An open letter to Mrs. May, MP (not PM)

Dear Maggie

Ah no, not Maggie. Maggie May is just a song by Rod Stewart. You thought you were a Maggie Mk II (that Maggie), but you’re just a poor imitation, a sort of Poundshop Thatcher. Sure, there are the snazzy M&S suits and the occasional blue handbag, but the similarities end there, I’m afraid. All soundbite over substance, as Mr. Blair wouldn’t say.

So, Dear Theresa

Voters, eh? Bloody hell!

Pollsters, eh? Double bloody hell!

Your face was a picture on Friday. It reminded me of the face of Boris’s on June 23rd last year. Nasty surprises are always more entertaining for everyone else, of course, but I’m not getting a sympathetic vibe for you from anyone: right now I’d say you are about as popular as the Pope in a Loyalist pub in Belfast.

Speaking of which, it must be pretty galling having to do a deal with Britain’s answer to the Westboro Baptist Church. So when you criticised Jeremy Corbyn (well, when your mates in the press did) for his dialogue with the IRA in the 80s, what we didn’t realise at the time was that it was only his particular choice of Northern Irish extremists that irked you. So long as they have a Union Jack in their logo, their batshit creationism, anti-abortion and anti-gay rhetoric, and former links to UDA paramilitaries are all tickety boo, presumably.

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Have you tried the bacon sandwiches? Deliciously strong and stable.

And those nice people in the Dinosaur Unionist Party will take some bribing negotiating with, won’t they? They’ll want shiny new hospitals and roads and whatnot. But that’s OK because we can just pay for it with your magic money tree. You know, the one you kept banging on about during your ‘campaign’. That same awesome tree has just shelled out about 140 million for this political masterstroke almighty cock-up. Indeed, the electorate enjoyed it so much, we’ll probably have to splash 140m on another one later in the year. All of the above was impeccably costed in your ‘manifesto’, I’m sure.

There were a few other things you kept banging on about in your electrifying campaign. Something about stability, I think. And a red, white and blue Brexit. It sounds very whizzy. I’m sure it was meant to appeal to the youth who turned out to endorse it in record numbers. I mean they must have done, mustn’t they? Their heads can’t possibly have been turned by the chance to go to university without saddling themselves with large debts. Let no one say you have a tin ear for the wishes of the electorate.

And so you made the campaign all about you and your team – an understandable strategy given your charismatic personality, your soft skills, your warm rapport with the people.

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This is a school and these are children, Theresa. Not lepers. Or Marxist saboteurs. HTH.

So it must have been more than a little annoying to see so many voters go for the other guy: Mr. Corbyn – an inoffensive looking chap who seemed to have wandered away absently from his allotment into the political maelstrom. You wasted no time in labelling him (or getting your nice friend Mr. Dacre to label him) ‘Jezbollah’ and a frightful Marxist. You even suggested that all his promises were an unaffordable wishlist of pie-in-the-sky nonsense that would wreck the economy. The trouble with this line is that your cherished Brexit is also an unaffordable bit of pie-in-the-sky nonsense that will wreck the economy, and so here we are.

But it was all worth it in the end, and that’s what counts, yes? What was it you wanted? A mandate. I recall there was a cheap, pungent 80s aftershave called Mandate. I used to wear it in the vain hope it would attract the opposite sex. Perhaps giving someone like you a mandate was similarly repulsive to too many voters, which is a real shame because when you’re not barking inanities about Brexit, you have one or two ideas which aren’t at all bad for a Tory. You got them from your adviser, the guy with the bushy beard, to be fair. Something about trying to protect industries in the Midlands and the North, and making the elderly make a greater contribution to the costs of their aged care rather than kicking the can down the road and dumping it all on the overworked and underpaid.

If Mr. Timothy had been a little more diplomatic in the way he pushed these policies, instead of infuriating your ‘colleagues’ in ‘TeamMay’ with his bullish ego and high-handed style, you might just have started a decent conversation on how on earth we’re going to support the old, and you might just have gone a little way to repairing some of the economic pain and decline suffered by those regions. You must remember that. It was wrought by your heroine, your idol, back in the good old days of the 80s when Tory majorities grew on trees and election campaigns were tiresome interludes to be endured. Instead, poor old Rasputin Nick’s political corpse is drifting in the Neva, an expendable victim of your ego.

