The NZ local body elections are on Saturday. I thought I would repost this from August, back when no-one was reading my blog. It seems to raise a legitimate point.
Tizard, who first entered the NZ Parliament in 1957, is running for a second term on the Auckland District Health Board, which means that his political career exceeds in longevity that of Fidel Castro. I point this out not to make light of Tizard’s many contributions to New Zealand public life, but to highlight a serious and growing problem with local body politics in New Zealand: the transformation of city, district and regional Councils, as well as health boards, into gold-plated retirement homes for politicians past their prime.
In 1989, the Labour Government of Geoffrey Palmer drastically increased the remuneration levels for government politicians. This was a neat policy trick that satisfied both Labour’s desire for more diversity among elected officials and Treasury’s hope for a higher calibre. At the time, I could not have agreed more.
I was a 19-year old candidate for Porirua City Council’s Tairangi ward, an election I won in a thumping landslide. This result, it has to be said, was entirely unrelated to diversity or calibre: I was a Labour candidate in an area that would have elected me even if I had spent the entire election campaign in hiding; and many voters understandably confused me for my father, a recently retired and beloved local headmaster with whom I share both surname and initials. I retired from Council two and a half years into my first and only term, ending one of the shortest and least consequential political careers in NZ history. I am, if you like, the anti-Tizard.
Michael Fowler’s widely-reported decision, at age eighty, to run for Council three decades after retiring as Mayor of Wellington doesn’t even rate as strange in the scheme of things. Across the country, we are witnessing a stampede of semi-retired politicians in time for October’s local elections.
In the race for Wellington Regional Council alone, there are four ex-MP’s in the running (Fran Wilde, John Terris, Paul Swain and Chris Laidlaw), three ex-Mayors (Jenny Brash, John Burke and Rex Kirton) and two who have been both (Terris and Wilde).
After entering the race for the Porirua Mayoralty, former Lange Government Minister, Russell Marshall, was quick to accuse his critics of ‘ageism’ as if there weren’t plenty of other reasons to oppose his quixotic candidacy. (His slightly younger brother, Kerry, is running for re-election as Mayor of Nelson, perhaps on a platform on relative youthfulness). Elsewhere, Mark Burton, Martin Gallagher, Harry Duynhoven and George Hawkins have all jumped into local races.
There are three reasons why New Zealand’s political elite so eagerly parachute into local government.
Firstly, politicians with well-established name recognition generally prevail in these elections because the policy stakes are low and the voters don’t much care. This ease-of-victory acts as a great incentive for would-be has-beens looking for a next step.
The second reason relates to what Gareth Evans (who employed me as an advisor at the tail-end of his splendid career as Australia’s Attorney-General, Foreign Minister and Deputy Opposition Leader) coined “relevance deprivation syndrome”. Evans, referring to his own experience after 13 years in government, gave expression to the hollow feeling that grips politicians as power dissipates and the limelight recedes. Local government treats these withdrawal symptoms. It acts as a kind of methadone programme for recovering politicians.
The third and most powerful explanation for this phenomenon is — to put it bluntly — cash. Parliamentary superannuation in New Zealand is modest by international standards, and even the longest-serving New Zealand Mayor is left with nothing after leaving office. New Zealand is not replete with seats on lucrative corporate boards or academic sinecures for the retired political class, in stark contrast to the US or even Australia. Consulting or lobbying is rarely an option, either. As New Zealand political figures exit the main stage and seek ways to remain active and cashed-up, local government is often the solitary piece of low-hanging fruit.
As long as elected councils and boards offer a generous retirement income, it will be impossible to stop high-profile politicos from hogging the available spots. One radical solution is to starve the beast, and slash remuneration levels to pre-89 levels. This brings its own problems: it will undoubtedly prevent many otherwise excellent candidates from entering the fray, as well as favour the independently wealthy.
A better alternative may be legislated term limits or an enforceable retirement age, but politicians are famously reluctant to sign their own death warrants.
Maybe there is no easy policy solution, but there is something immensely appealing to the idea of clearing the decks, and opening up the second-tier of NZ political power to people who do not recall exactly what they were doing when JFK was shot.
The quake has arrived only a fortnight before ballots are sent to Christchurch voters — which is ideal for an incumbent. He gets to bathe in the “roll up the sleeves, unite and fight” afterglow before it turns ugly when people realise the extent to which the Council is mismanaging the recovery. His incompetence won’t come to light until well after the polls close.
