Skip to content

On the Labour leadership election

Critics of Labour’s electoral college system should be careful with their logic.

There’s been a lot of commentary about how perverse it is that Andrew Little won the Labour leadership pretty much because of support in the unions. I sympathise, but if that’s why it’s a problem that Mr Little won, it’s worth asking exactly what you want from the voting system.

Here’s the thing: Whenever you grant any person, group or other actor any right to vote, you must accept that there is at least some circumstance in which they can single-handedly change the outcome. If there isn’t, then there’s literally zero—not just negligible—chance of impact from the vote, so why would you bother with it?

So when Labour’s electoral college gives the unions any weight greater than zero, it must expect that a situation like today’s, where a candidate lost the caucus and membership but still won the leadership, is possible. Conversely, if it bothers you that Mr Little basically rode in on union support, then you have to advocate that the unions should have no say in the Labour leadership at all.

Now, to be honest, this is pretty much my position, and I’m sure commentators outraged at how the result was achieved would agree. But this requires more than just the observation that the unions don’t agree with caucus or the membership. The fact that there’s a split in opinion there doesn’t imply that the unions are wrong.

The question of whether the unions should have a say can be answered only by asking what the Labour Party is supposed to be about. The Labour Party has its roots in the trade unions, so it’s not outrageous to suggest that they have a stake in the leadership. History isn’t alone good reason, though. The Labour Party is supposed to be a government-in-waiting (or ideally, a government), and there’s a strong argument that any formalised union influence detracts from that role.

This all also means that the fact that Mr Little had 76% union support in the final round isn’t part of the argument. If you want to give unions weight, then presumably you’d accept that the stronger one’s support there, the bigger the potential impact it should have on the final outcome. (I suppose you could have a winner-takes-all scheme like America’s Electoral College, but I hope you’ll agree that’s much worse.) People keep pointing to the numbers as if the extent of the union victory has some particular impact on the result’s legitimacy. Yet I bet if the caucus, members and unions were all close, and it was ultimately the unions that got Mr Little over the line, these critics would still all be saying the same thing

The only qualitative argument I can think of is that Mr Little’s support came about because of his former role as a union boss, so the unions were installing “one of their own”. Perhaps it would be better if Labour’s electors tried to be more objective, but presumably the unions were backing Mr Little because they actually thought he’d do a good job. How is the fact that that belief came from prior experience any different to any other support based on prior work someone’s done with a candidate?

The problem isn’t that the numbers fell a certain way. It’s that Labour instituted a leadership system that obsesses so much with itself that it insists accountability to a weird numerical mash-up of three distinct, and often clashing, parts. If we want to leave one part out of it, then use substantive arguments about why the unions shouldn’t matter, not just an observation that they can, and do, sway the result.

A growing swing to the left in the special votes

The Greens and Labour have been doing increasingly well in the special votes, and National increasingly poorly.

I did a projection, based on the 2011 results, that the Greens probably wouldn’t pick up the extra seat they often do from special votes. But I didn’t call it a prediction, partly because I didn’t intend it to be, but also because the numbers had the Greens only narrowly missing out on that 14th seat. So if the Greens had pushed just a tad further and made it over the line, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I said it was going to be close.

As it happened, it wasn’t close. The Greens had nearly 5,000 votes to spare.

Party Preliminary Projected final Project vs prelim Actual final Actual vs project Actual vs prelim
% Seats % Seats % Seats
National 48.06% 61 47.36% 61 -0.69% 47.04% 60 -0.33% -1.02%
Labour 24.69% 32 25.11% 32 +0.42% 25.13% 32 +0.02% +0.44%
Greens 10.02% 13 10.52% 13 +0.50% 10.70% 14 +0.18% +0.67%
NZ First 8.85% 11 8.54% 11 -0.30% 8.66% 11 +0.12% -0.19%
Māori 1.29% 2 1.38% 2 +0.09% 1.32% 2 -0.06% +0.04%
Act 0.69% 1 0.69% 1 -0.00% 0.69% 1 +0.01% +0.00%
UF 0.22% 1 0.21% 1 -0.00% 0.22% 1 +0.01% +0.00%
Conservative 4.12% 0 3.93% 0 -0.19% 3.97% 0 +0.04% -0.15%
IM 1.26% 0 1.39% 0 +0.12% 1.42% 0 +0.03% +0.16%

To be more specific: The Greens saw their 14th seat shoot not just past National’s 61st, but also past its 60th, to become the 119th quotient. This meant the Greens had room to spare: 4,873 votes less (with no redistribution) and they would’ve stayed on 13, or National would have needed 21,836 more to get to 61. (This is more than the ~18,800 “votes per seat” because National also has the 120th quotient.) For comparison, my projection had the Greens needing 1,139 more than projected to pick up a 14th seat.