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It’s not Little Red Riding Hood, it’s the Big Bad (toothless) Wolf

So, what now? The proverbial glass of whisky and revolver in the library, I suppose. You could always console yourself with a quick listen to your Desert Island Discs choices. One of them was ABBA’s Dancing Queen: allow yourself one last wistful thought of gliding across the world’s stage in those kitten heels. A more fitting choice would be The Winner Takes It All. As the next line goes, the loser has to fall. And even though you ‘won’, you lost really.

Fine dining and electoral timelords

Poor old Jay Rayner. All he wanted was a to be spoiled, pampered, indulged at a classic multi-Michelin Parisian restaurant; instead, he was inspired to write one of his most excoriating reviews. ‘Spherication’ gels that looked ‘like silicone breast implants’, ‘bitter watercress puree like a cat’s arse brushing against nettles’. Ouch. I’ll leave you to digest Rayner’s brutal similes and metaphors, and his devastating critique of an absurdly-priced ‘dining experience’, for yourself.

It made me reflect on the dining experience here in Wellington – or Australasia, for that matter. No Michelin stars down here. The French seem as oblivious to the possibility of fine dining in the Antipodes as the hapless, snooty garcons were oblivious to the possibility that Le Cinq might just be serving up outrageously fancy garbage.

Not that it really matters – in fact, I would suggest it is an asset. The cutting edge techniques and elaborate plating which have been championed by the likes of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria since the early 90s, have become almost mainstream. Dusts, soils, gels, foams are making an appearance at all types of eateries, with varied success. Indeed, the only escape to a more rustic, retro presentation is to opt for Italian, or curry, or a good old Eggs Benedict from the cafe: the day they serve me a hollandaise foam, I’ll know the hipster aesthetes have truly taken over.

Matterhorn, still tucked away quietly and inobtrusively on Cuba Street, illustrates this perfectly. A decade ago it was an excellent bar with a decent array of wines and cocktails which served tasty, unpretentious food. Today, the wines are as good as ever, the cocktails a little more eclectic and outre, but the dishes have been elevated to a much higher level.

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Duck ‘four ways’: rillette, parfait, breast, mousse-filled eclair. Quadruple yum!

The Mancunian bartender gently persuaded me to start with a cocktail; Lady E would have a preferred the safe opening of Prosecco, but was talked into a refreshing gin and rhubarb Negroni. I opted for a Call Lane Colada: the sort of twist on a classic which has purists reaching for their revolvers. It was reassuringly mostly rum and pineapple, but with a coconut butter infusion in a tea strainer. Weird, yet delicious.

Escorted to our table by a Canadian waitress who was the perfect balance of relaxed and punctilious, I reflected on the miserable outcomes for Wellington hospitality should the anti-immigration mob get their way on visa restrictions. Ravenous, we shared a quick fix of fresh Bluff oysters, with a delicate, palate-cleansing bitter lemon sorbet.

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Not sure what this was – blame the lack of light.

Matterhorn is still too dark, or else I’m turning into my Dad. The plating was a stylish riot of colours, but even my iPhone camera could not do it justice owing to the dim light. It was, of course, the perfect ambience for dating, and there was plenty of people-watching to be done, once Lady E and I had run out of chat about work and kids. The couple on the adjoining table were every bit the awkward first date, alas – folded arms, leaning away from each other, relying on the tome-like menu for conversation starters. Outside, the Matterhorn magic had obviously worked on one young pair, who were sharing a crafty post-prandial cigarette and oblivious to the chill.

The mains were just magnificent: my duck ‘four ways’ (rillette, poached breast, parfait and mousse-filled eclair) tasted as impressive as it looked. Lady E’s snapper with bacon foam and a host of other esoteric treats barely had time to sit appetisingly on the plate for a quick photo before it was consumed with alacrity.

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Snapper with bacon foam et al. Any dish can be improved with lovely lovely bacon.

Never once did any of the quirks and twists detract from the cooking, especially the taste. They were just playful touches of imagination and inspiration firmly grounded in delicious flavour. The damage? $220; impressively good value for three courses each and copious wines and aperitifs. I did let the side down on the desserts, pathetically opting for a humble Irish coffee, while ogling Lady E’s coconut and pineapple surprise. I really am turning into my Dad.

Poor old Jeremy Corbyn. If it’s not the Tory press pummeling him for his beard, his clothes and his past IRA sympathies, it’s satirists monstering his nostalgic manifesto that pretends that Labour’s infamous suicide note of 1983 was a sure fire winner, if only the electorate had woken up to the truth.

