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Posts tagged ‘politics’

Drama in Chinese politics

Chinese politics can get feisty.  The rest of the world should take interest.

When Rick Santorum (hopefully) loses the Republican presidential primary in (or before) August this year, the rest of the world will (hopefully) breathe a sigh of relief.  They will relax ever so slightly knowing that despite America’s most zealous, some degree of sense can still prevail.  They will know that the options the superpower’s citizens have in November will both be at least partially sane.

The sacking of Bo Xilai, the party chief in Chongqing, a municipality in central China, is at least as consequential.  Mr Bo, like Mr Santorum, is a polarising figure.  He was, like Mr Santorum still is, vying for one of his country’s most powerful offices.  Like Mr Santorum, he represents an unbridled conservatism that is popular among some but absolutely crazy in the eyes of others.  Mr Bo ran high-profile popular anti-corruption campaigns; some say they were politically selected and have led to injustices.  He revived nationalistic “red songs”, reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution which was regarded by many but not all as one of modern China’s darker periods.

The mode by which Mr Bo was taken down is admittedly unfamiliar.  We know why his hopes for appointment to the powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party are dashed (the Wang Lijun incident ruined his chances), but not who made the call.  China’s “elections” are basically for show; the real process by which politicians make it to the top is unclear.  The best we have to go on in this case are the allusions Premier Wen Jiabao made to Mr Bo (the risk of another “tragedy like the Cultural Revolution”) in his address to the National People’s Congress.

That makes it a little harder to follow than the flagrantly open process of America’s presidential contest.  But to be fair, America’s method of choosing its president is hardly easy to understand.  We get its fiendish complexity mainly because we’ve spent so much time watching it.  With time, that will become true of China.  It may not be democratic, but there are still power struggles, competing ideologies and a constitutionally-defined political system.  That the Politburo Standing Committee conducts its workings in secret shouldn’t matter either: cabinets of almost every country have their discussions in private and present a united front to the public.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the Communist Party has internal divisions.  That is true of all political parties: just ask the American Republicans or the British Tories.  Nor is it a weakness: optimal solutions often come from robust debate.  Westerners may not even be unanimous in which Chinese politicians they support.  The left in the West, for example, may resonate with how Mr Bo despised China’s acceptance of growing inequality as part of economic growth.  The economically liberal may prefer the direction taken by the Hu-Wen administration.  Some foreign observers may admire Mr Bo’s yearning for Mao-like nationalism.

Whichever way, his failure to get to the Politburo Standing Committee is a blow for the left of China.  The corollary of that is a (partial) victory for more reformist lines.  That matters.  Obviously, foreign businesses will want to know whether they’ll be welcome and what sort of trade opportunities to expect.  But the domestic affairs of the growing superpower matter too: how China’s growing middle class fares affects world markets and human rights groups naturally take a keen interest in one-sixth of the world’s population.  China can justifiably be proud of its progress in the last two decades.  That could all be slowed or even reversed by an ill-chosen leadership.

China’s political system may differ completely from every system devised by a Western country.  That shouldn’t put us off; if anything, it makes its domestic battles even more enthralling.  When a leading political figure in America gets booted out of the race, people take notice.  We should afford China the same attention.


My thoughts on the final TV One leaders’ debate

I’ve decided to base this call on points.  Part-by-part was clearly a silly way to do it, and calling it holistically just doesn’t happen.

This had two main effects on my approach to this debate.  Firstly, for my purposes, I was the sole arbiter of what constitutes a “point”, unlike before, when a “part” was just everything between ad breaks.  I might have split something into two points that others wouldn’t have.  Secondly, it means that I wasn’t afraid to call a point a draw, or even irrelevant, unlike before, when I made a call on every part, even if it was by the slimmest of margins.  If I have the leaders on even numbers at the end of this, so be it.

With this in mind, my additional disclaimer is that I’ve taken all “points” to be of equal value, regardless of how long was spent on it, how important I think it is, or how big the margin was.  It’s additional to this not being an assessment of whose policies I agree with, nor taking account of how the debate was moderated.  Also, it’s not necessarily who I think you should vote for, but then again, with election day tomorrow, I’m probably the last to decide.  The last warning is that, because I took this point by point, this post’s longer, and only shallowly covers each point, so it may lack both depth and conciseness.