Changes in context
What happened? I suggested there were reasons why the specials might swing further left in my projection post:

  • The number of overseas voters doubled this election compared to 2011.
  • Some universities had on-campus polling booths, where a lot of students would have cast advance special votes.

Further on the second point, as Jonathan Marshall suggested on Twitter, unlike 2011′s, this election was during the university semester so more students would have been outside their electorates in the first place.

But I certainly didn’t expect any combination of these effects to add to 5,000 more votes for the Greens alone, so I suspect there’s something else. Also, those reasons are just speculation. For all we know, it could even be related to migration patterns (including domestic migration), though I don’t know that those have actually been changing. The full statistics that the Electoral Commission will release in about two weeks might offer a bit more insight, but it’s hard to discern.

A growing swing since 2008
Beneath this swing, there might be an underlying trend. The Greens have traditionally done well on special votes, of course. But they’re doing increasingly better on specials than they used to, at least since 2008. (I couldn’t easily find preliminary results for 2005.)

special-votes-trend-2

The first set of columns is the special vote percentage divided by the preliminary result (so < 1 means a drop), and the second set is the difference between the specials (not total) and preliminary result in percentage points.

Now, take the sparklines with a grain of salt. The scales aren’t consistent between cells, and they each only have three data points anyway.* Also, the two sets of columns are just different measures for the same phenomenon, so the fact that it happens twice adds no weight. (I did both while trying to find a more consistent predictor of special vote impact, and couldn’t.)

But they do broadly indicate an improving trend for Labour and the Greens, and the opposite for National. And the trend isn’t small. In 2008, National lost 0.52 points from specials; this year, they lost 1.02 points. The Greens have gone from gaining 0.29 points to 0.67 points. One seat’s “worth of votes” is roughly 0.83 per cent, a bit less if you allow for wasted votes.

If I were in the National Party, I’d be concerned about this trend. As it stands, National is generally expected to lose a seat to the Greens on specials. But the Greens are getting increasingly good at this, and are picking up the seat even when the numbers suggest the increase won’t be enough.

Spreadsheet
For people who like numbers, here’s the spreadsheet I used for these calculations: Special vote impact projection 2014. It’s an extended version of the projection spreadsheet I posted earlier.


*Although there are only three data points, they are reliable since they are true by definition, not a sample. (Turnout is interesting for other reasons, but it’s the final result that matters here.) I’d be more worried about short-term circumstances giving the illusion of a long-term trend. The value of adding anything before 2005 might be questionable though, since the situation a decade ago might lose relevance to today.

The minimum swing needed in the special votes for the Greens to steal that seat

A 4.6-point swing in specials relative to preliminary, about 0.6 points more than my projection, would get the Greens a 14th seat at National’s expense. But even less might be sufficient.

I think a projection, which I posted yesterday, is more useful information that the “minimum required swing” calculations that I did for the 2011 election. But if anyone is interested in knowing exactly what the Greens need to clear the bar, here is that spreadsheet I did in 2011, updated with 2014 data: Required changes in special votes to steal seats, 2014 election.

I won’t go through all the various possibilities. If you’re curious, feel free to do that yourself using the spreadsheet. The situation that is most interesting, because (other than no change) it’s most likely, is where the Greens would pick up a 14th seat in exchange for National’s 61st (and absolute majority).

The Greens would need to swing +4.60 points in the special votes alone (not total votes), relative to the preliminary count, to take a seat. I have them projected to swing +4.05 points, so this isn’t unrealistic.

Here’s the catch: In the preliminary results, Labour has the 120th quotient and National the 119th. This means that Labour would lose a seat before National. So they need to gain a little to make sure it’s National, not them, who loses the seat. This isn’t hard: they’re 561 votes away (relative to an assumption that specials are distributed identically to preliminary), or +0.19 points. My projection has them well ahead of this.

So the “minimum change required” situation has both Labour and the Greens taking from National. You’ll notice in the table below that the Greens don’t actually need National to lose as much as it did in my projection: -4.79 points, not as much as my projected loss of -5.58 points.

In terms of absolute votes, this is a swing of 1,648 relative to my projection. I said in my last post that 1,129 votes more would suffice. The assumptions behind these figures are different. The projection margin (1,129) assumes that the Greens only gain votes, and no-one loses any, i.e. it’s likely to be an overestimate (not by double though—the equivalent National loss is 5,058). The “minimum required” swing (1,648 relative to projection) assumes that all other parties perform in the specials identically to the preliminary result. Historically (and hence in my projection) most left-wing parties do better in the specials at National’s expense, and these help the Greens too. So this is also likely to be an overestimate, probably more so.

So really, the most important hope for the Greens to hang on to is that they will perform about 0.6 points, or maybe (depending on what else happens) even just 0.35 points, better in the special votes than the 2011 swings might imply.* As I said in my last post, it’s certainly possible, but it’ll be very close. If I were Steffan Browning or Maureen Pugh, I’d have a very nervous two weeks ahead.