The Daily Mash got stuck in with a whimsical jibe about Labour restoring Tom Baker to his rightful place as the Dr. Who. I don’t think 70s era politics are going to triumph on June 8th, but the article did stimulate a Facebook discussion about the possible political affiliations of each of the Doctor’s many incarnations.

Tom Baker is straightforward old Labour: the glory days of Wilson and Callaghan. The underlying themes of environmental disaster, peace and the rights of the oppressed pervade the scripts of this era. Jon Pertwee, with his colourful vaudevillian cape and imperious persona, is an eccentric, genteel Shire Tory, disdainful of Left Radicals and Thatcherites with equal measure.

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Jon Pertwee: strong and stable?

Peter Davison is surely a LibDem: just a touch too young and earnest to be taken seriously. Colin Baker, with lots of potential but ill-fated, screams SDP. Some of his stories were genuinely good and he is a fine actor, but he could appear a little smug and self-knowing and his controversial tenure ended in failure. Sylvester McCoy is like a slightly mad but jovial uncle who quotes Monty Python and votes Monster Raving Loony in permanent protest.

The $64,000 question, for those of you still reading this rather niche blog discussion, is what of the recent Doctors? Well, Christopher Eccleston’s brief reign nonetheless re-established the programme as serious, quality entertainment and took the role into the 21st century – a NuLab moderniser then. Scot David Tennant, with almost dizzying levels of popularity with viewers throughout his five year stint, is definitely SNP. I’m pretty sure canny Salmond and cannier Sturgeon both managed to shoehorn a photo opportunity with him.

Matt Smith, at 26 the youngest actor to play the role, would be a fresh-faced and enthusiastic Green supporter. Which leaves Peter Capaldi.  Alison Graham of Radio Times stated “Peter Capaldi is the Victor Meldrew Doctor Who; he’s abrasive, acerbic and has no truck with modern life”. That would make him UKIP, then! (Sorry, Peter…)

 

On male role models, and winning

Some wearily predictable tropes were wheeled out around the recent unpleasant FaceBook postings of two Wellington College students: insufficient male role models; teenagers’ ease of access to porn; the evils of social media. Yet, while there is no doubt that social media has given the kind of stuff that might have been scrawled on a toilet wall in my own childhood much greater public prominence, the exposure of the comments has presented an opportunity for boys (and men) to think long and hard about what it means to be a man, without necessarily engaging in a David Cunliffe style mea culpa.

I was going to avoid the topic entirely now that the media have deemed it ‘old news’, feeling that others have expressed what I wanted to say on the matter eloquently and succinctly enough. Then I recalled what I saw a couple of weeks ago at the tail end of a wet and frustrating cricket season, and it got me thinking about one source of the problem.

Junior cricket is most definitely a Serious Business. Junior Two, aged six, is quite content to hit and run and giggle. Junior One, however, plays with helmet, hard ball, proper wooden bat and so on. When out means out, there are often tears of frustration, and when they trudge off disconsolately after the finger is raised, bat tucked under arm, their demeanour is no different to a Taylor or a Williamson. Nevertheless an air of youngsters mostly having fun tends to prevail.

In the season’s penultimate match, the opposition coach (and co-umpire) treated the exercise like Boot Camp. He berated his 10-year-old players for their misfields with exponentially unnecessary aggression. And when it became clear that his charges were not going to chase down our total, he resorted to increasingly poor behaviour. He disagreed with and overruled the other umpire on no-balls and runouts. He signalled four even though our players had stopped the ball inside the boundary. He suggested that there was one more ball left in the over on a number of occasions, to the puzzlement of both scorers.

My son’s team’s coach wisely avoided a full-on confrontation, although he might have felt it harder to turn his cheek, had these interferences made a material difference to the result. Nor is this confined to cricket. As a sometime Rugby League referee, the worst sideline abuse I have ever had to endure has been from dads and coaches of junior teams. I should add that invariably most of the young players themselves resent this aggressive scrutiny and would rather just get on with the game, competitively, but without malice.

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Remember this? The ultimate schoolboy cricket tantrum.

What message do such attitudes send to competitive and immature young sportsmen? An unacceptable one, for sure, and not without longer-term consequences. Those who are happy to brush off poor behaviour as “boys being boys” often refer to competitive spirit as being ‘hardwired’ into boys. Well, as members of the animal kingdom, there are a whole host of instincts ‘hardwired’ into us, male and female; surely the hallmark of a decent society is one in which we suppress these devices and desires from time to time?

