National’s policy-free politics and colossal hypocrisy

key-and-slaterThe two faces of National’s hitherto successful PR strategy

UPDATE (19 Aug, evening): Literally in the last few hours, National have unveiled a whole bunch of policy on their website. This renders the below numbers and graphs out-of-date. But the second half is still relevant, and I reckon it’s worth leaving the first half online as a time capsule of what National’s campaign looked like until WhaleGate. Coincidence? What do you think?

Original blog (19 Aug, afternoon):

The latest of John Key’s increasingly desperate defences against Dirty Politics and Whaledump is to say:

“the left have given up on the policy argument. They don’t think they can beat the National Government on the issues … so what they’ve decided is they’ll play the man, not the ball … but we’re going to keep talking about the ball.”

This is similar to his quip when Laila Harré announced she was running against Key in his local seat:

“we won’t be having much of a debate about policy – the only policy the Internet Party has is to make sure Dotcom isn’t extradited.”

In fact, I’ve been following and compiling the various parties’ policies, and the Internet Party have far more policy on their website than National do – even though the IP have only had a few months to formulate theirs. In fact, National have less policy on their (single) policy page than any other party – significantly less than most of them. On word count, they only provide literally 2.4% as much as Labour or 1.1% as much as NZ First:

Word count on main policy pages

It is true that some parties (notably Labour, the Greens and the Internet Party) provide fuller versions of their policies or additional documents, linked from their main policy pages. This is the main difference between National’s and the IP’s policy websites.

If we’re generous, we can include a couple of documents from January about their 2014 priorities in this category… the speech is largely not policy, but they do link to these documents at the bottom of their policy page. This time National manage to claw their way up to 2nd-to-last, because ACT only expand upon two of their policies – but they’re still left in the dust by the left-of-NZ-First parties he accuses of giving up on policy:

Page counts of expanded statements & linked docs

It’s also worth noting that Labour and the IP both state that even more policy is forthcoming, and the Greens are frequently updating theirs. I wonder if National’s are on the way, too? [update: I guess so!]

Here’s the full data, if you’re interested:

Full data on policy counts

While I spent an embarrassingly long time on this [update: now-obsolete! grrr...] number-crunching, we actually didn’t need these numbers to know that National try to run policy-free campaigns and policy-free politics wherever possible. They don’t engage with public questions like this, this or this. They don’t engage (openly) with blogs; certainly not opposition ones, and certainly not on policy questions.They don’t really put policy on their billboards – some people had to do it for them last election. Their flagship policies are generally pretty unpopular. They [update: still] have [basically] no policy about some of the biggest issues facing NZ (climate change, child poverty, inequality and the housing crisis) – in fact, they often deny that they’re issues.

Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics has provided some alarming insight into what kind of politics they do instead of policy politics. I haven’t read it, but Danyl McLaughlin helpfully summarises the basic thesis thus:

John Key’s National government uses a ‘two tier’ communications strategy; positive communications, which are focused around John Key, who is presented as ‘relaxed’ and decent, and negative/attack communications, which are conducted covertly by senior staffers in Key’s office and fed to the media mostly – but not exclusively – through Cameron Slater’s WhaleOil blog.

Obviously, the emphasis of the book is on the negative ‘tier'; the positive ‘tier’ was already quite obvious… but in fact both strategies involve “playing the man, not the ball” … positively, they focus on “the man” of John Key, his smiling face and perhaps some content-free feel-good generalities coming out of it. Negatively – well, you can read the book or the excerpts or the leaks or the blogs yourself.

Playing the man in these two ways has been a winning strategy so far, and has kept National riding high since Key took over (they’re currently polling well over double their 2002 election result). Will Dirty Politics and Whaledump change that? I hope so, but I can’t say with confidence.

What I can say with confidence, though, is that Key’s latest accusation is the most brazen hypocrisy I’ve witnessed since I’ve been following NZ politics.