The first part
There was nothing surprising or enlightening about the US presidential election, or the one policy of each liked of their opponents’.  When it came to job losses in the financial crisis, Key sort of rambled on for a while, didn’t really go beyond the words “high growth economy”, and his lack of conciseness cost him when Sainsbury had to cut him off.  But while there were no surprises in the leaders’ attitudes to a “grand coalition”, Clark probably overstated the extent of National’s privatisation policy, costing her that point.  I had Key winning the job losses to migrants part, if only thanks to Sainsbury’s prompting him to actually offer a solution.  He did so, he linked it to his diagnosis of fundamental problems, and it made sense.  Clark 1, Key 2, even/irrelevant 2.

Making the economy work
I considered the change part not serious enough to be relevant (though I would have given it to Clark).  Both gave unimpressive answers about the rail, but Clark’s plans seemed more specified.  I was disappointed that neither leader had the guts to give an outright “no” to the Maori Party’s $500-for-free plan, but Clark at least hinted some pragmatism, whereas Key strayed way off-topic.  I would have considered the clash over how much spending is too much relevant if they had had the opportunity to respond to each other.  As for farm animals in the emissions trading scheme, while both leaders gave solutions, Key was more detailed about the basis for his solution.  Clark 2, Key 1, even/irrelevant 1.

Taking a stand
If Key rambled aimlessly again about desperately ill children, luck was in his favour.  He got somewhere with it, when he talked about it not being about “individual cases”, but about a system that “delivers value”.  I guess that was a hard question.  Clark responded well to the suggestion that people stop listening after nine years.  You would think that, with Key’s barrage of statistics, he would set out to prove that the Clark administration was actually sub-standard, but upon prompt, he effectively conceded that nine years from now, his government would be just as useless—whoops!  There was no real clash over the display of tobacco at retail outlets.  Clark 1, Key 1, even/irrelevant 1.

Law and order
I’m not sure if Key changed his boot camps policy, but it sounded a lot better than it did six months ago.  I’m not sure how Albany related to this, but Clark seemed to get drawn to talk about service academies too.  Clark rightly reiterated her early intervention stance, but Key had detailed his (renamed?) Fresh Start Programme enough to take this point.  Asked about how to eradicate P, Key had the more multi-pronged approach; Clark seemed maybe a bit over-obsessed with gangs.  I don’t get what asking about compulsory military training was meant to achieve, and I considered confession time irrelevant (though entertaining).  Key 2, even/irrelevant 2.

Personal qualities
There was obviously never going to be any clash about abortion.  But when pressed about their theistic beliefs and what “moves” them, I felt Clark gave the more genuine answer, whereas Key couldn’t tell it wasn’t the time to be talking about policy.  I guess people might like anecdotes like his, but I didn’t think he could generalise it well enough to be convincing.  In a section about “personal qualities” of leaders, I considered this point to be relevant.  There was similarly never going to be a clash about Israel.  Espiner’s question about flip-flops was a good one, and Clark’s hesitation cost her.  Key stumbled slightly on student loans, but his open admission of his mistakes about Kiwibank and Maori Television made him look good.  Clark 1, Key 1, even/irrelevant 4.

The hard decisions
This section was fun to watch, but there wasn’t really anything decisive.  When the leaders gave their views on climate change, it was largely just reiterating their principles.  If you think it was relevant, then I call that point a draw.  Hypothetical questions about Cabinet were interesting, but I didn’t think it was a point of debate.  Even/irrelevant 4.

Counting up the points…
Clark has five, Key has seven and I saw ten as even or irrelevant.  I guess that means my call is with Key.

In case you were wondering, I didn’t take the final statements into account because they weren’t really part of the debate.  (That doesn’t mean the statements won’t impact my vote.)  And, to state the obvious, because I did this on points not parts, my thoughts here probably aren’t comparable to my thoughts on the other debates.  I might have called the other debates differently if I had done them this way.

A closer look at those secretly taped conversations

In an age where we have moved past prejudices, I think I could probably get away with an assertion that we should never judge people on their predecessors.  Indeed, the last National Government had its broken promises: Jim Bolger’s “no ifs, no buts, no maybes, we’re not going to cut your superannuation”; Lockwood Smith’s promise to resign if he didn’t abolish tertiary education fees.  This was all before my time and before my memory, and as I’ve said, I don’t judge: in the absence of solid evidence of a “secret agenda”, as the Labour Party alleges, John Key has my benefit of the doubt.

In light of the recent leaked secretly-taped conversations, then, it is important not to jump to the conclusion of a secret agenda, but to consider the context in which the comments may have been made.  Firstly, they were all made by individuals, which means it’s not a foregone conclusion that they represent party policy.  After all, everyone has their own opinions, and in a team, compromises have to be made.  Secondly, they were made to someone posing as a Young Nat, someone who may follow in the politicians’ footsteps.  Everyone, when talking to someone interested in entering their own field, talks freely, enthusiastically and honestly.