Leaving aside the questionable underlying assumption that if ‘boys need male role models’ women must be incapable of providing them, what use is such influence from certain dads, coaches and older boys if it promotes competitiveness and aggression and winning at all costs as an approach to everything? It is easy to see how the pursuit of winning blurs into the language of dating: if boys didn’t fixate on ‘scoring’ with girls, then the more dubious attitudes of young men towards the opposite sex might be less prevalent, whether genuinely held or just bravado.

On a more positive cricket note, can we stop moaning about the Wellington summer that never really got going, and the disappointing, drenched conclusion to the Black Caps’ summer series? The received wisdom seems to be that NZ were a little underwhelming. Poor fortune should also be considered. The Wellington Test was lost by a NZ side missing its best bowler and second best batsman due to injury, while our best batsman scored 2 and 1. How would England have fared without Cook and Broad and with two failures from Root; or an Australia without Warner and Starc and two low scores from Steve Smith?

Moreover, more players cemented their place than caused the usual selection headaches. The obvious best XI is now pretty clear, injuries aside, except for the thorny question of the allrounder and spin spots. I would go with: Latham, Raval, Williamson, Taylor, Nicholls, Watling, de Grandhomme, Santner, Southee, Wagner, Boult.

Is there nothing to complain about? Sure there is. These guys don’t play a Test now until November, and only 5 Tests in the next 18 months. Without a decent diet of cricket, how can the team be expected to develop? As a case in point, Williamson’s stats put him on a par with Joe Root. Both have just over 5000 runs at 51 and 52 respectively (although Williamson has a superior conversion rate of fifties to tons) and there is less than a year in age difference. Yet Root will probably eclipse his Kiwi rival in terms of aggregate runs and centuries purely because he will have more opportunities, given that England play at least half as many Tests again as New Zealand. That’s worthy of a grumble.

 

On Her Majesty’s Public Service

The Australian Government has lost its marbles. Not the politicans: the idiotic Turnbull v. Abbott infighting is just the latest episode in a dysfunctional saga that goes right back to Rudd v. Gillard Phase I. No, I mean the hapless functionaries and denizens of Canberra who have brought out this dynamic diabolical recruitment ad for its Department of Finance. It’s so unwatchably cringe-inducing, I’m loath even to link to it and lend it some credibility with a few clickthroughs. But here it is – judge for yourself whether it’s a ‘game changer’:

It’s hard to know where to start with this. In its defence, it wouldn’t be the first recruitment ad that will probably achieve the opposite of its intended outcomes. Advertising and marketing ‘gurus’ really are the snake oil cult visionaries of this age, and ably confirm the adage that an older generation often has no idea about how to attract the younger generation, whether we’re talking employment, politics or sex.

I’m also reluctant to lay into the ad too much, misconceived as I think it is, when it is trying to ensure, painfully and methodically, that its protagonists are diverse in every way. It’s an achingly middle class diversity, mind. Shall I nip down for a paleo pear and banana bread or buy my colleague a flat white? The agony of choice. And if I get her a flat white, will she think I’m patronising her? Oh shit – she prefers almond milk, doesn’t she, or is it soy? Gosh – being nice can be so hard. Thank god for those awesome team building away days to help navigate the tricky stuff.

The other pitfall is that an excoriating critique of this just ends up reading like another pundit gleefully sticking in the boot, Gliding On-stylee, into bureaucratic ‘leeches’, sucking at the teat of the ‘bloated’ public sector. That would be terrible: some of my best friends are Wellington public servants! And knowing how horrified they would be by the goldfish bowl of TV, I could have advised the ad makers that choosing to use real people and not actors was fatal. Everyone sounds so awkward, as though they are part of some benign hostage video, where the threatened sanction is deprivation of, er, paleo pear and banana bread.

And so much of it is just a distraction: see how one guy is wearing a tie, and that’s cool, and then the other guy is choosing not to wear a tie, and that’s cool too. Yeah! Everyone gets listened to around here – the brown guy, the woman, the Asian guy – everybody! Do they think that the public sector is perceived as some kind of chauvinist Mad Men dystopia of brutal dress codes, dog-eat-dog narcissism and bullying? Naturally, that stuff isn’t confined to the private sector. It’s just that I think there are more pressing image problems for the public service. Maybe, just maybe, it might be seen as boring; full of Byzantine processes, uncool, staid, and riddled with PC jargon. So why use a clutch of awkward-looking people wandering from water cooler to water cooler and prattling on about projects, initiatives, competencies and presentations? It’s like a recruitment ad for the police in which they just fill out paperwork and book speeders.