Party Preliminary Projection Special required Change on prelim Change on projection Total required Change on prelim
National 48.06% 42.48% < 43.26% -4.79% +0.79% < 47.47% -0.59%
Labour 24.69% 28.10% > 24.88% +0.19% -3.22% > 24.71% +0.02%
Green 10.02% 14.07% > 14.63% +4.60% +0.56% > 10.59% +0.57%

* My projection applies the 2011 preliminary-to-special swings multiplicatively, not additively, to the 2014 preliminary result. A full method description is in the post describing the projection.

Projection of special votes for the 2014 election

On my projection for the 2014 special votes, based on the 2011 impact, the Greens will miss out on a 14th seat by a whisker and National will retain its outright majority. Maybe.

I crunched some numbers to project (I didn’t say “predict”) the impact of special votes. I suspect most of you will just want to know the answer, so I’ll cut to the chase first, then give a bit of analysis, then give a bit more details, and I’ll talk about my method fourth.

Special votes include, among other things, overseas votes and votes cast for a different electorate to the polling place location. They aren’t counted on election night; they’re just set aside for the full count released two weeks later. And they’re not normally representative of the vote as a whole. Historically, special votes have favoured the Greens significantly—they have often picked up an extra seat from it, as they did in 2011.

The most fundamental assumption I make is that you can use the 2011 impact of the special votes as a guide to the 2014 impact. Some other minor assumptions will become apparent in the method description at the end.

Summary
Basically, on my projection, the results would stay the same. The Greens will get closer to a 14th seat, but because on the preliminary results they only just got their 13th one, special votes won’t propel them far enough for a 14th. However, they will be tantalisingly close, moving their 14th seat to the 121st quotient.

Party Preliminary results Projected final results Gain/loss
Votes % Seats Vote % Seats
National Party 1,010,464 48.06% 61 1,136,155 47.37% 61 -0.69%
Labour Party 519,146 24.69% 32 602,304 25.11% 32 +0.42%
Green Party 210,764 10.02% 13 252,394 10.52% 13 +0.50%
New Zealand First Party 186,031 8.85% 11 204,919 8.54% 11 -0.30%
Māori Party 27,074 1.29% 2 33,134 1.38% 2 +0.09%
ACT New Zealand 14,510 0.69% 1 16,685 0.70% 1 +0.01%
United Future 4,533 0.22% 1 5,098 0.21% 1 -0.00%
Conservative 86,616 4.12% 0 94,357 3.93% 0 -0.19%
Internet MANA 26,539 1.26% 0 32,826 1.37% 0 +0.11%
Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party 8,539 0.41% 0 10,894 0.45% 0 +0.05%
Ban1080 4,368 0.21% 0 4,992 0.21% 0 +0.00%
Democrats for Social Credit 1,609 0.08% 0 1,983 0.08% 0 +0.01%
The Civilian Party 906 0.04% 0 1,035 0.04% 0 +0.00%
NZ Independent Coalition 895 0.04% 0 1,023 0.04% 0 +0.00%
Focus New Zealand 677 0.03% 0 774 0.03% 0 +0.00%

I project the Green gain to be 0.50%, and the National loss to be 0.69%. In a lot of cases, this can be enough to win and lose a seat, respectively: one seat is roughly 0.8% of the vote (0.83% if you ignore “wasted” votes), so it’s easy to imagine that another 0.5% might push you over.

But in this election, it wouldn’t be enough. The reason is that, in the preliminary results, the Greens only just made their 13th seat: it was the 118th quotient, i.e., the 118th seat to be allocated. National, on the other hand, has some room to slack before losing a seat—in fact, it would have picked up the 121st quotient, if there was one. In effect, the Greens would need to pick up to nearly a “whole seat” worth of votes to pick up seat number 14.

In my projection, the Greens nearly get there, but not quite. They move their 14th seat from the 127th quotient to the 121st. So if there was one more seat in Parliament, it would be theirs. And they’re very close: with 1,129 votes more (all other vote counts staying the same), they would steal the 120th quotient from National. Conversely, if National had had 5,058 votes less (all other counts staying the same), they would give up the 120th quotient to the Greens.

What does this mean?
In practice, what this tell us is not necessarily that Steffan Browning won’t make back in at Maureen Pugh’s expense. It’s that he might—but it’ll be very close. Certainly, the Greens shouldn’t be expecting another seat from specials, like they could in 2011.

There are, however, reasons to believe the wind might blow in the Greens’ favour. Firstly, advance votes were way up on previous elections. This was partly due to a concerted effort from parties to promote advance voting this election, and (I think) more so from the left than the right. Now, ordinary advance votes are counted on election night. But special advance votes—which include votes cast in advance outside the voter’s electorate—are not. And, as @annagrammatiste pointed out to me on Twitter, a lot of those special advance votes will have been cast at universities, some of which had advance voting booths on campus this year. University students, on average, lean left.

