New Zealand’s smash-hit politics and current affairs site, Kiwiblog, wears its National Party allegiance lightly. Founder, David Farrar, keeps his conservative politics in check and gives credit where it’s due across the political spectrum. This ecumenical approach has won his site a wide and diverse following.
On the question of the Mana by-election, however, it is tough not to conclude that Kiwiblog is doing some hard yards for the National Party. This post is the latest effort to portray Mana as all but unwinnable for National when nothing could be further from the truth. I have written earlier about how Labour has strangely opted out of the expectations game in Mana — and have thereby allowed the Kiwiblog meme to take hold. This is an unfortunate — and unforced — strategic capitulation on Labour’s part.
I feel obliged to fly the flag for the Mana Labour Party here: this by-election is an uphill slog and National have at least an even chance. First, however, is Farrar’s case:
- 1. The history of by-elections in New Zealand suggests a government pick-up is unlikely (weak)
2. The turnout is likely to be low (weaker)
3. Key’s popularity won’t translate into vote-switches (weakest)
Kiwiblog deserves credit for allowing that the chance of a National pick-up is not nil, a modest but notable shift on its part. Perhaps, by November, Farrar and I will meet in the middle somewhere — but not yet. Here’s why I think his argument doesn’t stack up:
- 1. While history is useful as a general guide on these matters, I don’t see the same definitive pattern Farrar does. Admittedly, my research is limited to a couple of hours’ wading through old election results and Wikipedia snippets (as well as my frail and fractured memory), but nothing suggests that the Mana by-election is bound to any immutable historical precedent. The current political climate is a far more compelling guide — and far less comforting for Labour. If we agree that 2,500 is the nominal margin, National could achieve it without breaking a sweat — given the right conditions.
- 2. This brings me to the genius at the heart of Farrar’s argument: he concedes that the political conditions are indeed favourable to National but pivots with breathtaking speed to suggest that this will not translate electorally:
- “…the PM is a popular Prime Minister, but being popular doesn’t necessarily mean voters will want to take a seat off the Opposition and give it to the Government as a thank you note.”
I can’t help but admire the audacity here. Of course John Key’s popularity will help National’s chances in Mana, and to suggest otherwise is just spin. You could argue that it won’t help enough to overcome a 2,500 vote margin but it flies in the face of common sense to suggest that people will vote against the government they support in favour of an opposition they don’t for clever-sticks tactical reasons. Voters don’t “take a seat off” the incumbent party as if playing chess; they make a choice based on who they support at the time. And this time, I would suggest, the popularity of the Key Government will translate, straight-forwardly enough, to a some degree of vote-switching. Enough for Mana to change hands? I suspect so, but hope not.
3. If the “National Can’t Win” crowd keep saying a low turn-out is good news for Labour I may be forced to conclude that they actually believe it. This notion strikes me as so completely bogus that I can’t really see the point in rebutting it, except for this: Mana/Porirua had a low-stakes, low turnout election as recently as yesterday. Take a look at the outcome of that and do, as the Columbia University students whose wifi I am currently thieving might put it, the math.
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?
My post yesterday regarding the nomination of Kris Faafoi for the Mana by-election prompted a strong reaction from a handful of people. Calling it hate-mail would make me as guilty of hyperbole as the people reporting “looting” in Christchurch; it was more dislike-quite-a-lot mail. I have been training people for years not to repeat negatives, so I am not going to do so here. I will, however, respond to a few barbs in no particular order (they know who they are):
1. Yes, this is not news: I came out in 1997 (and hardly keep it a secret)
2. Well, I can’t really disagree with that. I have been travelling a lot, and my diet has been all over the place.
3. No, I don’t want to be the MP for Mana. Perish the thought. The idea of all the prize-givings, rubber-chicken fundraisers, forced bonhomie and Bellamys food makes me nauseous. I am also no longer a resident of NZ for electoral or any other purposes, nor a Party member here .
4. I did not do that!
5. Read my lips: it is not disloyal to oppose a particular candidate in an internal ballot; disloyalty would be supporting another Party. Harden up.
6. I might have done that, but I must have been drunk at the time.
7. I didn’t even know that was anatomically possible and, if it is, I am not nearly flexible, or otherwise equipped, enough.
On a serious note: I have absolutely nothing against Kris Faafoi. He is no doubt a great guy with excellent communications skills and myriad other talents. He certainly has youth on his side. I just happen to believe that Mana is both a prize and a challenge — it therefore deserves a candidate worthy of the former and up to the latter. In my opinion, I don’t believe Mr. Faafoi reaches that bar…yet. He has only just joined the Party and expressed an interest in pursuing public life. Not even the lowest-skilled trade offers a 30-day apprenticeship. There will be opportunities galore in years to come for Mr. Faafoi.