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Posts tagged ‘NZ First’

What Prosser can do to redeem himself

Richard Prosser must convince the public that he’s changed his mind, not just that he “made a mistake”.

It’s comforting that Richard Prosser’s bigoted comments on Muslims in aeroplanes were met with ample vilification from virtually everyone. Predictably, many have also called for him to be sacked. It’s a tempting ritual, but I’m not sure that the demand should be absolute.

More generally, I disagree with the mentality that politicians should always resign over one cock-up, even if it’s a colossal one. It’s an easy way for opponents to draw blood, but what should really matter is their capacity, looking forward, for the job. So if he can—properly—rectify his errors, then he deserves another chance at showing he can still contribute as an MP.

The problem is that his apology’s been underwhelming. Stuff initially quoted Mr Prosser as saying, “I concede that some of the language that I used wasn’t appropriate”, though that’s now been removed from the article, perhaps because he didn’t actually say that.* His original statement says, “This issue requires positive solutions… I accept that I impugned many peaceful law-abiding Muslims”. The NZ Herald report on his apology carries a lot on the language he used, and also for causing “offence to those people unjustifiably and unnecessarily”.

In a nutshell, the bulk of his apology was for what he said, not what he thought.

It’s encouraging that Mr Prosser’s seen at least some of his errors. According to the Herald, Mr Prosser “said he’s failed to distinguish between the vast majority of Muslims… and the ‘tiny minority’ who were involved in terrorism” and conceded “I didn’t have balance in that article”.

But it’s hard to escape the feeling he’s backed down out of political pressure, rather than because he really has. For one thing, on the first day he retreated from the media and let Winston Peters, his party leader, front up for him. More importantly, his later comments have been more a softening of tone than an outright reversal.

It is not the way Mr Prosser expressed his ideas that constitutes his sin, but the ideas themselves. Reading between the lines, some subtleties are telling. He tries to draw a distinction between his role as a “shock jock” columnist and his role as an MP. But the opinion he expressed—that any young male who “looks Muslim” shouldn’t be allowed on a plane—is stupid no matter who you are. It’s concerning that he seems to think it would be a more acceptable opinion if held by a columnist. Also, while he talks a lot now about “positive change”, he’s scant on what “positive” means.

What he should do
So here’s what Mr Prosser can do to redeem himself: He can write another column for Investigate, explaining exactly why he was wrong, and what would be sensible civil aviation policy. His self-criticism must not focus on “language” and “terms like ‘Wogistan’” or just label his remarks “offensive”. They are ignorant and logically flawed. His column must show a 180-degree turnaround, not just an apology.

It should go in Investigate, the same magazine as his original column†, so that it hits the same audience. He needs to tell the same readers that virtually all Muslims despise terrorists, just like the rest of us, and that it would be unfair (and ineffective, imagine the false positives!) to subject them to “target profiling”. It would be a departure from his “shock jock” style—but just this once, that would be the whole point.

If Mr Prosser does publicly change his mind, that will probably do more for the campaign against bigotry than his resignation. There are, sadly, still a stubborn minority who think what Mr Prosser said. A genuine U-turn from Mr Prosser would carry much more weight in swinging them around. To that end, Anwar Ghani, president of the Federation of Islamist Associations of New Zealand deserves a lot of credit for inviting Mr Prosser to enter into dialogue and “get to know [the Muslim community] better. He needs to be better informed.” Michael Vukcevic, chairman of the NZ Middle East Business Council, gestured likewise.

I really hope they follow through. As disgusting as Mr Prosser’s comments were, the silver lining is an opportunity to extinguish whatever bigotry is still left. If Mr Prosser can lead this effort, he could go some way to saving his reputation.

* I initially seized on this quote as evidence of a non-apology. Given that there is no trace of it on the internet any more, my best guess is that it’s a pre-written article that Fairfax shouldn’t have published.