Secondly, estimated overseas votes doubled in this election, from 19,500 in 2011 to 38,500 in 2014. Overseas voters are known for being particularly Green-heavy.

Without those reasons, I would have said that it’s more likely that the seat allocations will stay put, but not enough to put money on it. But these weaken that likelihood. My instinct is that it probably won’t be enough, but objectively, I’m not really sure. It’ll be super close.

That’s basically the gist of this post. If you like voting systems, read on.

~

Some more detail
To dive in a little deeper, here’s a quick primer on how the Sainte-Laguë method works. This is the method used in New Zealand to proportionally allocate seats. The easiest way to think of it (in my opinion) is that you allocate the seats one by one, to the party with the highest “quotient” at the time. Every party’s initial quotient is their total number of votes, so the first seat effectively goes to the party with the most votes. Then, every time you allocate a seat, you divide that party’s total votes by their next divisor to get their new quotient (leaving the rest untouched). The first divisor for each party is 1, then it goes 3, 5, 7, and so on. You repeat till you’ve allocated all 120 seats.

How are quotients relevant? Well, here are the quotients near 120 for the preliminary results:

Quotient National Labour Greens NZ First Māori ACT UF
118 8350.9 8240.4 8430.6 8088.3 5414.8 4836.7 4533.0
119 8350.9 8240.4 7806.1 8088.3 5414.8 4836.7 4533.0
120 8215.2 8240.4 7806.1 8088.3 5414.8 4836.7 4533.0
121 8215.2 7986.9 7806.1 8088.3 5414.8 4836.7 4533.0
122 8083.7 7986.9 7806.1 8088.3 5414.8 4836.7 4533.0
123 8083.7 7986.9 7806.1 7441.2 5414.8 4836.7 4533.0

As I said, the Greens got the 118th quotient, and won’t pick up another one until 127. National’s getting quotients more often because it has more votes, and the gap between dividing by 121 and 123 is “smaller” than between 25 and 27 (Greens), so to speak.

Here is the same for my projected results:

Quotient National Labour Greens NZ First Māori ACT UF
118 9547.5 9560.4 9347.9 8909.5 6626.7 5561.7 5098.4
119 9547.5 9266.2 9347.9 8909.5 6626.7 5561.7 5098.4
120 9389.7 9266.2 9347.9 8909.5 6626.7 5561.7 5098.4
121 9237.0 9266.2 9347.9 8909.5 6626.7 5561.7 5098.4
122 9237.0 9266.2 8703.2 8909.5 6626.7 5561.7 5098.4
123 9237.0 8989.6 8703.2 8909.5 6626.7 5561.7 5098.4

The Green’s 14th quotient is just 41.8 away from National’s 61st. So we find a rudimentary “margin” for the Greens by multiplying this difference by the 14th divisor: 41.8 × 27 = 1,129. For National, we use the 61st divisor: 41.8 × 121 = 5,058.

Method
Okay, now for the exciting part. (Heh.) There are lots of ways to do this projection; Graeme Edgeler has one that basically gives the same outcome. This is how mine works.

I took the preliminary results for 2011 and subtracted them from the final results to get the “special vote addition”. I use quote marks because it’s not actually all special votes: it also includes votes cast at polling places with fewer than 6 votes (these aren’t counted on election night) and any corrections. But anyway, I compare the preliminary percentages to the “special vote addition” percentages, by division, to get a “multiplier” for each party. This multiplier represents a relationship between the preliminary votes and the special votes for each party.

I apply this multiplier to the preliminary vote percentages for each party in 2014. If a party didn’t contest the 2011 election, I just use 1 (i.e., no adjustment). Now, after doing this, the percentages won’t add up to 100, so I scale them so that they do.

The next part is the complication. The preliminary total vote count includes informals (ballots where you can’t tell who they voted for); obviously the sum of parties’ votes don’t. And the preliminary special vote estimate (I take the figure that includes overseas votes and fewer-than-6 places) includes ballots that might later be ruled invalid, because the statutory declaration wasn’t completed correctly or something like that. So I use 2011 ratios of preliminary to final counts to project how many valid special votes there will be in 2014. It doesn’t end up making much of a difference (0.4%), but hey, I wouldn’t know unless I tried.

The last step is to use the projected special vote percentages and the projected valid special vote count, to project the “special vote addition” for each party, add those to the preliminary count and that’s the projected result.

If you get excited by numbers like I do, here’s the spreadsheet I used to figure this out: Special vote impact projection 2014. The actual Sainte-Laguë stuff is in a different spreadsheet, but I’ve pasted the borderline quotients into that spreadsheet.

Confessions of a swing voter

The election’s just eleven days away and I’m nowhere near making up my mind.

