Monday, September 29, 2008

TV debates: MMP, not FPP

News that Helen Clark and John Key are refusing to debate each other with other party leaders has understandably been received with anger by Rodney Hide. Television debates are a major platform for small party leaders to put forward their case to voters. Excluding leaders other than from National or Labour devalues votes given to small parties and only encourages the mistaken view that New Zealand has a presidential system, rather than a proportional, MMP environment.

Hide performs well in debates and will be annoyed that he will be robbed of a potential opportunity to swing voters from National in the manner that Peter Dunne did back in 2002, via the infamous "worm".

Hide's words from his Sunday speech are worth repeating here. Even if you don't support ACT, you should support Hide's position on this issue. I certainly do.
I am disappointed for our country and our democracy. We need to see our Leaders debate their policies. There are serious issues confronting the country. We need to debate the future direction of the country. The man who would be our next Prime Minister is refusing to do so. That's disappointing.

It's MMP. Voters vote a coalition. Having John Key debate with the Leaders of the MMP Parties would be so valuable: voters would get to judge how the Party Leaders and their ideas would work together. Voters need to see the dynamic between the Helen Clark and the Greens, and John Key and ACT. They deserve to see how the Maori Party would fit in.

John Key has denied voters that opportunity. I think it's a shame and anti-democratic.
Here's an idea Hide should take to TVNZ and TV3: encourage them to cancel their head-to-head debates with Key and Clark if they do not agree to take part in debates with other party leaders. Judging by the success of the news media's ganging up in the US against molly-coddling of Sarah Palin, this could be quite effective.

Wong way to do things

National MP Pansy Wong's attack on Kenneth Wang, the ACT candidate in Botany, should backfire. Wong has lodged an EFA complaint against Wang on the basis that his billboards, which claim voting for Wang will net voters both Wang and Wong (because of the latter's high list position), amounts to an unauthorised and untrue endorsement of Kenneth Wang by Pansy Wong, who has done no such thing.

If mainstream-niche party competition theory, as set out by Bonnie Meguid and discussed by me earlier this year, holds, this attack should have only upside for ACT. Voters feel sympathetic to a small party being attacked by a larger rival; moreover, the attack has drawn far more attention to the billboards than they would have had just being mounted on the street (the Herald article, for starters).

And voters will likely seriously consider Wang's proposition: as he himself points out, people like a buy-one-get-one-free deal. Botany is a new seat created after the 2006 census (see the Wikipedia for a surprisingly detailed background piece).

ACT and the financial crisis

With all the coverage of the financial contagion which centres on the United States, it's sobering to recall that it is New Zealand, not the US, which has moved into a "technical recession" in the past week, having suffered two consecutive quarters of negative growth. The last time this happened was in 1998 - a fact which should give ACT pause for thought. While financial troubles are not normally something to be embraced with glee, ACT should actually profit electorally from the economic uncertainty.

In 1998, the year of the last recession (which took place amidst the Asian Crisis), the party managed its best ever election result in the Taranaki-King Country by-election of of 2 May 1998. The by-election, held to find a replacement for the previous seat-holder, ousted Prime Minister Jim Bolger, saw ACT haul in 24% of all electorate votes cast and candidate Owen Jennings come within a veritable whisker of winning the seat. What should have been a safe seat for the National Party was won by Shane Ardern with a majority of just 988 votes of almost 20,000 cast.

Sure, that was just a by-election and ACT has done one better in electorate seats both before and since: Richard Prebble won Wellington Central in 1996; Rodney Hide, of course, has held the Epsom electorate since 2005 and according to ACT will safely win the Epsom seat this year. But let's go back to the 1990s: while the economy had recovered somewhat by 1999, the situation was precarious enough to allow the 1999 election to be fought primarily on economic issues. Recall Jenny Shipley threatening increased power of unions; Helen Clark promoting a new 39% top tax rate. For its part, ACT managed to increase its number of seats in Parliament from 8 to 9 - the only time in its history (other than its inaugural entry) it has managed to increase representation.

With New Zealand's economy stronger in 2002 and 2005, these elections were not fought on the overall state of the economy, but on more peripheral issues. These encompassed crime, the environment and race. (It's true that tax cuts were a campaign issue in 2005, but this was not equivalent to a debate over wider economic reforms). To borrow a simple doctrine I heard last week from one of CNN's talking heads: when the economy is doing well, something else is the main issue; when the economy is doing badly, the economy is the issue.

For ACT, a party based on economic reform, then, the hard times New Zealand is now facing should be gold dust. The economy is in trouble; house prices are falling - where is the solution? ACT has one ready in the form of a 20 point pledge card plan - available on its website. But ACT is showing few signs of benefitting according to current opinion polls - it is "static" on 2% according to Sunday's 3 News poll; curiablog's rolling average puts the party at just 1.5%. Why aren't economic troubles appearing to benefit an economic party? After all, in Rodney Hide's own words, "ACT is the only Party with a detailed plan to lift our economic performance".