“I’ve been here less than a year, and I’m already part of a project helping to modernise the public service,” chirrups one bright young marionette. One of many projects, no doubt, all running concurrently and not communicating with each other, but it’s the sentiment that counts, I guess. And what’s the inference from this: that the public service is in need of modernisation yet trying really hard to be hip and cool? It’s not exactly compelling. Compare it with this ad below. Yeah, yeah, I know they are targeting different audiences, but this is dramatic and spontaneous and it’s all about fun. Fun in Australia’s Department of Finance, however, is very carefully defined.

They even have a dreaded buddy program for the newbies, with mentoring. A student of mine opined that this sounded just like prefect mentoring at school. Hmm. Another nail in the coffin of the “we’re so totally not a monolithic institution” argument. It’s not that people don’t need support and advice and development, lest anyone start getting po-faced. It just smacks of a mindset which says that the best way to address any issues is through a committee and a process – this process. In trying to be too faithful to what a typical day in the Finance Team feels like, they actually tell you nothing about what the public service is for, and merely reduce it to a series of broad statements and worthy promises. Maybe that was the point: none of the people in this stilted clip look like they would so much as give the boat a gentle nudge with a paper clip, let alone be ‘game changers’. Unwitting honesty indeed.

And so farewell, Annette King. NZ Labour had better put on more than a few egg sandwiches and cups of tea for her goodbye in September, because they have lost a stalwart and a proven performer. There was always a casual ageism that seemed to follow King in recent years, encouraged by the media, but also espoused by left-leaning acquaintances who ought to know better. Winston, who is older, can still play the suave populist silver fox card, without having to worry about the whispers. Yet King was not stifling renewal within Labour; in the aftermath of the 2014 debacle, the destructive narcissism of David Cunliffe and the election of a new leader who had only received five votes from fellow caucus members, she acted as a vital bridge between Little and the rest of the MPs. She also knows the party inside out and knows the challenges of opposition from the 90s period. The alternative scenario might well have been the kind of abject, disunited, impotent opposition which UK Labour purports to be under Jeremy Corbyn.

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Old school politics works. Work hard in government and harry them like hell from opposition.

She was also a fearless big hitter in her Health portfolio, ready with the data to cause maximum embarrassment for the government. It’s worth comment that King has been one of the few shadow ministers to outlast some of her government opposites in the Health portfolio, whereas for most departments it has been Labour who have tinkered and changed and reshuffled personnel while Team Key has batted steadily on. Of course, as a former dental nurse, this should not be surprising. Yet there has always been a hint of disdain within Labour for those at the coalface, when considering potential MPs. God knows why. Norman Kirk left school at 13, but had far greater political astuteness in connecting with people and mastering his brief than many better educated contemporaries. Pulling in radio hosts and weathermen to raise party profile alongside the many policy wonks and union lawyers is all very well, but there is no substitute for MPs whose direct experience inspires their politics and gives them the candid honesty to fight for the policies which will really deliver..

Having helped pull her party through one of its doldrums, she has earned a peaceful retirement. The best tribute Labour could pay is to run a disciplined and committed campaign this year and prove that the only way is up.

Deal or no deal?

You can tell it’s an election year because everyone is shrieking ‘DEAL!’. After years of copping abuse from Labour and the Greens over the ‘dirty’ deals of Epsom and Ohariu, the Nats have been gleefully crowing about the Labour-Green retaliatory deal in Ohariu; the Maori and Mana parties have put together a deal of their own that might see The Honeable Harawira back in the Beehive just three years after he foolishly took a fat fraudster’s shilling; and Peter ‘The Survivalist’ Dunne bats serenely on. In the event of a nuclear apocalypse, Dunne will emerge from the smoking ruins still gainfully employed as the Member for Ohariu.

Whatever. Let’s put a little of the myth and hysteria to bed shall we.