I don’t normally give holistic political commentary on this blog. A busy offline life means I post only when I think my points haven’t already been raised, which naturally tend to be very specific points rather than issues in general. But as the election looms close, I’ve had a lot on my mind.

I’ll first say that, as a swing voter, this campaign’s been incredibly frustrating. This tweet explains a lot of the headache:

More than just a spate of upsetting policies though, the partisanship during this campaign has been really painful to watch. Perhaps the internet is amplifying the effect (being in California, this is my only means of keeping up), but it’s becoming hypocritical of New Zealand to snigger at America’s politics for being “polarised”.

The most pronounced manifestation of this was the controversy following Dirty Politics. With exceptions I can count on one hand (by bloggers I follow because they don’t let their biases blind them), reactions correlated one-to-one with party allegiance with virtually no middle ground. This made the criticisms flying both ways hard to take seriously. Opposing commentators engaged, but in superficial ways, the left determined to cast the right as evil, the right to cast the author, Nicky Hager, as void of credibility. There are deep ethical questions about journalism, hacking and the public interest that people seemed interested in only insofar as they could twist them to support or criticise the book.

What follows are some very abridged thoughts on the parties I’ve given any thought to voting for. If you’re looking for a disclosure statement, I’m not a member or supporter of any party, never have been, have voted for both left and right wing parties and candidates (and I’ve only voted in two elections), and to get a feel for my political biases, my Vote Compass result is here.

(Okay, these aren’t really “confessions”, per se. But I had to get you to click on this somehow, and now that you’re here, you may as well finish, right?)

Act
To readers and friends familiar with my obsession with argumentative consistency, it should come as no surprise that I’m a great fan of its new leader, Jamie Whyte. His intellectual honesty and frankness is hard to find anywhere, let alone in politics. For that alone, I think he’ll make a superb contribution to Parliament.

There’s just one problem: I disagree with almost all of Act’s major policies and its basic philosophy of classical liberalism. I’m unconvinced, for example, that dropping the company tax rate so low will be as good for the economy as he suggests. For many reasons I take a very dim view of three-strikes policies, more so for one for burglary. A (lower profile) policy that claims to be about “honesty” fails the value-agnostic test.

Act, then, poses a conflict between my substantive political views, and more fundamental procedural views on how ideas should be contested. I’m not sure how to resolve this conflict. One way to think of it is that I want Dr Whyte in Parliament to ask the questions no-one else is asking, but I don’t want him to win his arguments. But I really care a lot about philosophical integrity, and Dr Whyte ticks that box like no other politician. Can that count as “representing” me if their policy conclusions don’t?

Greens
Despite criticisms on this blog, their early start on announcing policies, some of which were quite well-considered, impressed me. Earlier in the year, I was starting to form the impression that the Greens were in fact ready for the responsibility of government, notwithstanding the occasional ideological blindness.

However, more recent appearances have changed my mind. I was astounded to see left-wing commentators praise co-leader Metiria Turei for being the only “professional” leader in the first two minor parties’ debates. I wouldn’t call her unprofessional, but her snide interjections and dismissive laughter put her far from the most respectful in the room. She has been eager to cast the government as “destructive”, “extremist” and the root of all woes. To left-wing partisans this may resonate, but to an undecided voter, while the government’s record is far from stellar, Ms Turei’s description just doesn’t sit with reality. In the Herald’s Hot Seat, where most leaders welcomed the opportunity for an open discussion, the co-leaders insisted on repeating their election messages. Slogans are important, but to be honest, it’s getting tiring.

Perhaps I’m unfairly penalising them for one half of their leadership. Russel Norman tends to be much more thoughtful in his remarks, and showed as much in the third (TVNZ) debate. But even an average of the two would still represent a huge tumble in my mind.

National
When the government ditched every recommendation of the MMP review that it initiated, I promised myself I would not vote for a National-led government in 2014. That promise, as I quietly suspected, has become very difficult to keep. Until they announced their housing policy (which is problematic), I felt that National was leading for my vote, only because they were the only party on a non-negative score since the beginning of 2014. That is, they were the only party not announcing policies.

I’m still not sure quite what to think of them. John Key performed well in the second (The Press) major parties’ debate, albeit lacking in the first (TVNZ). Getting closer to the election, the rate of policy announcement is starting to raise a little, which might help between today and election day.

Labour
David Cunliffe has struggled, but I’m really not sure why. I don’t feel that I’ve seen any reason to believe he would be a bad prime minister. That said, it’s hard not to count Labour’s xenophobic stances on housing and foreign investment against them (and everyone else who holds similar stances). When American friends ask about the existence of racism in New Zealand (it’s an interesting cultural comparison), I feel obliged to admit that our left wing has started going that way in the last year—and that I know that’s the wrong way round.