Don’t change horses midstream, the saying goes, and if Parker doesn’t make that sentiment the key focus for the remainder of the campaign, then he doesn’t deserve to win.
To astute Mana-watchers, a National win in the by-election will not be a shock upset — it would not even qualify as much of an upset at all. The political environment in the lead-up to the by-election heavily favours National.
So here’s six givens:
- Given the absence of Winnie Laban on the ballot, the party vote from the last election is the best indication of the respective standings of Labour and National in Mana;
- And that the party vote margin favours Labour by only 2,500 votes or so;
- And that the National Party candidate is a Mana-based list MP who carries an element of incumbency;
- And that the PM is riding a wave of popularity, buoyed by a post-quake glow;
- And that the turnout in a by-election will be lower than a General Election by many thousands;
- And that low turnout is traditionally very bad news for Labour…
And two whys:
- Why has the media mindlessly bought National’s — and their allies in the blogosphere’s — spin that Mana is a “safe Labour seat”, and that winning it will therefore be a Herculean triumph?
- Why has Labour utterly opted out of the expectations game, and allowed the bar to be set so unreachably high?
Phil Goff is a credible alternative PM, and easily the best leadership talent within the Labour caucus. He’s tough, too, but no-one can forever withstand unrelenting waves of bad advice. Allowing the view that Mana is a Labour fortress to take hold is the direct result of an ill-advised political strategy. (It feels both churlish and a little necessary to mention here the recent examples of installing Faafoi’s replacement before the nomination was settled, the heavy-handed treatment of local members by paid political staff, and the Radio Australia debacle — it doesn’t take much to detect a pattern).
Perhaps I am being “controversial” again. I am certain there are elements still in the Labour Party who confuse candour with disloyalty. But, it feels neither disloyal nor controversial to plead via this piss-ant little blog that Labour needs to smarten up and toughen up — or else face not just a loss in the Mana by-election, but a loss far more damaging than it needs to be.
It may have been another despicable parachute-job, but he won under the rules as they stand. That makes him the Labour candidate today, and he has my support.
But Kris Faafoi will lose the Mana by-election if he thinks it will come as easily, or with as many short-cuts, as his dubious path to the nomination.
He must, first and foremost, ask whomever (a) wrote his letter to members, (b) employed his replacement in the leader’s office before he was nominated, (c) put him on Radio Australia, (d) thought it was smart to stack the hall yesterday with advisors and press secretaries on overtime and (e) was responsible for his poor performance at the Q+A, to remove themselves from any position of influence in the campaign.
Then, he should ask Josie Pagani to act as campaign manager. He should make amends with John Burke and others who actually know how to win elections in the area.
Further, he should learn to trust his political instincts a lot less, discover a new line in humility, and knock on every door he can between now and election day. The “let’s not and say we did” approach to doorknocking has been tried before and it never works. Anything else he does is likely to be pointess at least, and most probably counterproductive.
Over and out.
Update: I copped some flak for this post. I respond here.
I have known enough pointless politicians in my time to fill a small stadium, but none wetter or less consequential than Graham Kelly.
Kelly was the member of parliament for the electorate of Porirua, which became Mana, between 1987 and 2002. It was a shockingly mediocre career, marked by the absence of even a single notable achievement. He only became MP in 87 after the trade unions decided the local candidate, All Black legend Ken Gray, was unacceptably “right-wing” and Kelly, an official with the shoppies’ union, was suitably militant and pliable. He was not a resident of Porirua, an extremely multicultural electorate at the time, and, even though he moved there after his election, was never comfortable. Kelly was old-school left, which is to say his racial attitudes were of another century – and I am not talking 20th. A kind person would describe him as “paternalistic” towards the large Maori and Pacific Island segments of his electorate; an unkind person may use a term that rhymes with “bassist”.
It was always my intention to succeed Kelly as Mana’s MP — and it wasn’t an entirely delusional aspiration. I was a Porirua City Councillor at the tender and stupid age of 19, and was something of a power-broker within the electorate. Everything looked on track. Then two forces intervened: first, I became strongly identified with the evil right faction of the Labour Party and hence persona non grata in Helen Clark’s NZ (one smarmy lefty once described me as “the kiss of death” in the NZLP, to which a former leader and “right-wing” identity replied, “well, that must make me the blowjob of death”). And second, I encountered some “personal issues”, culminating in a decade-long bender in Melbourne…a long and tawdry story for another day. Suffice it is to say, I sacrificed my Parliamentary ambitions at the altar of Carlton Draught. Ho-hum. Such is life.
