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Chris Carter’s Hypocritical ‘Coup’ Sledge

October 11, 2010 1 comment

Chris Carter is not a bad person.  I am on the record as blaming Jonathan Hunt for his downfall which, to be honest,  is a fairly generous interpretation of events.

But, Chris, Chris, Chris….what on earth are you talking about when you compare your conduct favorably to Phil Goff’s attempted “coup” against Helen Clark in 1996?  Are you really, truly going there?

This nonsense begs to be debunked.

First, it is not an offense within a political party to support an alternative to the incumbent Parliamentary leader.  It is an internal Party matter, and fair game for all concerned.

It would be an offense if Phil Goff and others were secretly supporting another political party — and no-one is leveling that charge.

Phil Goff was joined by at least half of his colleagues in 1996 in believing that Helen Clark was leading Labour to electoral defeat, which she promptly did.  There were two reasons for her survival:

  1. Clark’s inspired last-minute promotion of Micheal Cullen, a key coup lieutenant, to deputy leader (hat-tip, HC!)
  2. While a majority of Labour MPs supported dumping Clark, they fell just short in securing a plurality for either alternative, Goff or Mike Moore.

That is what happened. I am a primary source.

Chris Carter had a secret poll taken in ’96 to ascertain whether he could hold Te Atatu with Clark at the helm.  I know this because I conducted the poll.  The results were unequivocal: Carter would lose big time, which he went on to do.  Chris was not keen on backing Mike Moore — a figure of derision on his side of the Party — but his clear preference was for Goff to run.  The numbers, however, forced Mike Moore’s name into the race.

Based on conversations he and I had at the time, I have every reason to believe that Carter was supportive of a Goff ‘coup’ in 1996.  Plenty of people know this, including Goff himself, and it is to their credit that they keep quiet.   For my part, I am tired of the sanctimony of people — Carter being the latest–  who try and misrepresent those events as treachery.  Leadership spills happen, some for good reason, some for ill.  Some succeed, like Clark in 1993; some fail, like 1996.  Such is politics.  The tendency within NZ Labour to vilify the vanquished in these internal party disputes is not entirely non-Stalinist.

Carter shouldn’t be allowed to get away with such shameless hypocrisy. Surely?

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Kiwiblog Manages Mana Meme Marvelously

October 9, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

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Repost: The Senescence of NZ Local Government

October 7, 2010 3 comments

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.

I was saddened but not surprised to hear that Bob Tizard, 87,  who served as New Zealand’s deputy prime minister briefly in the mid-1970’s, was spending a lot of time in hospitals around Auckland.  And then  I realised it wasn’t as a patient.

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.

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Blame Jonathan “Treasure” Hunt for Carter’s Woes

October 2, 2010 1 comment

Former NZ government ministers, even the disgraced ones, are not known for writing best-sellers. Richard Prebble shifted a few copies of I’ve Been Thinking some years back, but it wasn’t really a memoir in the traditional sense; it was more of a well-aimed polemic capitalising on the knowledge that the Ayn Rand set may be small in number but they buy a lot of books. (This is because only bound, self-contained volumes lend credence to ideas unable to withstand even the faintest waft of reality).

Michael Bassett has sold a book or two, and so has Geoffrey Palmer, but the former’s day job is historian and author and the latter is an overbearing windbag with claims to all kinds of specialist expertise (he was also, briefly, albeit not briefly enough, PM).

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule: discarded NZ politicians have all the book-selling prowess of provincial cricketers who make a handful of performances for the the national side thanks to a combination of poor selection and serendipitous injuries to more talented players. You know who I’m talking about, Chris Kuggeleijn.

Disgraced Labour MP, Chris Carter, is apparently threatening to write a tell-all book that he hopes will buck this trend. I can see why Carter would like to write such a book — it is 300 uninterrupted pages where he gets to defend himself while badmouthing his enemies — but I defy you to find a single living human being who could summon the energy to read a single page of it. I suspect even an autistic savant who could theoretically read such a book in under three minutes would rather spend the time watching ads between Two and Half Men re-runs.