1: They all do it. National should pipe down about the Greens making way for Greg O’Connor, given they did exactly the same thing to help rather than hinder United Future in 1999. Of course, Labour slow-pedalled in the Coromandel at the same election to ‘gift’ Jeanette Fitzsimons a seat for the nascent Greens. Andrew Little is a veritable enthusiast, having told Willow-Jean Prime to ease back on the campaign of the 2015 Northland by-election to allow his new friend Winston Peters the prize. And then there’s John Key’s splendid little cup of tea with John Banks in Epsom.

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Well, that’s Epsom sorted, John. Now, I know this German guy that you really ought to meet.

2. They are not really deals or gifts. The encouraging truth is that voters are not gullible, malleable marionettes, able to be switched around with a nod and a wink from a scheming party leader. ACT’s Houdini act in Epsom was never originally a gift from Key, but the result of a clever pitch and a desperate but determined doorstop campaign by Rodney Hide in 2005: give your electorate vote to me and your party vote to National, and ACT will survive as a potential coalition partner for National. It worked in terms of survival but not in terms of changing the government. Peter Dunne has been in more parties than a hard rock groupie, but the effort he has put into serving his electorate for 33 years has probably been the difference in those close shave majorities of 2011 and 2014 – do not bet against him this year either.

3. It is proof that voters totally understand MMP. For years, anti-MMP grumblers have regurgitated the same old tropes about MMP being confusing and unclear to voters. Except it really isn’t. The proportion of voters prepared to split their electorate and party vote has remained steady. The Greens push for the party vote only, with little backlash, and Maori voters in particular are the most adept at tactically using their two votes. In 2008, by voting for Labour in the party vote, but for Maori Party candidates in the electorate vote, they enabled the Maori Party to take 5 electorate seats with just an overall party vote of 2.4% – a pretty good return. Must be those dumb Pakeha that can’t get the hang of the two votes, aye?

4. It can often be self-defeating in the long run. One problem of sewing up an electorate seat to guarantee your survival is that at each election you give less reason for voters to give you their party vote. Over time, ACT and United Future have become an Epsom and Ohariu party respectively. I’m sure there are a few neoliberals dotted around the country who have a soft spot for ACT, but who don’t bother voting for them, because they don’t need to, so long as ACT holds Epsom. This is true, but it has diminished ACT’s potential as a nationwide party. The Hide-inspired 2005 renaissance was momentary: ACT seem mired below 1% in the polls. David Seymour doesn’t look like getting any new mates any time soon. With United Future it is even more ridiculous: its leader pulled over 13,000 votes alone in retaining his seat, but the party managed less than half that in party votes across NZ. At the last election night, it was hilarious to see the vote share of Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis on TV3’s rolling vote tracker, because they had bumped United Future off eighth place in the party vote share. Poor hapless John Campbell couldn’t even remember who ‘JAP’ was when he glanced at the tracker in 2005. He thought it was some kind of Japanese party until a voice in his ear reminded him it was Jim Anderton’s Progressives. Remember them him?

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Electorate votes: 13,684. Party votes: Dunne P, his neighbour, and his hairdresser.

5. There is an issue, but it is not dirty, and it is easy to fix. All of this jiggery-pokery is an unintended consequence of the daft rule that was brought in at the advent of MMP, by policymakers nervous about a plethora of minor parties having an undue influence: the 5% threshold. It is hard to think of a clause that has failed its architects’ intentions more clearly. We have three wee parliamentary parties hovering around the 1% mark, while others (such as NZ First in 2008) have missed out entirely despite polling over 4%: demonstrably unfair and also distortionary. If ACT had failed to hold Epsom in 2008, National would have been able to govern alone due to there being over 10% of votes ‘wasted’ on ACT ad NZ First! The same applied in 2011, if ACT and United Future had perished. Why bother with deals?

And that one rule usually makes the parliamentary makeup less proportional – a gift to National (and Labour when they are in better shape) by dragging them closer to 50% – and puts an undue focus on a handful of key seats, just like the bad old days of First Past The Post.

So, what should the threshold be? Logically, the value of one seat, or 100/120, or 0.83333%. If that’s a bit too nerdy for you, how about 1%. When ACT were facing oblivion in 2005, they were still polling at around 2.5%, well above 1%. Hide could have concentrated on pushing the party vote nationally, if the 1% threshold had been in place. His party would also seem less like an adjunct of National, reliant on its oxygen for survival. Time for a rethink, then. Other than that, MMP is doing just fine.

Going…going…John

And so farewell, John Key. Blimey. In a country where the paucity of real news is so profound that bored political journalists parse every conceivable theory, expand on every tenuous rumour or merely create their own narrative to sell papers generate clickbait, he played the ultimate blindside dummy, because nobody saw this coming.