I’ve had mixed feelings about their other policies. Some aspects of their “economic upgrade”, particularly ones that single out particular industries, are really concerning. KiwiBuild is marginally better than National’s housing solution, but still seems unrealistic. But the major reasons that drew me to them last election—capital gains tax and raising the retirement age—are still there, albeit not so emphasised. So there’ll be some hefty balancing questions to ask myself here.

Māori Party
Te Ururoa Flavell has been at pains, multiple times, to emphasise that you don’t have to be Māori to vote for the Māori Party. Admittedly, while I know this to be technically true, the perception that they exist to target Māori voters has certainly weighed on my mind as a voter. And to be honest, I’m still not sure why Mr Flavell is right. The party’s policies still unashamedly focus on Māori. In the current context, this is appreciable and has had positive effect, but as far as my priorities go, it’s hard to place this near the top.

United Future
Peter Dunne normally has a sensible approach to things. His legal highs initiative was laudable. But I’m not really satisfied a vote cast here would do anything. If he gets a second MP, would they add anything to Parliament?

Conservatives
Just kidding. There’s no way they’re getting close to my vote. To give him some credit, as I might write in an upcoming post, I think Colin Craig has been admirably consistent in his belief in politicians doing “what New Zealanders want”, even when it doesn’t align with what he wants. But for a multitude of reasons, binding referenda are an exceptionally bad idea, and their foreign investment rhetoric is worse than Labour’s and the Greens’, second only to Winston Peters’.

On another note, despite missing out on my vote, I think (with about two-thirds probability) that the Conservatives will hit 5 per cent. You heard it here first.

A quick note on the Climate Voter judgment

Here is Greenpeace’s and Climate Voter’s press release on the High Court’s decision today. Here is the High Court decision.

According to Greenpeace, “The ruling confirms the core legal argument that the Electoral Act was not intended to capture normal issues-based advocacy.” Here’s what the judge actually said. I’ve tried to pick quotes that are properly representative of the analysis, so if these seem incoherent, read paragraphs 52 through 57 of the judgment.

The application of such nomenclature as “issue advocacy” also does little to confine or clarify the boundaries of the statutory test.

That the advertisement is capable of being categorised as issue advocacy or a form thereof is secondary to the objective test which Parliament requires to be applied to the material in question.

Simply because the public (as opposed to the advertiser) is able to juxtapose that message against what may be the well-known position of a candidate or party is not enough.

Greenpeace and the Climate Voter organisations’ submission that the statutory definition was not intended to regulate issues-based advocacy but only advocacy for or against parties or candidates is undoubtedly accurate. I have little doubt this was Parliament’s intent, but the distinction between issues-based advocacy and encouragement to vote for a type of candidate or party according to particular views or positions inevitably merges at some point.

For the reasons already canvassed, the type of bright line contended for by Greenpeace and the Climate Voter organisations in my view is not able to be applied to the statutory definition to limit the test for election advertisement.

Climate Voter is trying to claim this as a moral victory by saying the Court accepted its “core” argument. In reality, the Court said that it agrees that issues-based advocacy wasn’t the target, but that that observation doesn’t help very much with drawing a line between what is and isn’t an election advertisement.

But here’s the problem. Pure issue-based advocacy was never the question. No-one ever said that Parliament intended for pure issue advocates to be caught in the net. The reason the Electoral Commission concluded their website was an election advertisement is because its homepage included these words:

It means you want real action on climate change and you’re prepared to use your vote to get it. It says you support strategies to rapidly phase out fossil fuels and grow New Zealand’s clean energy and low-carbon potential.

Climate Voter may have been advocating on an issue, but they were also encouraging people to vote in a particular way. They sought to narrow the definition to exclude them, and the High Court rejected that approach.

I’ll admit, I was hoping the Court would go further than it did (para 90) and simply reject the logic that wanting “all parties” to do it means it’s not for a “type of party” in any non-hypothetical world, as Professor Andrew Geddis explained. But it remains that the dispute was always about the facts of this case, not some abstract notion Climate Voter was chasing about issue-based advocacy.

They could, if they had more discipline, be the sort of organisation that Parliament decided shouldn’t be caught up in the select committee stage of the Electoral Finance Bill when it excluded the criterion, “taking a position on a proposition with which 1 or more parties or 1 or more candidates is associated”. But it chose to do a lot more than that and it’s being treated accordingly.

I admire what Climate Voter is doing, but the spin they’re putting on this question of electoral law is astonishing. If I were them, I would proudly say that the issue is important enough to campaign for in the election and behave like a promoter. I’m not really sure why they’ve been so insistent that electoral law shouldn’t apply to them.

My vote for IEEE President-Elect 2015 goes to…

Tariq Durrani. Fred Mintzer is also good. But first, just not Barry Shoop.