Exodus: God and Oppressors

exodus cast

So Ridley Scott is bringing out a movie version of the Exodus story – Exodus: Gods and Kings. It’s the latest biblical blockbuster to cast mostly white actors to play Middle-Eastern people. It looks like this will be a particularly bad example: all the major and powerful characters are white, while thieves, servants and assassins are black. This is yet another example of the “perpetual maintenance of the White savior standing over the ethnic servant/villain/imbecile.”

This is indefensible, and to paraphrase chanters at a recent political rally: Fuck Ridley Scott. (Or Public Enemy: Straight up racist that sucker is, simple and plain)

The sad irony is the Exodus is the prototypical story of liberation of an oppressed group (e.g. people of colour) from a dominant empire (e.g. white-dominated capitalism/film industry), as noted by Liberation Theologians, or in fact any orthodox theologians/historians.

I don’t think it’s blasphemous to paraphrase Exodus 2:23-25 thusly:
“The P.O.C. groaned in their racist oppression and cried out, and their cry for help because of their racist oppression went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the P.O.C. and was concerned about them.”
(The paraphrased story doesn’t end well for Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox, by the way)

Killing civilians

APTOPIX Ukraine Plane Emergency workers carry the body of one of the people killed when Flight MH17 was shot down
military-kill-civiliansA Gallup poll, of Americans by religious affiliation, about whether it’s ever justified for “the military” to target and kill civilians
individuals-kill-civiliansThe same poll, posing the same question about individuals or small groups
gazadeaths
Israeli and Palestinian soldiers and civilians killed in the Gaza conflict, as at July 31
shrinking palestine Palestinian and Jewish/Israeli-controlled land since 1946
afghan-child-killed A 4-yr-old Afghan boy killed in January by US Marines, who said the weather was “dusty” and they assumed he was an enemy.

John Key and the New Zealand Parliament are right to condemn the killing of 298 civilians on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, and the impeding of investigations into it by Ukrainian separatists, and to express condolences to the victims’ families. Assuming it was a “tragic blunder,” it reminds us of the risks unrelated people are exposed to whenever anybody goes to war – a similar blunder was made by the US military in 1988, killing 290 civilians.

It’s a pity our government is not so decisive and unanimous in condemning the slaughter of civilians by our allies (or “very very good friends”).

The most obvious example at the moment is the Gaza conflict, in which over 1000 people (and counting) have died, mostly Palestinian civilians killed by our new allies, Israel. This is nothing new: since 2000, Israel have killed one Palestinian child every three days on average. The latest slaughter includes potential war crimes from Israel, such as deliberately targeting schools, hospitals, power plants and homes.

Here, Key has condemned the violence from both sides, pledged $250,000 humanitarian assistance for Gaza, called for a ceasefire and called the death toll “a blot on the world.” This is a good start, but his refusal to focus criticism on who’s doing most of the blotting (unlike Labour’s David Shearer or the Greens’ Kennedy Graham) makes his response ultimately inadequate.

Language like “Israel and Palestine have to learn to live side-by-side with each other” makes it sound like Israel and Palestine are two naughty kids who can’t stop fighting in the back seat of the car, rather than acknowledging that this is a situation of oppression and resistance (if that’s not clear to you, this video is a good, clear intro). Trying to be “balanced” or “neutral” on Israel/Palestine is exactly like being “balanced” on Australian colonial genocide or “neutral” between blacks and whites in apartheid South Africa. Israel bear the vast majority of responsibility for all those killed on both sides, because they’re in the position of the oppressor, coloniser and aggressor. Without acknowledging Israel’s occupation and domination of Palestine, we cannot understand the Israel-Palestine conflict, and without addressing it, we cannot genuinely hope for peace.

(Please note that I also oppose Hamas and Palestinian rocket attacks, for both ethical and tactical reasons. But it’s also vital to remember that in normal situations, people don’t elect governments like Hamas, or fire rockets at their neighbours. As Shearer, who worked for the UN in Israel, said: “It is not normal for 1.6 million Palestinians to be blockaded into a narrow strip of land, a situation that aptly fits its description as the largest prison camp in the world” and “These conditions will inevitably sow the seeds for further conflict if they’re not resolved.”)