The oldest axiom of political careers is that they end in failure. Scaling the dizzy heights of success is no guarantee of protection either. Thatcher was a seemingly invincible colossus in 1987. In 1990, she shed tears of bitterness and betrayal as the black car whisked her away from Downing Street for the last time. At least it was her own side that toppled her. Whitlam endured the indignity of being sacked by the Governor General rather than the electorate. John Howard suffered the rare double disgrace of losing both his own seat and the election. Kirk died in office. Kennedy was shot. Muldoon was just chopped.

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Oh John, that’s not a flag, you silly goose, it’s Emirates Team New Zealand’s broken sail…

And even though a fortunate few have managed to avoid this fate and depart at a time of their own choosing, the ‘choosing’ was often illusory. Blair was harried out by a caucus fretting about the growing toxicity of his Iraq legacy, and by the relentless brooding jealousy of Gordon Brown. Harold Wilson’s sudden departure in 1976, and the admission that he had vowed to serve no more than eight years as PM, seems a closer parallel. But Wilson had correctly suspected the early onset of the same illness – dementia – which had afflicted his father, and he knew his day was done. I sincerely hope nothing of this nature lies behind Key’s decision.

Even a respected and admired leader such as Bob Hawke, whose reputation has only grown with the passing years, fell prey to the manoeuvrings of an ambitious Paul Keating. Furthermore, Labor were mired in a mid-term polling slump. John Key, and National under his leadership, have enjoyed consistently high polls for the entirety of his tenure, and if there has been any plotting or disquiet, it has remained firmly in the shadows. David Farrar gleefully pointed out that John Key is the only NZ PM in 100 years to leave on his own terms.

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This must have been what the Donald meant by “grabbing a pussy”, I suppose.

So, how did he manage it? Poll-driven pragmatism and an almost complete absence of ideology, that’s how. Amid the broad, high-minded visions of Obama and Blair, or the meddling, scheming grand initiatives of Muldoon, John Key simply promised his party one thing: success. Provided they were prepared to compromise on any cherished policy goals, and leave the difficult stuff for another year, he could promise them, and us, ‘a brighter future’.

In a world turned upside down by anti-establishment populism, Islamism, climate change, twitter rants and general electoral mayhem, Key batted serenely on, barely offering a half chance to his opponents and then smiling gently when they fumbled the catch every time. The big issues, the long-term challenges, he simply avoided. Why play an aerial shot if it offers a chance? Sure, he unfurled a couple of elegant cover drives to placate the grassroots – asset sales (partial, of course, no need to frighten anyone), restoring knighthoods – as well as the occasional six over midwicket to confound the left – championing gay marriage, raising benefits (only by a little, mind). But this was a largely chanceless innings of unflappable managerialism. The real failures of John Key’s administration may not become clear for a long time, but the issues he has ducked will not go away.

The looming crisis of paying for an ageing population? Just promise never to raise the retirement age and do nothing. Declining home ownership? Tweak things a little and deny there’s a problem. Affordability of decent healthcare? Just bump people off waiting lists to shorten the waiting lists (vicious pun intended). Climate change? Easy, just kick for touch. It’s fitting that Richie McCaw has been the archetypal All Black during John Key’s tenure. Put in lots of hard graft, keep the team disciplined and steal the ball policies off the opposition at every opportunity.

Even his defeats were over the superficial and the trivial (did we really spend months arguing between the pros and cons of Red Peak and a sort of novelty teatowel?). The election of Trump and the knowledge that there would be no more cheeky rounds of golf with his buddy Obama to toast the success of the TPP might well have been the final straw.

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He played beer pong. Just like a regular guy.

But I’d like to conclude with some pragmatic, Key-style realism. I don’t share his politics, but it has been a colossal act of stupidity on the part of those who have painted him as some kind of closet, neoliberal fascist. He has dragged his party about as far leftwards as any Nat would dare. Don Brash’s observation that Key’s position on the spectrum is indistinguishable from Helen Clark’s should be seen by the left as a vindication of Clark’s success rather than an opportunity to moan about how he has stolen the left’s thunder.