† As I was writing this post, Investigate editor Ian Wishart published an apology on its website, pointing out the distinction between ordinary Muslims and extremists, but still emphasising what Mr Prosser said, not what he thought.


A surprise appearance from Winston Peters at the MMP hearings

There were two television cameras, half a dozen journalists and few spare seats in the hearings room when I arrived at quarter to four.  My nerves redoubled—I wasn’t exactly expecting media to be at the MMP submission hearings.  Surely they’d be too boring for journalists?

A staff member apologetically met me outside the room.  She had rung me earlier to ask me to be there half an hour earlier than my scheduled 4:30 p.m., since they were miles ahead of time.  Now, Winston Peters had turned up and decided he was going to present his submission then.  So it looked like I would be presenting around half past four in the end anyway.

That would explain the small army of journalists.  NZ First’s party secretary was supposed to present at 12:15 p.m.  Perhaps Mr Peters wanted the publicity stunt, so told media representatives to be at the hearing room at half past three, displacing whoever was scheduled at the time.  I later learned that his party secretary hadn’t shown up.

Still, the commissioners and political scientists didn’t seem upset about the chance to question Mr Peters.  NZ First is unique in proposing that a party winning one electorate must get 4% of the party vote before getting any lists seats.  Chief Electoral Officer Robert Peden asked the obvious question: why not just make it 5%, in effect abolishing the one-seat rule entirely?  Mr Peters didn’t have a real principled answer, other than that they were “reasonable people”, though he appeared (at least to me) to concede that they would probably prefer just to abolish the one-seat rule but for their reasonableness.

But imagine my relief when, as soon as Mr Peters finished and left the room, the journalists in the front row left with him, the cameramen started packing up and each of the five media-labelled microphones at the submitter’s stand disappeared one by one.  By the time the next submitter was seated, the public seating was almost empty again.  The room was not nearly so nerve-racking by the time I took the stand at 4:40 p.m.

Such is to be expected from Mr Peters, I guess.  The Commission staff member was apologetic and thanked me for waiting; I was just mildly amused.

Oddities in MMP submissions

I’ve just been flicking through submissions received to date by the Electoral Commission on the MMP voting system.  Most suggestions are quite sensible—even ones I disagree with—but there are some bizarre claims made by a few:
(I’m only picking on political parties in this post.)

National Party: electorate seat threshold
The National Party is one of few to support retaining the one electorate seat threshold.  They say that abolishing it would be “unworkable in practice”, since it would necessitate “greatly increasing the risk of overhangs or reducing the list allocations of other parties”.

Neither is necessary: we can just say that a party missing the 5% threshold should get its electorate seats, as currently, but what would have been its list seats now just go to the parties next in line to get a seat.  The details are non-trivial but possible.  (I explain how it would work in my submission.)  Compared to the status quo, overhang is the same and the list allocations of other parties increase.  Workable, easily.

The Conservative Party also made this mistake, saying that if the one electorate seat threshold is abolished, we would have an overhang of 6 seats.  We could design the system like that, but it’s not hard to just keep Parliament the same size while reallocating “coat-tailers” to other parties.  (In 2011, there were actually no coat-tailers, so it would have made no difference.)

NZ First: the overhang anomaly
NZ First advocates introducing a 4% threshold for parties who win one electorate to gain additional list MPs.  (The status quo is no threshold.)  That’s all well and good, except when they say “this threshold… would go a long way to eliminating the likelihood of the overhang anomaly”.

This was probably just a proofreading oversight.  But their proposal wouldn’t have any impact on overhang.  Overhang parties never have list MPs (since electorate winners took all their seats), so the question of receiving additional list MPs doesn’t really bother them.

ALCP: representing cannabis users
The Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party criticises the 5% threshold as leading to the people “not being properly represented”, which is well and fine.  But their evidence is that “not one single MP is standing up for the cannabis consumers who represent 16% of the adult population”.  Given that 16% is greater than 5%, this seems odd.  Maybe these cannabis users just decided they had more important ways in which to spend their vote?

