Monday, November 21, 2016

Divisive politics and electoral reform - lessons from a small pacific nation

On the 29th of August 1981, at the age of 20, I was arrested for disorderly conduct in a public place. I was not alone. I was one of many thousands of people (my brother and father included) protesting against apartheid and the visit of the South African rugby team (the Springboks).
The 1981 Springbok tour was a crucial turning point in New Zealand politics and the more I look at political events in the United States recently, the more I am reminded of it. I am reminded of why the kind of divisive politics that has taken hold in the United States will not be a feature in my own country. It's not because New Zealanders are in any way superior to Americans. It's just we've been there, done it and have implemented systems to prevent that sort of crap happening again.

The 1981 Springbok tour was a lot more than a series of games of New Zealand's obscure but fanatically followed national sport - rugby. It was a huge political confrontation which split families, friendships and political groupings all over the country. As issue: whether or not it was acceptable to play sport with apartheid South Africa. It not only split left and right but also raised New Zealand's own history of racism and colonialism. But looked at historically it was the beginning of the end for the divisive politics of the Prime Minister of the Day, Sir Robert Muldoon.

Muldoon was a small time accountant who's rise to political power was based on exploiting the then electoral system of New Zealand. Essentially the country was divided into electorates and each electorate voted for a Member of Parliament. The political party with the most Menbers of Parliament got to form a government. In theory there were checks and balances. The elected MPs could roll the party leader. The judiciary is independent, etc. But Muldoon was a wily politician and a vicious bully and with the help of "Rob's mob" he soon reduced New Zealand's parliamentary democracy to what some such as Sir Geoffrey Palmer termed an "elected dictatorship".
Not everyone was unhappy about that. "Rob's Mob" loved Muldoon's "down to earth" style, his pugnacious 'punch em in the mouth' temperament, and his conservative support for farmers, employers and businessmen. Just like the recent turnout for Donald Trump "Rob's Mob" were largely rural, less well educated, and fairly racist. They were pretty damn misogynistic and homophobic as hell (it was 1981). The biggest difference is that New Zealand's evangelistic movement has never been united or all that large.
Robert Muldoon's political economy was based on vast subsidies (quarter of the Govt budget in 1981) for the agricultural community (not clever in a nation whose main industry is agriculture and lacks a source of industrial income to fund the subsisidy). He also borrowed from the IMF (at their suggestion) to invest in energy projects speculating (with taxpayers funds) on the historically high price of oil.
Not surprisingly economists considered him an idiot. He combined protectionism, speculation and a growing level of border controls that made New Zealand not unlike Albania. When he froze all wages in order to ban inflation The Economist magazine in london referred to his political economy as "Muldoonery".
The 1981 Springbok tour was a perfect instrument for Muldoon. It was a reward for "Rob's Mob" and a way to create division and annoy the liberals. By the end in September it had become a "law and order issue" with riot squads, protesters literally becoming rioters, and light aircraft being used to disrupt the games. Muldoon was re-elected not long after with less than 40% of the popular vote and a razor thin parliamentry majority. The politics of division had worked but people were rapidly tiring of it.
By 1984 there was a sense of crisis. Getting rid of Muldoon had become the focus of politics. Muldoon even forestalled a putsch by his own party by going on TV the night before and appealling to Rob's Mob to keep him as leader. The national cabinet backed down.
While the Labour Party had chosen the glib and charismatic David Lange there was still a danger that the 1984 election would split on party lines and Muldoon would again cheat political death. It was only when businessman Robert Jones promoted the "New Zealand Party" to split the conservative vote that Muldoon finally fell. The Labour party triumphed, the New Zealand Party vanished (although its policies were taken up by labour) and National was smashed.
Yet the most important development of this period was a deep mistrust of the political system. The story of post Muldoon electoral reform is not one of noble political champions but a web of election promises which eventually forced politicians to act. see
The result was the mixed member proportional system similar to that in Germany. It was introduced by referendum and has been tested since by referendum.
As a result there cannot be the kind of elected dictatorship of the kind Robert Muldoon specialised in again. Small parties can and do form and have a reasonable chance of being elected. Every party must strive to gain the centre because without it a party or coalition has little hope of holding power, and no government has been elected with an overall majority in its own right.
New Zealand is the only English speaking country with an MMP political system. It has taken some time for both politicians and voters to get used to it and adapt it to our political culture. But the strength of the MMP system now means that, while political disagreement remains (as it does everywhere), the results of elections tends toward stable and rational political direction.
I cannot argue that MMP improves public political discourse, or any particular appreciation of the crucial matters facing New Zealand. It does not suddenly make New Zealanders individually any more politically intelligent or insightful. Electoral systems don't do that.
But because the electorate is fully represented the wisdom of the entire electorate is often quite remarkably successful at finding a good balance between stability and responsiveness.
The result is that, if the major political parties have offerings which are credible, participation can easily top 80% for the simple reason that every vote really does count.
Any country where electoral participation is under two thirds can only marginally call itself a democracy. At 58% (2016) the US is even less of a democracy than India (66%, 2014).
Without a proper system of representation voters become apathetic. They lose faith in the system and belief in the notion of democracy. The repeatedly vote for "change" and with each candidate that does not or cannot deliver change the less they take the system seriously. From a 'sacred duty' voting becomes a case of happily fucking up a fucked system.
Can the USA reform itself electorally? I have no idea. But if it doesn't begin the journey very soon I suggest the self proclaimed home of democracy will have no more right to that title than the People's Republic of China.