Mana is once again up for grabs and there are two serious candidates seeking the nod. One of them, Kris Faafoi, is a press secretary to Phil Goff, Labour’s current leader (and, full disclosure, Goff is an old mate of mine — although we haven’t spoken in a while). I am sure Faafoi is a tremendously capable guy, but his candidacy annoys me. Here’s five reasons why:
1. I have seen a letter he has sent to branch members. The complacency and sense of entitlement reflected therein is reason enough to vote for anyone but him. His candidacy, judging by his letter, is entirely about him, and the local party members are expected to fulfill the role of fawning pawns.
2. He is neither fish nor fowl. Faafoi is neither a local candidate with strong Party credentials nor a celebrity vote-magnet. I am not someone who rejects outright the idea of parachuting in well-known identities to contest by-elections, and Faafoi , a former TV reporter, has pretensions toward such a category — but he falls way short. His fame is ankle-deep and is worth precisely no votes for Labour.
3. I gather from well-placed sources that Faafoi first considered becoming an MP two weeks ago. Call me old-fashioned, but the Labour Party should not reward such fly-by-night ambitions with (nominally) safe seats. If he has harboured no political ambitions for all but two weeks of his charmed life, then it begs the question: how much time has he dedicated to learning about public policy and preparing himself for Parliament? None, I would venture to guess.
4. The Porirua/Mana electorate has been treated like a prison-bitch by the Labour Party for too long. Outsiders like Faafoi, Laban (the retiring member), Kelly and his predecessor, Wall, have represented the seat since its creation. If Faafoi thinks that having family members in the electorate adds up to something, then he is more naive than I thought (and I thought he was quite naive to start with).
5. The NZLP should stop looking at 20-year old census data: Mana is not the overwhelmingly Islander-dominated seat they think it is. Since the expansion of the electorate for MMP, it now encompasses large white, middle class suburbs of the kind Labour ought to be very nervous about (from the formerly marginal seats of Kapiti and Western Hutt). The instinct to back Faafoi purely on ethnic grounds is patronising and simplistic — but it is also strategically misguided.
Labour could lose the Mana by-election, especially given Key’s post-earthquake glow. The wrong candidate choice could doom their chances — and I see enough evidence to believe that Faafoi could be such a choice.
**UPDATE** IT TURNS OUT THAT NAPOLEON ATTEMPTED TO INVADE RUSSIA IN THE AUTUMN, NOT THE WINTER, AND IT WAS NOT THE WEATHER THAT FOILED HIM. SO MY HISTORICAL ANALOGY SUCKS. THIS APPEARS TO HAVE UPSET SOME PEOPLE — OKAY, ONE PERSON — BUT I CAN ONLY OFFER MY SINCEREST APOLOGY. I WAS SO POLITICALLY CORRECT BACK IN UNI THAT I AVOIDED EUROPEAN HISTORY AS A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE — TO MY ENDLESS REGRET.
Embattled Mana nominee Kris Faafoi has taken to Radio Australia to press his case. Radio Australia.
Is this poor guy getting the worst political advice since someone told Napoleon to invade Russia in winter?
[What I should have said was: Is this poor guy getting the worst political advice since Abe Lincoln’s arts adviser suggested he reach out more to the live theater community?]
First, they are in such a rush to shunt him into Mana, his backers have appointed his replacement in the Labour leader’s office before he has even won the nomination. Next, they send him to a the candidate’s Q&A forum ill-prepared and underwhelming. Now the global PR strategy: “Here’s an idea, Kris: the locals in Mana think you’re a fly-by-nighter and a carpetbagger — do as many interviews with foreign broadcasters as you can!”
I have given a lot of poorly conceived advice to politicians over the years, but — by and large — I was intoxicated at the time. What is their excuse?
I chatted to a TV3 journalist yesterday to discuss my earlier post about the Mana nomination. She mentioned that there is a Question and Answer session for the candidates on Saturday. I won’t be there for a whole raft of reasons, foremost among which is that I will no longer be in the country. But it got me thinking, what would I ask if I had the chance to pose a single question? Thus, my shortest radio play yet.
The sounds of a meeting coming to order; the chairman gavels proceedings.
PQ: My question is directed to Kris Faafoi. First, let me welcome you to the Labour Party; it’s always great to see new members. Mr Faafoi, there are widespread and detailed rumours to the effect that, prior to your current role, you had applied to become press secretary for a National Party Minister. My question begs a simple yes or no answer: if this is true, and you had been successful in your attempts to work as a National Party spin-doctor, would you be standing here now?