When I knew Chris, we got along quite well on a personal level. It was always problematic for him to be seen with me because of my outsized reputation in the mid-late nineties (and again these days, I am told) as possessing in Labour circles something akin to the mark of Satan.  While I liked him personally, there is no point denying that Chris is an intellectual light-weight and a craven opportunist — but he is far from Robinson Crusoe in this respect. The same criticism could be leveled without fear of contradiction at all but a very small handful of his colleagues in every corner of the Parliamentary chamber.

I have been flummoxed by Carter’s conduct of late because he never seemed especially venal or unstable, at least not in my presence. How could this happen? What or who is to blame?

To resolve this mild bout of cognitive dissonance, I have concluded that Chris Carter is the product of a bad environment and thus we can chalk this case up for Nurture in its never-ending tug-of-war with Nature. There is nothing inherently defective about Carter as a person. However, events in his formative years as an MP set him on this destructive course. Let me explain.

Chris Carter arrived as MP for Te Atatu at the height (or in the depths) of the ethical reign of Jonathan Hunt, former Labour Minister, whip and speaker.   Since the seventies, Hunt had been the unrivalled godfather of NZ Labour parliamentary standards and numero uno at the porcine trough.  It is under Hunt’s watchful eye that fresh Parliamentary recruits like Carter were inducted into a culture of entitlement maximisation and ethical boundary-riding.  Hunt has never had a policy thought in his life, and finds them unbecoming in others.  For him and his acolytes, a career in Parliament is a prolonged treasure hunt — and the objective is to find new and elaborate ways to uncover and exploit taxpayer-funded goodies: trips and freebies, loopholes and largesse.  I have no doubt this disgusted Helen Clark — who is nothing if not ruthlessly ethical — but Hunt’s utility as a skilled inside player, prolific gossip and unnaturally gifted toady outweighed the downside enough to earn her forbearance and patronage.

Chris Carter spent too many years under Hunt’s wing. There were too many evenings in whatever exquisitely appointed office Hunt occupied at the time; too many well-blended G&Ts raised to toast Hunt’s hospitality during his nightly 6 o’clock news viewing parties. Carter, it seems clear, learned far too well the unseemly ethos to be had there.

Perhaps then it should not surprise anyone that the sense of entitlement eventually grew in Carter to the grotesque proportions we witness today. Perhaps the surprise is that more of his colleagues haven’t followed him into the abyss.

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Six Givens, Two Whys: How the Expectations Game Favours Nats in Mana

September 28, 2010 3 comments

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:

  1. 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;
  2. And that the party vote margin favours Labour by only 2,500 votes or so;
  3. And that the National Party candidate is a Mana-based list MP who carries an element of incumbency;
  4. And that the PM is riding a wave of popularity, buoyed by a post-quake glow;
  5. And that the turnout in a by-election will be lower than a General Election by many thousands;
  6. And that low turnout is traditionally very bad news for Labour…

And two whys:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

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Mired in Controversy

September 22, 2010 Leave a comment

You will notice in the clip below that I am introduced first as “a controversial former member of the Labour Party in Mana” and then as the author of a “controversial blog”. What on earth have I done to deserve the use of the c-word twice in a matter of seconds? The doubling up of certain adjectives can be troubling. Take the phrase “fascinating guy”, for example. Used once, it is straight-forward, as in:

That Stephen Fry is a fascinating guy

Double up and you end up with:

That Stephen Fry is such a fascinating guy, with a fascinating past.

This makes you think that there is something a bit strange about Stephen Fry, or that person ostensibly praising him is either being a little sarcastic or trying to convey a hidden meaning.

Or take this:

Richie McCaw is a very clever rugby player.

We can all applaud such an insight, but how about:

Richie McCaw is very clever on the field. Very clever indeed.

This is now a sledge, a roundabout way of calling McCaw a cheat.

I would have been happy with one use of controversial — to be honest, I think it is fair given my central role in the failed 1996 coup attempt against then Labour leader and now-icon-of-the-international-left, Helen Clark.  And, after all, it’s lot better than the opposite:  I have no interest in being an uncontroversial former staffer who write uncontroversial blog posts But two controversials — in precisely ten seconds? That conveys more than just a little disputatiousness on my part.

If you’re intersted in the whole story from TV3’s “The Battle for Mana”, here it is.

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Always Rated Him…

September 18, 2010 1 comment

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.

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