ACT: the thresholds
The ACT Party supports the 5% threshold to “limit and rationalise voter choice” and “assist with government formation”.  It’s unclear how, but presumably by preventing too many minor parties from messing things up.  But they go on to say that the one electorate seat threshold should be retained because it “allows more votes to count”.  It’s unclear how this reconciles with their support of the 5% threshold, which renders many votes useless.  It’s also unclear why they think waiving the threshold for electorate-winning parties has “contributed towards stable government formation”, while waiving the threshold for other parties would detract from it.

The ACT Party goes on to say that most advocates for abolishing the one-seat threshold do so for partisan reasons.  The ACT Party, which in both 2005 and 2008 had “coat-tailers” on their Epsom victory, has more incentive than any other party to advocate its retention.  They were also scant on reasoning of their own, largely conceding that the thresholds are arguable, “arbitrary” or “subjective” judgements and deferring to the 1986 Royal Commission, which didn’t actually explain why they proposed for the threshold to be waived for parties winning a constituency seat.


Impressively, both the Greens and the Labour Party managed to avoid any internal inconsistencies in their submissions, or at least ones that I could pick up.

If it weren’t for the threshold

The 5-per-cent threshold can be something of a menace to small parties.  It probably didn’t seem so unreasonable in 1993, when there was recent history of minor parties regularly exceeding 5 per cent of the vote—in 1996, the Alliance and NZ First both crossed ten per cent.  But now, with only one minor party crossing 5 per cent and the combined National-Labour vote returning to its pre-MMP (at least, 1980s) levels of near 80 per cent, it’s worth wondering: what would have happened if the threshold wasn’t there?

Obviously, NZ First would have returned to Parliament.  But there’s a bit more to it than that.  Based on preliminary results, my spreadsheet tells me these parties would have made it in:¹

Party Electorate List Total
National 41 14 55
Labour 21 20 41
Greens 0 8 8
NZ First 0 5 5
Māori 5 0 5
Act 1 3 4
Jim Anderton’s Progressive 1 0 1
United Future 1 0 1
Kiwi Party 0 1 1
Bill and Ben Party 0 1 1
Total 70 52 122

So it would have changed the composition of Parliament slightly:

List candidates who wouldn’t have made it
Calder, Cam (National)
Gilmore, Aaron (National)
Woodhouse, Michael (National)
Quinn, Paul (National)
Nash, Stuart (Labour)
Sepuloni, Carmel (Labour)
Garrett, David (Act)

List candidates who would have made it
Peters, Winston (NZ First)
Brown, Peter (NZ First)
Mark, Ron (NZ First)
Woolerton, Doug (NZ First)
Stewart, Barbara (NZ First)
Baldock, Larry (Kiwi Party)
Linehan, Jamie (Bill) (Bill and Ben Party)

That’s right—if it weren’t for the threshold, the Bill and Ben Party would have made it in.  And specials wouldn’t put Bill’s seat at risk: by the Sainte-Laguë method they would have been allocated the 97th seat with their (original) quotient of 10,738, well above what would have been the last quotient, Labour’s, of 8,724.  The Kiwi Party would have been allocated the 89th seat.

Would they get into government?  Obviously, National’s victory would not have been so clear-cut.  The National-Act-UF bloc would’ve had a collective 60 seats; the Labour-Green-NZ First-Progressive bloc would’ve had 55—both short of a 62-seat majority.  With all three remaining parties—Māori, Kiwi, and Bill and Ben—Labour would have been able to govern in partnership with six other parties.  A more interesting outcome, perhaps, but unlikely.  The Kiwi Party seemed to show a strong preference for National, leaving Labour a seat short.