Here's what I think: ACT's remedy is not perceived as befitting the disease. The collapse of numerous banking institutions in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and elsewhere has been attributed by voters to the greed of "Wall Street" - with bankers greedy for profits taking inordinate risks. These risks are now being unwound in the form of taxpayer assistance, in the US to the tune of US$700 billion. ACT's free market message is hardly likely to appeal. Why let the market decide when the market can so clearly badly stuff things up?

Most voters won't feel the need to go through this analysis - they'll see "Roger Douglas", remember the 1980s and think "let's not go there again". This doesn't mean they don't want the free market, but they prefer a more compassionate form than the unbridled version. In other words, the smiling-your-mate-John Key version appeals, the version which promises no more asset sales, the version which promises no funding cuts for just about anything.

There is an alternative interpretation the financial crisis which is supported by more right-wing members of the Republican party in the United States. In this version, bankers and their greed were not the problem - the free market is not at fault. Rather, it was the government which forced them into this position by dictating that as part of a social policy mortgages should be granted to all and sundry, rather than just those who can afford the repayments. I haven't seen an ACT position on the causes of the crisis, but I strongly suspect they would side with this view and reject further government intervention.

The trouble for ACT is, far more voters agree with interpretation 1 than interpretation 2. ACT's remedy is too harsh for the disease.

Update: Simon Walker

I mentioned Simon Walker in my post on targeting New Zealand voters abroad. Walker was included in ACT newsletters during its start-up phase in the mid-1990s as the party's London contact. Walker edited the 1989 book Rogernomics: Reshaping New Zealand’s Economy, a collection of articles in favour of the economic reforms began five years earlier by the then Minister of Finance and later ACT co-founder, Sir Roger Douglas.

Mr. Walker has since contacted me to say that he is still an ACT party member and supporter. Indeed, he appears to still be living in London and is the Chief Executive of the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (BVCA), which describes itself as "the industry body for the UK private equity and venture capital industry. Our membership of well over 400 members represents the overwhelming number of UK-based private equity and venture capital firms and their advisers".

ACT is a party of interesting personalities and one of the interesting aspects of studying the party in depth has been following up where supporters and former MPs have ended up. Walker is by no means the only ACT figure living overseas - as I noted last year, Derek Quigley now lectures in Canberra; blogger Clint Heine lives in London; Rob Good lives in Los Angeles - and these are just names off the top of my head. I'll try to continue keeping tabs on ACT figures - wherever they are in the world.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Update: targeting voters abroad

Many thanks to Stephen who posted some interesting information as a comment to yesterday's post on the difficulties of targeting New Zealand voters abroad. According to an expat organisation called Kea New Zealand, which is running a campaign called "Every Vote Counts", only around 28,000 of 500,000 New Zealanders living abroad who are eligible to vote actually do so, which I think is a staggering statistic. As for the motives behind the campaign, according to Kea:
Every Vote Counts is strictly non-partisan, and does not advocate that expatriates vote for any particular political party or candidate, nor hold or act on any particular political opinion. No public funds are being used to support Every Vote Counts.
It seems unfortunate that it is left to a volunteer group to encourage New Zealanders living abroad to vote. Kea's website is a pretty professional effort and I might add slightly more attractive than Elections New Zealand's own site, which does a good job of burying information for overseas voters. As I said in the previous post, getting to overseas voters is not an easy job, but there must be a better way. I wonder whether departure cards filled out at the border when leaving New Zealand could be used as a contact point (so long as passengers grant their permission), with an e-mail and/or letter sent out automatically reminding people to enrol and vote from abroad. If you can be stopped at the border for not paying traffic fines, surely it would be possible to get people on the electoral roll.

While Kea is non-partisan, I also found a Labour Party effort (shrewdly registered with a .co.uk suffix) called "Kiwi Vote" (as an aside, with "Kiwi" being used for nearly anything these days, I wonder when Labour will rename itself KiwiLabour). It promotes Jacinda Ardern as "your candidate in London", although it would appear she has returned to New Zealand by now. From April onwards, however, she was apparently scouring the streets of London to find eligible New Zealand voters, both to encourage them to enrol and vote for Labour. Ardern has been ranked 20 on the Labour Party list.

ACT supporter Clint Heine is also based in London and is also on the ACT list this election, at position 39.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Targeting voters abroad

Finding on my return that the election was so close was something of a surprise - November 8 is certainly not far away! For voters abroad such as myself, it will be even sooner. I received a letter from Elections NZ advising me on how to vote from overseas and it looks like the easiest way will be to download and fax my voting papers back to New Zealand - from two and a half weeks prior to the actual day.