Even worse is Key’s attitude to the killing of civilians by the United States, such as the hundreds of thousands (at least) killed by Bush’s war in Iraq, and the hundreds of children killed by Obama’s drone strikes. Even though Helen Clark ostensibly kept New Zealand out of the Iraq war, and drone strikes are contrary to international and NZ law, New Zealand assists with both of the above by providing intelligence gathered by the GCSB.

On this, we see nothing like the righteous indignation our Prime Minister expressed at the shooting down of Flight MH17, nor even the half-criticism of the Gaza slaughter. Key complained that we were “missing in action” in Iraq, has never bothered investigating whether drone strikes are compatible with international law (hint: they’re not), and is “totally comfortable” with GCSB data being used for drone attacks, even though they sometimes mistakenly kill the innocent, because they target “very bad people.”

If Key was “comfortable” with the killing of 298 people on Flight MH17, we would be appalled – we are rightly extremely uncomfortable with this act. We should be every bit as uncomfortable with the killing of civilians in “conventional” warfare by our powerful allies. In fact, we should be even more uncomfortable with the latter: as the Israel-Gaza example shows, our allies’ military superiority and position of dominance means they are able and willing to inflict far more damage on civilians, even if our media and politicians treat those people as less important.

Parliament rises on a good note, thanks to some meddling kids

The above video provides a good introduction to the slavery conditions of workers on foreign charter vessels fishing in NZ waters, as well as the Christchurch Anglican church’s involvement in it. While the Government took a while to act on the problem, rising awareness and public pressure led to them introducing a bill in 2012 to ensure all boats fishing in NZ waters re-flag and become subject to NZ labour/wage laws and health and safety protection.

All parties across the political spectrum supported the bill. But two years later, it was still going through the Parliamentary process and hadn’t had its third reading. A few days before Parliament was set to rise for the election, the bill’s sponsor, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy, thought it was too late, and would have to wait months until after the election. This article’s original title (still visible in the browser title, and when shared on Facebook) was “Anti slave fishing bill fails.”

The Christchurch Anglican Social Justice Unit – whom former Minister of Labour Kate Wilkinson had called “a bunch of do-gooders getting in the way” – heard about this, and started a social media campaign asking people to phone Guy, John Key and Gerry Brownlee (the Leader of the House, who controls Parliament’s agenda), urging them to schedule the third reading for before Parliament rose today. I put in my call to Brownlee, my local MP.

And, well, they did it! The bill was put onto the agenda and passed under urgency (a rare good use of urgency powers) at 1pm today as Parliament’s last act before the election. It will take effect in 2016.

So, well done to the Government for eventually getting their act together (pun intended), well done to the “do-gooders getting in the way” at Anglican Social Justice, and well done to the many other groups who have lobbied and raised awareness on this, including the Indonesian Society, the Maritime Union, reporters (you’re not all bad, Fairfax), and even – eventually – the fisheries companies themselves. This is great news.

PS: Let’s hope the meddling kids get similar cross-party support for their current petition. I’m not holding my breath.

The parties and the facts on minimum wage

put-the-politicians-on-minimum-wage-and-watch-how-fast-things-change

I’m a huge fan of minimum wage laws, which were introduced in NZ before any other nation-state, in 1894. Along with a good welfare safety net (remember when we had one of those? I don’t), they ensure employers can’t take advantage of prospective workers’ desperation to exploit their labour while paying them barely enough to survive, like upper classes have done for most of history and most of the world. They also put more money in the pockets of lower-income earners, which means more money circulating in the local economy, rather than the ‘trickle-down’ approach that directs more money to Swiss banks and Hawaiian holiday homes. All this is good for all workers, and good for society. As a Christian, I can’t help but agree that minimum wage laws as a necessary (though not sufficient) response to James 5:4-5, and enactment of Luke 6:20-21.

Employers and right-wingers often respond to the minimum wage (or proposed increases to it) in the same way they did to the abolition of slavery: countering that minimum wage laws end up hurting the people they mean to help, by making jobs unaffordable for employers, and therefore increasing unemployment. However, as the Melbourne Age reports, most economists now agree that reasonable increases in the minimum wage don’t increase unemployment, and may even decrease it. They’ve found room in their theories to explain this, by observing that reality is more complex than their older models.