Take, for example, what Lockwood Smith said: (ref)

Once we have gained the confidence of the people, we’ve got more chance of doing more things.  We may be able to do some things we believe we need to do, perhaps go through a discussion document process … you wouldn’t be able to do them straight off … I’m hoping that we’ll do some useful things that way that may not be policy right now.

The first sentence, at face value at least, is stating the obvious.  The rest of it is clearly Dr Smith’s opinion alone—nowhere did he say National was going to do something, merely that they “may be able to” and he was “hoping” they would.  National, like Labour, has a wide range of political views, and we know, of course, that Dr Smith is further towards the right.

In a similar vein, Nick Smith’s comments on election strategy should come as no real shock.  Of course they’re “quite deliberately in neutralise phase at the moment” (ref), I didn’t need a secretly taped conversation to tell me that!  And the mere fact that he hasn’t seen controversial election campaign consultants Crosby Textor doesn’t mean no-one has, it just means he hasn’t.

Slightly more concerning is Bill English saying they will “eventually” sell Kiwibank “but not now.  It’s working.  Our supporters get a bit angsty but it’s working”. (ref)  In the context—a question posed by a Young Nat—the “eventually” could be anything: a word to appease the free-market tendencies of this Young Nat, perhaps, or just Mr English’s personal long-term hope.  His later admission that National hadn’t even discussed Kiwibank provides some comfort it may not have been representative of his party.

Nonetheless, the leaked comments do nothing to dispel a long suspicion that with Mr Key, what we see may not be what we get.  The Labour Party is keen to push this impression, and are well-fuelled by these recordings.  All I am saying is that to come to an objective conclusion, it pays to put ourselves in the shoes of the loose-lipped National MPs.  It pays to remember that just because people are from the same party, doesn’t mean they all know and believe in the same things.  And it pays to keep in mind that everyone successful in their fields takes joy in talking to people who might follow—it sort of goes with liking what you do.

The ignored lesson

For all the pointless media hype, Tony Veitch’s admission of assault should hold one important lesson for us all: that no-one should consider themselves immune from the temptation of domestic violence.

It is easy to think of domestic violence as an issue for “them”, for those with certain backgrounds, or with certain mindsets.  But Tony Veitch was no lunatic.  A combination of pressures—work, time, exhaustion and the end of a relationship—had stretched the man as far as he could go.  This is not a matter of excuses, but nor is it unimaginable.  The pressures that led Mr Veitch to “lash out in anger” are all pressures that can, and do, affect everyday people.  The next to fall into a similar path could be you, or me, or any of our neighbours, colleagues and friends—no matter how friendly we might consider them to be.

Mr Veitch undertook counselling after the incident, and it is worth asking if the incident could have been avoided had he done so beforehand.  He said he “needed help”, which probably means he wasn’t getting it.  Everyone experiences internal tension, sometimes as a matter of course, and most of us have hit “breaking point” at some point or another.  It may be that, among other things, how people deal with stress, both work-related and otherwise, is a key issue in domestic violence.  I’m not saying breaking point normally means assault, but I do doubt this incident was an isolated one.

This high-profile case would have been the perfect opportunity to highlight this, but no-one seems to have taken it up.  Instead, it has turned into not just a media hysteria, but a public one.  Most who care, it seems, care not about public awareness of the issue, or what the public could learn from this.  They care about one thing only: to get Mr Veitch off the air.

There are many limitations to this approach, not least of which is the effect of sweeping it under the carpet.  Once the public interest dies down, with Mr Veitch having resigned, it will all be behind us, out of sight and out of mind.  No-one will take a second look at themselves, and ask how much of a risk they are.  No-one will seek help, ever.  Domestic violence will remain an issue for “them”, and we will all be none the wiser.

Referendum asks an irrelevant question

If you asked me, “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”, I would say no, of course.

And of New Zealand’s 4,268,206 people, I figure approximately 4,268,205 people would say the same; the lone exception being a certain Sue Bradford, for whom “smacking” and “assault” are synonyms.  That’s 4,268,205, I say, not 4,268,093.  The other 112 politicians who voted for the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Bill last year are not exceptions.  I bet you anything they would say no too.

