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On the TVNZ Multi Party Leaders Debate

Blow-by-blow analyses are boring, but I noted down a few particular moments that I found harder to swallow.

Tariana Turia on the retirement age: “It should be 60 years of age for Maori, Pacific and the poor.”
Guyon Espiner: “So you’d have separate schemes depending on ethnicity?”
Turia: “No, I didn’t say that.  I said Maori, Pacific and the poor.”

Ms Turia appears to think there’s a genuine case for a different retirement age for Maori and Pacific people, and that’s fine.  But if the policy she advocates isn’t separate schemes depending on ethnicity, then she did a very poor job of explaining it.  A retirement scheme where two ethnicities retire at one age, and all other ethnicities can only retire at that same age if they are poor, is undoubtedly a scheme that depends on ethnicity.  At the point where politicians believe Maori do deserve different treatment—and I think there is a case to be made—I wish they would just say so, rather than beat around the bush pretending it’s sort of like the same rules for everyone but not really.

Winston Peters on Don Brash’s views on the minimum wage: “It’s economic nihilism.  You don’t see that [higher minimum wage leading to higher unemployment] happening in Scandinavia or Norway.”

Scandinavia is quite a bad example to pick to demonstrate this point, because none of Sweden, Norway and Finland have national minimum wages.  All of them require, by law, employers to pay wages according to national agreements negotiated by unions (even if not unionised)—a system quite different to the flat $15 minimum wage proposed by Labour and the other left-wing parties.  I don’t know what those agreements came to, but the fact that it’s flexible (negotiable) compared to a legislated absolute minimum would at least somewhat limit the comparison.

Peter Dunne on race relations and poverty: “The reality is that every child in New Zealand deserves the best chance in life.”

This is rather pedantic, and the slip was probably understandable in the heat of the moment.  But “that every child deserves the best chance” isn’t a “reality”, it’s a valued proposition.  That it’s almost universally held doesn’t make it “reality”—realities relate to on-the-ground facts, not what people deserve.

To his credit, he followed this up by criticising pretty much every other leader for focussing on “racism and rhetoric”, driving the more pragmatist “it’s how we deal with the statistics” that moderates tend to favour.

Don Brash on an emissions trading scheme: “But most of the world isn’t doing it.  … Most of the carbon dioxide emitted by animals comes from eating grass.  Where does the grass get the carbon from?  From the atmosphere.  It’s a zero-sum game.”

Dr Norman cracked up laughing upon hearing this, and rightly so.  It’s not carbon dioxide from animals that we’re largely worried about; it’s methane.  A fact that’s rather inconvenient for Dr Brash’s notion of how greenhouse gases work.  Not being a biologist or ecologist, I’m reluctant to attempt to detail what is quite a complex system, but a factor that Dr Brash might have forgotten to mention is that methane’s global warming potential is quite a bit greater than carbon dioxide’s.

Guyon Espiner (moderator) to Don Brash, on the John Key-John Banks tea party: “You don’t care what your leader said about—?”

LOL.  Classic.

Hone Harawira: “MMP stands for more Maoris in Parliament.”
Don Brash, if we abolish the Maori seats: “Maori would vote for Maori in the general constituencies.”
Russell Norman: “That’s why MMP is such a great system; it delivers that diversity.  If all of those Maori were on the general roll, they wouldn’t necessarily have a Maori person to vote for… their vote is still worth the same.”

Being a voting systems geek, I find these statements particularly disturbing.  MMP has nothing to do with the Maori seats.  You can run Maori seats with any system (or not), and you can have MMP without Maori seats.

Under MMP, in fact, there is a very easy argument for why Maori seats aren’t necessary: proportionality allows the diversity that people want to be reflected in parliament, so if Maori desire specific Maori representatives they can easily vote them in on the party vote without having to win a majority in any single electorate.  I’m amazed that Dr Brash missed this argument.  The one he gave is unconvincing. It’s unlikely that any candidate would win a majority in a general electorate on a platform based on representing Maori.

A step further, it’s the existence of the Maori seats that make Dr Norman’s comments inaccurate.  MMP is a great system because it can deliver diversity without the Maori seats.  Under the status quo, Maori electors can and do vote strategically.  Because Maori Party support is concentrated in the Maori electorates, overhang seats (and hence disproportionality) are a given—so they’re free to give their party vote to a second party without sacrificing the Maori Party.  It is a similar (but slightly different) power to that which Epsom voters have, and it’s certainly not the same as everyone else in the country.

To be fair, empirically, it is true that more Maori have entered Parliament since MMP was introduced, so Mr Harawira is half-right.  But that misses the point of MMP.  The diversity that MMP brings is the spectrum of political views.  It offers no such guarantee of ethnic representation, except insofar as parties put such candidates in winnable list positions, or insofar as parties represent ethnicities like in Malaysia.

Hone Harawira: “We can’t go into coalition with parties like National and Act, who build their whole philosophy about kicking the poor, taxing the poor, to feed the rich.”

Mr Harawira spent much time tonight on rhetoric about the evilness of the rich, which is a standard tactic of far-left parties so probably understandable.  My general observations are that the far-right often genuinely believe (erroneously or otherwise) that their policies help the poor better, though.  I often wish the far-left would engage with the far-right more directly on this rather than accusing them of not caring.

Picking winners
Mr Dunne always came across as the sensible one. Just like he always does. Unfortunately, being sensible rarely gains traction in politics.  Mr Peters also presented well, just as he always does (policy aside), though from the orator that Mr Peters is I suppose I expected better.

The real stand-out in the debate for me was Dr Norman.  I should hasten to add here that I have never been a Greens fan and have normally found them totally bizarre.  But I noted down a few impressive lines and a majority of them are from Dr Norman.  He articulated policy with a pragmatism that you don’t traditionally find in the Green camp.  User charges for the commercial use of water, snatching the opportunity to throw in his green jobs plan to complement the minimum wage raise, “if you think that price influences behaviour then you need a price on pollution” and his brief comment on “political management” were all highlights for me.

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