one area where the government is making an effort is climate change. Of course, there their discussion documents and public consultations get labelled a waste of time, rather than an essential exercise in democracy).

Danyl: while I'd like to see state funding, if the numbers aren't there, they're not there. And what's really important at the moment is significantly better transparency and enforcement.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 4/17/2007 12:34:00 AM

I/S - Mark Burton announced on Morning Report this morning that the enforcement issues will not be dealt with until after the next election. So all that is left is "transparency" - but without any way for such transparency rules to be properly enforced!

Posted by Anonymous : 4/17/2007 10:00:00 AM