The Age also offers plenty of real-life examples of minimum wage increases not increasing unemployment. New Zealand’s Treasury and our history corroborate this, as does recent US experience and this very rich man. The Living Wage movement adds evidence of employers actually getting more value for each wage dollar by paying employees better, as their staff are healthier, less likely to need long hours or second jobs, more loyal to their workplaces, better-motivated and often more productive. New Zealand has notoriously low productivity, so higher wages may help improve this.

If the old, baseless myths of minimum wages harming workers and employers are cast aside, there remains no economic or ethical justification for a minimum wage below a living wage, “the income necessary to provide workers and their families with the basic necessities of life” and “enable workers to live with dignity and to participate as active citizens in society.” The living wage is currently calculated at $18.80 per hour.

I thought it would be useful to survey the various political parties’ policies and past records on the minimum wage and/or Living Wage, to see what each of them may do if in power after September the 20th.

There’s some quite significant differences, which I’ve roughly quantified in scores out of ten for the sake of TL;DR readers who probably haven’t read this far anyway.

The parties on minimum wage

Alongside the below, please note that Bryan Bruce recently asked all parties “whether they would or would not support in principle the introduction of a living wage rather than a minimum wage.”  “The Green Party, Labour, Mana, Maori Party. Alliance and Internet Party said Yes they would. ACT, United Future, Conservative Party, Democrats For Social Credit said No. NZ First gave no answer, while Bill English for National refused to answer saying the question was hypothetical.”

National 2/10: No policy; presumably status quo

Policy: National typically don’t campaign on policy, and they have barely have any policy on their website compared to every other party – including nothing on the minimum wage. We can assume current trends will continue.

Past record: The 1990s National-led government was famously committed to lowering, not raising wages, due to similar beliefs to the minimum wage myths discussed above. They let it stagnate except when NZ First forced them to increase it in 1997, and left it in 1999 at about 40% of the average wage. The current National-led government have done better; they’ve maintained it where Labour left it in 2008 – around 50% of average wage. They’ve increased it gradually, though much slower than the last Labour-led government – 18.75% in six years (just above inflation) compared to 71.43% in nine years (considerably above inflation; they also introduced Working for Families – see below). Their latest increase has been the highest – 50c to $14.25. They promote this a lot in their media releases. If their ‘status quo’ policy continues, it will further increase inequality, because it’s well out of step with economic growth.

National also re-introduced lower minimum wages for young and new employees, because of the minimum wage myth that it would increase youth employment. This bill passed with the support of ACT and United Future, with all other parties opposing.

Labour 8/10: $15 then $16.25; target of 2/3 of average wage; Living wage ($18.80) for public jobs 

Policy: Labour have a clear policy to “Increase the minimum wage by $2 an hour in our first year,to $15 an hour in our first hundred days in government, and increased [sic] again to $16.25 an hour in early 2015.” They will also “Set a target of returning the minimum wage to two-thirds of the average wage by the end of our second term, as economic conditions allow,” noting that the minimum wage “averaged around two-thirds of the average wage in the post-War period until the policies of Muldoon, followed by the neoliberal period, slashed it to just 40% of the average wage by 1999. The sixth Labour government brought it up to half of the average wage, but it has flat-lined since then.”

They also intend to reform employment law to be more in the interests of workers, and support the Living Wage movement in a number of ways: they’ll “Ensure that all core public service workers are paid at least the Living Wage, and extend this as fiscal conditions permit,” favour private sector firms who pay living wages, and “progressively address inequities in the pay of the publicly-funded aged care and disability care workforce and non-teaching staff in … schools.” The latter would be great for our huge numbers of hard-working, poorly-paid aged-care workers. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that government subsidies are currently not enough for rest homes to pay their staff a living wage.