This was reiterated by every speaker, by every party that supported that bill in its third reading (except Ms Bradford).  Smacking would not be a crime.  Smacking should not be a crime.  The bill is not about smacking.  It is about the sheer abuse of children that goes on in some places, hidden behind the old Section 59.  This quote of National’s Chester Borrows is not an isolated example:

Those parents who are worried that this legislation will criminalise lightly smacking a child can rest assured that Parliament’s intention is that this should not be the case, and if at some future time they find themselves on such a charge, they should advise counsel to research Hansard and cite these comments in their defence.

Why on earth, then, do Family First and more than 300,000 voters want a referendum that asks about smacking?  A negative response to that question, which is an almost-certainty, would have no effect on the status quo.  It would merely reaffirm the stance of virtually every member of the Parliament that enacted the law.

Family First and its petition’s supporters have yet to realise this.  Perhaps they are in denial: who could have thought a bill that was originally so absurd could end up being an Act of Parliament that actually means something?  I wrote once in this blog in strong opposition to Ms Bradford’s bill, but much changed between then and its final reading.  The amendment I once opposed had four words, not four sections.

A read of Family First’s case studies might feel emotionally provoking at first, but upon closer study they have little substance.  Not one of the cases resulted even in prosecution, let alone conviction; the single case that even touched the courts was dismissed as soon as it got there.  The cases are largely isolated and the only evidence that they might not have happened under previous legislation is that they are largely the result of people’s misconceptions of the law, which were probably gained through media campaigns by Family First themselves, and which will probably be corrected as the new law settles in properly.

I wonder, if the question began, “Should beating violently with whips, belts or sticks…”, if the matter would be so controversial.  It is this question that the legislation, designed to let go of matters “so inconsequential that there is no public interest in proceeding with a prosecution” (read: smacking), was addressing.  That’s why, if you ask me now, “Should the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 be part of New Zealand law?”, I would say yes, even when my answer to that pointless smacking question remains a clear no.

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.

Can’t escape the “hard-right” tag

No-one ever believes their own views are extreme.  It’s always “common sense”.  Sir Roger Douglas thinks his recently released agenda is “common sense”—not “hard right”.  But you know, I’m sure the Greens think they have “common sense” too.

The point here isn’t to question whether or not Sir Roger’s plans have sound theoretical basis.  It is the nature of economics, as it is with all the social sciences, that questions cannot be definitively answered.  Most economists, though, would accept that economic opinions can, for the most part at least, be modelled on a spectrum, from state control on the left to the free market on the right.  The thing is, everyone sits somewhere on the spectrum further left than him.  He must have realised that no-one is advocating more of a free market than he is.

This doesn’t make it “wrong”, but one must realise that at the heart of his agenda is an ideology.  That is what the far ends of the spectrums are: ideologies.  His policies are well-reasoned, just like every other policy (except perhaps John Key’s) is well-reasoned—communist ideologies being no exception.  Whether they stand up to practice is more difficult to answer, but the heart of his policies is a firm belief that a more efficient economy benefits everyone, and no less for the poor than the rich.  It is this firm belief that characterises those far-right on the economic spectrum.

But when were no-condition, no-catch universal benefits like that ever true?  The unfortunate reality is that there always is a trade-off, some winning and some losing.  Better always means worse for some.  It is this understanding that separates those towards the centre from those on the sides.  Sir Roger is effectively advocating that the free market can work for everyone.  In return for low taxes, he wants people to cover themselves for everything.  As much as he seeks to deny it, that by definition is hard right.

The heavy irony rests in the fact that while Act has realised the opportunity arising from a left-moving National, seizing on the moment to separate its policies from theirs, Act can only realistically seek a place in a National-led government.  Meanwhile, National is doing is very best to attract centrist voters.  While it might be true that a vote for Act is a vote for National, this could cause a backlash when centrist voters realise that it works in reverse too: that a vote for National is a vote for Act.

Centrists tend not to like ideological visions, preferring realistic policies instead.  Wary of pure market policies like Sir Roger’s, voters may think twice about gifting their vote to National.  That the policies they get may not be the policies they vote for, because of Act.  It creates opportunities for a fear-driven Labour campaign, not unlike the “Gone by Lunchtime” campaign in 2005, with but a subtle difference in target.

While polls currently position National to govern alone, this never happens come election time, not in an MMP system.  National, having gained lots of swing voters from Labour, is now in the awkward position of having to decide whether it will appease its centrist support base, or be prepared to make concessions to Act after the election.  Key says now that he won’t be “held hostage to a radical right-wing agenda”, but what if his ability to form a government depends on it?