National would have needed either Māori Party support or both Kiwi, and Bill and Ben.  These hypothetical circumstances being closer, the Māori Party might have talked to Labour first.  Bill and Ben also hadn’t ruled either major party out, but they seemed more likely to talk to National first, having shaken Key’s hand but not (to my knowledge) Clark’s.  And remember, Clark was still one seat short of 62.  Thus a National-Act-UF-Kiwi-Bill and Ben bloc might seem promising, but remember three things.  First, Key promised to talk to the Māori Party whether they needed them or not—a stance reiterated when preliminary (real) results indicated he wouldn’t need them.  Second, such partnership would be exactly the sort of “five-headed monster” Key wanted to avoid.  Third, even if the Māori Party only agreed to abstain on confidence and supply, Bill and Ben wouldn’t be needed.

That said, Key might have been wanting to show he can make MMP work in the same way Clark did.  In this spirit, the Māori, Kiwi, and Bill and Ben Parties might all have been in on confidence-and-supply abstention agreements, for a concession or two in policy and spokesperson roles.  My guess is Bill would have been keen enough to give National easier terms than Tariana or Larry would.

What have we learnt from this?  The Winston-opposed would have been especially thankful for the 5 per cent threshold, and perhaps more crucially, that it’s not 4 per cent like the Royal Commission on the Electoral System in 1986 recommended.  But there are other consequences.  In 2005, for example, Destiny NZ would have been allocated the 80th seat if there was no such threshold.  Clearly, the threshold is restraining the diversity of views that are represented in Parliament.  It is almost anti-MMP, in a way—this year, at least, it delivered a victory of clarity very rarely seen in proportional systems.  But it was also intended, as put by the Royal Commission, “to prevent a proliferation of minor parties”.  In this sense, one must admit, it is doing its job.

¹ I’ve assumed that all results, including all electorate winners, would remain the same, and that all rules other than the 5-per-cent threshold would have remained the same.

Trying to understand Brown

It is difficult to find a non-cynical interpretation of Peter Brown’s recent anti-Asian comments.  Perhaps, based on the relative success of Winston Peters’ line on immigration six years ago, he thought he could score some decent points on recent immigration statistics.  Perhaps he thought, with Peters bound by Cabinet policy as Foreign Minister, he needed to take the initiative.

More than anything else, though, he has committed one of the worst blunders possible in New Zealand politics.  His comments have put him on the defensive.  Both major parties have spoken against him.  The Greens said “white supremacist”, the employers’ union “racial stereotyping of the worst sort”.  In fact, he was even having to justify himself to one of his own colleagues, who had to make it clear to media that there were no plans to play the “race card” this year.

He basically opened himself up to attack, and everyone made the most of it.  Any benefit of the doubt, realising his comments might have been misinterpreted, however, are dispelled by a quick examination of what he said:

“The rapid rise in the Asian population is driven mainly by immigration and both National and Labour are equally culpable.  […] The matter is serious.  If we continue this open door policy there is real danger we will be inundated with people who have no intention of integrating into our society.  The greater the number, the greater the risk.  They will form their own mini-societies to the detriment of integration and that will lead to division, friction and resentment. This country deserves better than that.”

Naturally, he later conceded that Asian immigrants do make a good contribution, and clarified that he was pointing to the risk of division happening.  For benefit of the doubt, we assume that he believes the majority of Asian immigrants integrate successfully.  In this case, he is suggesting that we should give up many skilled Asian migrants due to the behaviour of a small few.  We ignore the possibility that such “mini-societies” are formed by many groups, ethnic and otherwise, with negligible overall social effect.

Alternatively, it might a be suggestion that with more people in a few mini-societies, a higher proportion eventually get drawn towards them.  Or—cynically—that such “mini-societies” form a significant minority of Asians.  The foolishness of both assertions is self-evident.

But the fact that we need to second-guess his intentions demonstrates a valid point.  His big mistake here was not to specify a model, a remedy for how this “concern” of his would be resolved.  Doing so would have helped him clarify his comments, making him more believable.  Failing to do so not only gives political opponents the chance to make out the worst of it, but means he has to explain himself afterwards, and in politics, explaining is losing.