Past record: While the fourth Labour government kick-started “the neoliberal period” they mention in their policy, the last (Clark) Labour-led government raised the minimum wage much faster than inflation, and much faster than the current National-led government, as mentioned. They also introduced Working for Families to top up sub-living wages with government subsidies – John Key called this “communism by stealth” at the time but now supports maintaining it rather than making employers pay more. They also passed a diluted version of Sue Bradford’s bill for youth to receive the same minimum wage as older adults, which National have essentially reversed (see above).

Green    9/10: 2/3 of average wage ($17-$20)

Policy: The Greens’ policy is to “increase the minimum wage and ensure it cannot fall below 66% of the average wage.” 66% of the average would translate to $17.16 as of a year ago, but as a friend pointed out, raising the minimum wage would also raise the average, so the final figure would be higher than that – it would take a smarter statistical mind than mine to give you a firm figure. The advantage of a relative measure is it deals with the material, absolute effects of inequality, as well as the material effects of poverty. Superannuation is indexed to average wages, and I think it’s a good idea for the minimum wage to be also. The Greens also say they are “committed to full employment with dignity and a living income, and reject[] the idea that economic stability requires either a significant level of unemployment or a low level of protection for those in the paid workforce.”

Past record: Former Green MP Sue Bradford led the charge for youth to receive the same minimum wage as adults, and the Labour-led government passed a version of this. Contrary to what right-wing bloggers and politicians say, it didn’t cause any adverse affect to youth employment; in fact it decreased youth inactivity.

NZF    6.5/10: $16 at first; hinting at possible further increases

Policy: Their policy is to raise the minimum wage to $16 “in the first instance.” It’s not clear what would happen next; Winston Peters has previously said that after an initial raise they will “then add margins for skill and good service,” which isn’t particularly clear either. This lack of clarity means I’ve given them a score below Labour’s, despite their increase being higher until April 2015. They’ll also make employment law better for workers, and reverse National’s policy of lower minimum wages for young workers, preferring a more constructive policy of “subsidizing wages for employers who take on young, unemployed people for trade training and skills programmes.”

Past record: In their confidence and supply agreement with Labour in 2005, NZ First asked Labour to “continue the practice of annually increasing the minimum wage, with a view to it being set at $12.00 per hour by the end of 2008,” which happened. Also, the only significant increase to the minimum wage in the 1990s National-led government was prompted by NZ First. All their media releases on the minimum wage advocate for raising it (or oppose reintroducing the youth rate), and in a speech to the Combined Trade Unions Peters boasts that “New Zealand First has supported every increase in the minimum wage.”

Maori    9/10: Raise minimum wage to living wage ($18.80)

Policy: The policy section of their website hasn’t been updated for this election, and suggests raising the minimum wage to $16 as of 2011. More recently, they announced a policy of raising the minimum wage to the calculated living wage of $18.80. The Living Wage movement’s figure, which is updated each year, is based mostly on absolute measures. The advantage of this is that it deals with the material necessities of living a full life in society, can’t be written off as “merely relative” – though of course this writing-off misses the point spectacularly.

Past record: They haven’t let their role in National-led government blunt their criticism of its slow increases in the minimum wage, saying “The Government should be ashamed of themselves” for raising it a mere 25c to $13.75 in 2013. In the same release, they described “the increase in income inequality over the last 25 years as a major threat to our economic well-being and social cohesion,” and said “The Government should focus on reducing wage inequality by targeting high wages of excessively high income earners” as well as increasing the minimum wage.

Mana     10/10: Living Wage ($18.80) and no lower than 66% of average wage ($17-20)

Policy: Mana’s policy is to “Increase the minimum wage to $18.80 per hour (a living wage) and index it at 66% of the average wage to ensure it remains a living wage.” This combines the advantages of the Māori party policy (combating material deprivation by adopting a living wage) and the Green Party policy (combating the material affects of inequality and relative poverty by ensuring the minimum wage never goes below 66% of the average wage). Their economic justice, livelihoods and social wellbeing policies also include many other ways to “Raise the incomes of low-income earners,” including better protection for workers, working towards full employment by creating community service jobs for the unemployed, reversing National’s lower minimum wages for youth, finally increasing welfare support from the poverty-level it’s been at since 1991, abolishing GST which disproportionately impacts on the poor, and working towards a Universal Basic Income, as recommended by Gareth Morgan.