This ended up being quite long, so here’s the short, TL;DR version. Barry Shoop was questioned on his priorities, and he said his top priority was “to increase IEEE’s value for our members, our profession and the public.” This isn’t a credible answer—it’s everything the IEEE does. He wants to prioritize everything, which is the same as having no priority, and he gives no means for how he would achieve everything. His lack of a defined vision for his term is, in my view, alone enough reason to rule him out.

Fred Mintzer and Tariq Durrani are both decent candidates. I think Dr Mintzer’s basic diagnosis on networking and collaboration is more correct than Prof Durrani’s, but his means is wrong. The online tools Dr Mintzer advocates are not properly conducive to networking. In any case, while it comprises engineers, the IEEE as an institution is not well-placed to develop high-quality software. It would be better for everyone if a software start-up or open-source project did this instead.

Prof Durrani has a longer wish list, and I don’t agree with everything he proposes. I have reservations about the usefulness of an advisory panel of CEOs and CTOs. But a few of his core proposals would help. His encouragement of practitioner-driven conferences is welcome. An expansion of the e-learning library to professional development isn’t a perfect solution, but it has some merit. He offers some small steps towards globalization in the IEEE. It’s clear he has put a lot of thought, in concrete terms, into what he wants to achieve as the IEEE’s chief executive.

For those reasons, my vote this year goes to Tariq Durrani. A more detailed discussion follows.

~

Disclosure
I have never met any of the three candidates and I am not involved in any of their campaigns. Two years ago, I wrote in this blog backing Tariq Durrani. Like this post, that one was based on an honest assessment of publicly available material, and I had at the time met neither of the candidates and was involved in neither campaign. After the election, Prof Durrani e-mailed me, and I took the opportunity (as I often do with senior volunteers) to point him to a series of posts I wrote about the IEEE in 2011. That series still reflects my general stance today. In the IEEE, I have been a Student Branch chair, GOLD (as it was at the time) vice-chair, Section secretary, and have been to three Region 10 Student/GOLD/WIE Congresses, one of which I did the program for. I like to think this is a null disclosure, but if you think it taints my position, then, well, I guess disclosure has achieved its purpose.

First, not Barry Shoop
The Institute asked all three candidates for their “top two priorities”. Prof Shoop’s answer, like his position statement: “to increase IEEE’s value for our members, our profession and the public.” Professor, that’s not a “priority”. That’s everything the IEEE does! When someone asks what you will prioritize, “everything” is not a valid answer.

I am honestly tired of presidential candidates giving a catch-all when asked for their priorities. I criticized Roberto de Marca for the same thing in 2012. Too many candidates for senior IEEE positions don’t seem to have any specific goals in mind. But to be fair, this is Prof Shoop’s position statement, so maybe he just has a very long list of specifics he’d like to accomplish?

Unfortunately not. On his website, he talks about “tailored products and services”, “public policies that support the profession” and “increase IEEE’s influence”. In the abstract, these are laudable visions. But he leaves no idea what any of them concretely mean, or how they would be accomplished. Would “tailoring” mean members choosing for themselves from an unnavigable smorgasbord of  benefits? Do “public policies” mean that IEEE should start advocating to governments outside the US? What are the barriers to IEEE’s influence today? Prof Shoop spares us the details. Evidence that he has any is hard to find.

I make no apology for making this a veto factor in voting. Parts of the IEEE are working well, but a lot of it is broken. Most practicing engineers don’t think they’ll get anything useful from IEEE membership. Continued calls by and to IEEE volunteers to “add value” have so far achieved nothing. Any worthy presidential candidate must be able to lay out in at least some detail what they would do to help.

Readers might be surprised at the bluntness of my advocacy against Prof Shoop. Such scrutiny isn’t typical for IEEE elections, which tend to focus on positive campaigning. This is of course a good thing, but it’s still important to critique what potential presidents have (or don’t have) in mind. Leading the world’s largest technical professional association is a huge responsibility. Avoiding attack-style campaigns shouldn’t mean avoiding criticism.

I really wish I could support the alumnus of my university, and I have no doubt that he is a superb professional and dedicated volunteer. And there are certainly points in his favor. Asked by The Institute about how to engage the next generation, Prof Shoop’s ideas resonate with me the most: only he emphasized that engineers talk too little about their impact on the world. But wanting to prioritize everything, with neither any focus nor any idea how, is a poor case for a chief executive.

Choosing between Mintzer and Durrani
Having eliminated one, choosing between the other two was somewhat harder. Both had enough detail for me to imagine what they mean. While both list four areas, I only took the first one or two seriously: in both cases, the latter ones lack elaboration and seem thrown in there to cover bases. I don’t mind this—I think it’s fine to acknowledge that something should be done, while saying you’ve put a lot more thought into something else. But I really want to understand what change the candidates will personally want to drive in the IEEE.