A figure I've heard quoted before is that there are some one million New Zealanders living overseas. I don't know if this is accurate - but if there are about 500,000 New Zealanders in Australia and at least 100,000 in the United Kingdom (as was reported around the time of the 2005 London underground bombings), it seems plausible. Not every New Zealand passport holder automatically has a vote, however. If New Zealand citizens do not return to New Zealand at least once every 3 years, their voting rights are withdrawn. To me this seems extremely unfair considering that New Zealand generously grants even permanent residents the right to vote, but I think most New Zealanders would return at least once within that timeframe - so let's say that makes around 750,000 eligible voters.

This would make them an important and much neglected voting bloc. ACT recognised the influence of overseas voters earlier than most - it established a contact point in London in its start-up phase in the mid-1990s headed by Simon Walker. Walker was involved in the right-wing think tank called the Centre for Independent Studies in the 1990s and as I recall edited a book or two. I don't know what the status of his involvement with ACT is these days - he still seems to be based in the United Kingdom according to a quick search on Google.

Fast forward to 2008 and I don't know if ACT is doing anything concrete to target voters abroad, who must be tricky to round up. With the possible exception of a couple of Australian cities, the concentration of NZers is so weak that traditional advertising methods such as newspaper and television advertising is out of the question (indeed even where it could be technically possible, it would be ruled out for expense reasons alone), leaving only the internet. Yet even here there is limited scope: taking out advertisements on the New Zealand Herald website or similar could be an option, but this assumes voters are actively engaged in NZ matters and that they do not ignore the online advertising (which is much easier to do on-screen than in a physical publication or TV broadcast).

Social networking websites, via methods such as Facebook groups, offer an alternative, but again they assume that the interest of the voters is high enough to encourage them to seek them out. I suspect that social networking is most of use for political parties themselves - ACT has created a number of "fan" pages on Facebook to rally the troops for the campaign. This method is probably particularly effective for the small but vocal ACT on Campus legion of supporters.

ACT should be interested in overseas voters - perhaps more so than most parties. Because it takes some degree of get-up-and-go for someone to move overseas, quite often because of a job opportunity, many are on the other end of the "brain drain". They know why they left New Zealand - and they know what it will take for them to want to return. In addition, I suspect the income of New Zealanders living abroad is disproportionately high compared with their countrymen living at home, not only because of higher wages abroad, but also because their work is likely to be more highly skilled on average. We know from election studies that ACT voters are likely to be earning a higher income on average, so it is plausible that a higher proportion of voters living abroad vote for ACT. Because overseas voters are hard to track down, however, I do not believe there are any actual statistics to prove this one way or the other. For practical reasons, election studies have focused only on New Zealand residents.

As a final note, I suspect that there are many New Zealanders living abroad who could vote, but do not, simply because of the perceived hassle involved and a certain level of disconnection from the election campaign. You cannot vote online. While are fax machines are more convenient than conventional post, they feel like 1990s technology. Moreover, it's almost impossible to avoid the election when you're at home - step outside your house and you'll see a billboard somewhere. When abroad, your awareness will come from checking online and talking to friends and family in NZ - but it's unlikely to be omnipresent. (Incidentally, with the US elections so closely followed abroad, this situation would be quite different for Americans overseas, who can quite easily keep up with the campaign without actively seeking out information).

ACT and other political parties would be well advised to encourage non-resident eligible NZ voters to put some effort in and cast their vote at the election.

Normal service resumes?

Back for the election. I admit that the reputation of this blog has suffered in recent months with a paucity of updates. After an extended break, I'm back and hope to provide some useful commentary on ACT in the election campaign. From now on I will try to make posts more timely and topical and move away from the extended, but irregular analysis pieces which I preferred earlier in the year. Expect Douglas to Dancing to be more concise and follow the news agenda more closely from now on, although I'll still try to provide original material and comments not available elsewhere (the unique selling point of any blog). I can't promise daily updates, but will attempt to provide commentary at least several times per week.

Naturally for a blog focusing on a small party, this blog has a small readership. Its future will partly depend on ACT's fortunes in the 2008 election: if ACT does manage to put Sir Roger Douglas in as Minister of Finance, its survival in its present form is assured - anything less and it may not be. For example, if ACT's party vote decreases from the 1.5% it attained in 2005, the time may be nigh to put the full stop on the ACT story. I suspect the ultimate outcome will fall somewhere in between. The ultimate dividing line between success and failure will be whether the support from ACT - either in a coalition or in a more informal arrangement - determines the composition of the next government. It's worth noting, however, that Jim Anderton (via his Progressive Party) has been in coalition with Labour for the last two parliamentary terms, yet I don't think anyone could find enough interest or material to create a blog on him (except Anderton himself, perhaps!)

Please remember to send comments and questions to me at any time, either via the in-built comments feature or to my e-mail address (details at left).