Past record: Mana is only three years old as a party, so their main past record has been advocating for the last three years for a higher minimum wage, and opposing the reduction of the minimum wage for young and new workers.

ACT    0/10: Scrap the minimum wage

Policy: If ACT had their way, minimum wage laws would be “gone by lunchtime” (to quote their former leader on NZ’s nuclear-free stance). This is part of their welfare [or lack thereof] policy, which they note would be a continuation of the current government’s approach to welfare. It’s interesting that even though the minimum wage is not about benefits, but work, ACT lump it under welfare policy – presumably because it goes to poor people, not rich people.

Past record: All their releases on the minimum wage advocate for lowering it, oppose raising it, or oppose it altogether. They successfully lobbied National to have it lowered for young and new workers. They frequently repeat the minimum wage myths discussed above; that minimum wages are a “barrier to unemployment,” and that a “myth that minimum wages protect the poor.”

UF    2/10: Seems to support the status quo, whatever that might be

Policy: The policy section of their website is in progress, and mostly still lists 2011 policy. I can’t find anything on their 2011 policy or even their media releases on minimum wage, except for saying they’d require “foreign charter vessels … compl[y] with New Zealand minimum wage laws and labour conditions,” which is a good and much-needed policy.

Past record: United Future have been confidence and supply partners of both the last National government and the last Labour government, and from what I can tell, they’ve supported what both their big sisters have done, despite the contradictions. This news report clarifies what I couldn’t find in their 2011 policy: they didn’t support a higher minimum wage last election (not sure about since). Last year, Peter Dunne’s one vote allowed National’s lower minimum wage for young and new workers to pass.

Internet    ?/10: No policy so far

Policy: Their policies are still in progress, and I can find barely anything even being discussed on their policy forum and/or policy incubator – I found a few comments here, which aren’t too encouraging. Ironically, their media releases lack the basic internet feature of a search function, so I’m finding it hard to see if they’ve even mentioned the minimum wage anywhere (except for this release from Hone Harawira on behalf of Internet Mana). Perhaps the most solid statements they’ve made are one-off responses to questions: their affirmative response to Bryan Bruce’s Living Wage question above, Bruce’s other questions and #3-ranked candidate (#6 in Internet Mana) Miriam Pierard’s strong response to bFM on inequality.

Past record: Since they don’t even have policy yet, they certainly don’t have a past record. I suppose Kim Dotcom’s past record is worth mentioning; though here’s another perspective on it. In any case, while Dotcom does have a largely undefined “oversight” role, there are plenty of others involved in shaping policy: candidates, members and even to some extent the Mana party.

Conservative    4/10: $20,000 tax-free threshold instead of raising minimum wage

Policy: I only found one thing about the minimum wage on their website; it’s an undated response from Colin Craig to a reader’s question about the living wage and unions. Craig’s answer shows he believes in minimum wage myths as much as “tough on crime” myths, but it also clarifies his policy, which is to “increase the [non-existent] tax free threshold to $25,000″ [now $20,000, and with an undefined flat tax after that] instead of raising the minimum wage.

A tax-free threshold would be great for low-income earners (and is one of the few policies the Conservatives have in common with Mana), but isn’t really a substitute for fairer wages. Quick calculations show if there was flat tax of 20% above $20,000, a minimum wage worker would end up with the equivalent of about $15.50 per hour on current tax rates (though presumably less public services). If it was 30% flat tax, they’d end up with the equivalent of $15/hr on current tax rates. If it was 40% (unlikely, given their low tax rhetoric), they’d end up with basically the same net wages as now.

Past record: I can’t find anything apart from the above.

Scores/10 according to me:

Mana: 10
Māori: 9
Green: 9
Labour: 7.5
NZ First: 6.5
Conservative: 4
National: 2
United Future: 2
ACT: 0
Internet: ?