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Friday, November 11, 2016

While there is Murdoch.

So the US election is over and in theory at least 'the people have spoken'. Strangely the people have spoken in the one poll that matters very, very differently to the polls that preceded them. Just like Brexit.

At the moment everyone is crapping themselves about the Donald. But what if the Donald is actually only a symptom of a deeper malaise. A malaise that takes reality and twists it beyond all recognition. What if manufacturing consent has become conjuring mandates out of thin air. What if the problem is Rupert Murdoch?

Look at it this way. Murdoch wanted a Liberal victory in his native Australia in 2013. There was a Liberal victory in Australia in 2013. Against the rational economic interests of the UK Murdoch wanted Brexit. Brexit (despite all the polls saying to the contrary) was the result of the referendum. Murdoch switched to Trump in May 2016 and again, against all the polls, Trump wins.

If Rupert Murdoch wasn't the owner of a huge media empire, which was caught in Britain using hacking techniques in order to gain leverage over politicians (in addition to the considerable media power his outlets already have), one might think this was simply coincidence. But Murdoch's whole business is peddling influence. Who does he influence? Voters and politicians.

Murdoch is big in Australia, the UK and the United States. Murdoch is not big in Canada, Ireland or New Zealand. You may have noticed the Canadians elected Justin Trudeau of the centrist Liberal party in October 2015. But you may not have noticed that Ireland elected the progressive centrist Fine Gael in February 2016. New Zealand's National Party is nominally right centrist but libertarian parties on its right have not thrived. While elections in Canada, Ireland and New Zealand are robust contests they are largely free of the xenophobia, division and conquest that has accompanied recent Australian, British and US experience.

In 2013 (from Wikipedia)"News Corp papers were accused of supporting the campaign of the Australian Liberal government and influencing public opinion during the 2013 federal election. Following the announcement of the Liberal Party victory at the polls, Murdoch tweeted 'Aust. election public sick of public sector workers and phony welfare scroungers sucking life out of economy. Other nations to follow in time.'"

Fast forward to the US in 2016. Trump didn't need to buy media. He got given it for free. Certainly he spouted headlines that would have not looked out of place in the Sun. With aggressive, unfair, dishonorable and unrelenting sound bites Trump muscled his way into the channels that fed working America's fear and resentment.The two worked together hand in glove.

Has Murdoch done anything illegal? Nobody has proved he had any direct knowledge of the phone hacking scandal in the UK but he has certainly stood by those staff who did time for it. Proving anything against a billionaire media tycoon takes some doing. Silvio Berlusconi's sole conviction was for tax fraud - he got off underage sex on appeal and his alleged links to the mafia are mere footnotes. Berlusconi conveniently remained in Italy while Murdoch's empire spans three seperate jurisdictions.
But illegality isn't the issue. Like the big banks who largely bypassed accountability because they were too large and too important to be interrupted with boring matters like prudence and fiduciary duty, (and lacking any direct evidence) it isn't the letter of the law that I raise here.

The simple fact is that Murdoch doesn't just own media like Michael Bloomberg. Murdoch weilds power. He isn't frightened to be completely partisan in distorting the public space with savage unrelenting media attacks to suit his own political ends. Like Bloomberg, Murdoch is a politician but unlike Bloomberg he's not elected nor has he ever been accountable to anyone. Indeed his method is to make the politicians accountable to him.

Obviously becoming the proxy for the people is not a new idea. Lenin as leader of the Bolsheviks was the first to act in the name of the people but without accountability to them. But it is Adolf Hitler who delighted in bitter divisions and emnity who became the manipulator of the people through vicious language and appeal to basest instincts that Murdoch most resembles. Like Hitler, Murdoch spawns hatred and remains gleefully unaccountable for his actions.

As with the big banks the solution is obvious. The tendency toward monopoly that is innate to capitalism has been allowed to develop out of control. Where the banks have run away with the money supply media moguls like Murdoch have cornered the influence market. Like the big banks which have created an environment where intervention is almost impossible so too has Murdoch created a political niche that is almost unassailable.

Murdoch himself must die in the not so distant future. The man himself, while problematic, is not the issue. What matters is the systematic subversion of the public space he has been able to pursue. Unless this is structurally denied by new forms of regulation and democratic control the institutions of democracy will whither and die.

As in the 1930s I fear we live in an era where the idea of democracy must fight if it is to survive. If this is true let us, at least, be clear who democracy's most virulent enemies really are.

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