On Frederick Mintzer
Dr Mintzer advocates “professional productivity and collaboration tools” based on social media. It would support both existing IEEE communities and ad-hoc ones, would support “collaborative research and authoring” and an “opportunity to reinvent publications” with article, discussion and supplements in one.

I would really like to see Dr Mintzer’s vision come true. But I don’t think the IEEE is the organisation to do it. The most fundamental building block for collaboration tools is good-quality software. While you might think an engineering organisation would be capable, the IEEE is ultimately a non-profit organisation, and one without the skill set to develop something genuinely usable.

This isn’t a guess. The IET, the IEEE’s UK-based counterpart, tried to implement almost exactly the same thing in their MyCommunity platform. I met some of the staff who were involved, and their dedication was genuine. But the IET found it really hard to get it off the ground. They sought feedback to improve it, but the sad truth is, tweaks would never be enough. The software is just very poorly designed.

In order for these collaboration tools to be developed by the IEEE to an adequate standard, you either need (a) volunteers experienced in software to commit their spare, out-of-work, time to developing commercial-grade software, or (b) to contract a software firm to do it for you, in return for a lot of money. Neither is likely: volunteers tend to want to organize things, not do more of their day job, and there is too much emphasis on cost reduction in the IEEE for anything of commercial quality to be viable. The only other option I can think of is an open-source effort, akin to Django or MediaWiki. To my knowledge, no successful such effort has originated with a large non-profit whose primary activities are somewhere else.

Rather, if there is really a need for these tools, there should be a market opportunity for it. Engineers and researchers (or their employers) should pay to use it. It should be a fully-fledged software project, with research into customer workflows and requirements. And if there’s demand for it to be linked to geographic communities, as Dr Mintzer suggests, then they will add that feature. I don’t hold this idea for everything IEEE does. But it’s true for tools, like source control, issue tracking, collaborative editing, circuit simulation and computer-aided design. Research collaboration is no different—I believe it will be better for the profession if it is done by a company or open-source project specializing in that activity.

On Tariq Durrani
Prof Durrani’s statement remains largely unchanged from when he ran last year, and two years ago. When he ran against Roberto de Marca, it was enough for me to note that Prof Durrani had some detail. (I didn’t advocate for a candidate last year, partly because I was busy, but partly because Howard Michel and Prof Durrani were equally good candidates.) This year, a comparison with Dr Mintzer demands a more analytical approach.

Prof Durrani has been keen to emphasize his plans to “establish a panel of chief executive/technology offers” to help IEEE better engage with industry. I have reservations. The hardest part of rectifying the disconnect is finding people who aren’t already involved in the IEEE. The people who are don’t know understand why people don’t join or what would sway them. But people who aren’t have little reason to help an institution desperate to welcome them but with nothing to offer. Volunteers will have to use their thinking caps and learn more effectively through informal channels with non-members, not by another initiative to seek advice.

Similarly, a number of his bullet points are empty. It’s not clear, for example, how he would “enhance global visibility of IEEE Standards”, nor how he would “ensure major IEEE role in 21st Century Global Grand Challenges” (whatever those are).

Still, there are promising nuggets in Prof Durrani’s wish list. His plans to expand the IEEE e-learning library for continuing professional development aren’t ideal—I find online courses a poor means of delivering CPD—but it’s not hopeless, and CPD is a core role of professional associations. Support for delivery of in-person courses would be expensive, but a much better return on investment. For this reason, his encouragement of practitioner-driven conferences has more hope. It would be an uphill battle, but real-life meetings are what truly drive networking and learning, and this would do better than most ideas to turn around the IEEE’s academic-only reputation. He also gives some small but credible steps towards globalizing the IEEE, in membership models with progressive benefits and more balanced international representation.

 ~

Dr Mintzer’s fundamental diagnosis, I would argue, is more correct than Prof Durrani’s. There is only one strength intrinsic to IEEE: that it is a worldwide community of engineers, and by mutual education and robust exchange of ideas, they can advance the profession. For this reason, Dr Mintzer’s priority of “networking and collaboration opportunities” is to be applauded. But his means is wrong—online collaboration is a complement, not a substitute, to in-person meetings, and we should stop pretending the internet is our solution.

By contrast, Prof Durrani’s main areas lack Dr Mintzer’s realization. His general manifesto is more service-based, which is not ideal at a high level. His details are more promising though: they point to genuine, specific gaps in what the IEEE can provide to potential members. I hope he drops some of his ideas, but overall, it’s easier to visualize meaningful change with his manifesto.

But my final message is my first one. If a candidate has never said anything you disagree with, he is probably not the best one. You might feel included in Prof Shoop’s catch-all “priority”, but it’s not possible prioritize everything without prioritizing nothing. That is an excellent recipe for getting nothing meaningful done. Based on their websites and answers to questions, Dr Mintzer and Prof Durrani are more likely to achieve something.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,542 other followers