And here’s the rub: Key is no Tony Abbott, no Dubya, no Muldoon. He was never going to tear up the consensus like Thatcher and Reagan. And he is certainly no Donald J. Trump. His ponytail pulling and prison rape gags were a bit creepy and a bit crass, but he didn’t fantasise about grabbing pussy nor make jibes about a female journalist’s menstruation. As such, I am uneasy about the optimism that seems to be pouring out of some left-wing orifices. It may well be the case that National’s sustained stratospheric polling was ‘all down to Key’ and that 2017 will usher in a change of government. But what if it isn’t? What if voters are still at best uncertain, or at worst turned off by the alternatives on offer?

I would like to see Bill English succeed Key, if only because his commitment to using data to improve outcomes and his enthusiasm for social investment is a breath of fresh air from the usual dismissal of ‘experts’, ‘research’ and ‘joined up thinking’ of which too many on the ideological right are fond. But it could be Paula Benefit. Or it could be Crusher Collins, who will show none of the political dexterity of her former boss in taking a sledgehammer to crack any leftish nut in her way.

Or has John Key suddenly and inexplicably paved the way for an improbable but not impossible Trump-esque tilt at the big prize for the populist’s populist, Winston Peters? Shudder.

 

Straight outta Trumpton

Oh dear. 2016 really hasn’t been a good year for those of a progressive persuasion, has it? Yet after Brexit, all the portents were there for a Trumpocalypse. The breezily confident pollsters, the media and leading personalities and politicians of every stripe queuing up to denounce the Donald, the somewhat muted enthusiasm for Clinton in an anything-but-Trump kind of way. The more they denounced him, the more it fed into his one key point that he was an ‘outsider’ not an ‘elitist’. A billionaire outsider at that, but hey, there’s no point grumbling now.

I can’t pinpoint any particular writing on the wall moment, but in hindsight, there were many. Clinton struggled to beat a single opponent for the nomination, despite Sanders being an unknown maverick who was outside the Democratic caucus. Trump emerged from a crowded field of 17 Republican potential nominees, most of whom raised far more money than him, and was initially written off as a two percent chance to be the eventual nominee. Trump’s rhetoric was crude and appallingly divisive, but the one time such an approach always plays well is in the role of anti-establishment iconoclast. One even wonders if the Dems’ and GOP’s own internal late polling was telling them the real truth about how close it was. It was noticeable that in the final week, Clinton’s tone, though couched in terms of unity, was still pouring criticism on her opponent. Trump, for the first time in the entire campaign, talked of being a hope for all Americans – this is the language of someone in the lead looking to run out the clock.

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Let it all out, lady. You tried your best.

However, after wailing and gnashing following Brexit, I’ve decided to take a longer view this time and look more optimistically (and in some cases, pessimistically) at what trends seem to be emerging and what they might mean.

This is as big a headache for the Republicans as it is for the Democrats

Apart from Bob Dole and a handful of others, the entirety of the Republican establishment ranged from lukewarm to openly hostile. Dubya pointedly left his vote for President blank. The GOP may well embrace Trump and talk of unity now, basking in the joy of Democrat humiliation, but all of the policy reasons that underpin their distaste for Trump (he is a populist; they are becoming ever more neocon) and all of their own infighting which led to their Tea Party-Freedom Caucus splintering will come bubbling back in January once the hangover has worn off.

What about ‘draining the swamp’? Well, given what happened down ballot and the trends over the past few federal and midterm elections, that swamp is mostly full of Republican alligators now. Neither Clinton nor Obama will be around to moan about. And that presents a dilemma for Trump and Congress: if Trump backs down from his grand promises, particularly the economically protectionist ones, in the teeth of Congress obstruction, he will disappoint his fans faster than any poundshop demagogue. If he stands firm, then the GOP risk becoming the problem, as they were during their ludicrous standoffs with Obama. The party that has contributed the most to political stasis and an increasingly unhinged and divided narrative in Washington had better end their ideological bickering because they will have nobody to blame but themselves now.

‘Hate’ only triumphed on one level

However ugly this campaign may have been at the federal level, amidst all the carnage on Tuesday, real progressive change continued to happen at the state level. Across a whole range of states, voters chose to control access to guns, improve access to marijuana, make healthcare more affordable and increase the minimum wage. Yep. And this wasn’t just in kooky liberal places like Vermont and Oregon. Southern, red state Arkansas legalised medical marijuana, as did conservative, rural North Dakota; meanwhile the enlightened voters of solidly Republican South Dakota rejected a bill which would have reduced the youth minimum wage. In all, 110 of 161 mostly liberal-progressive ballots were approved: Ayn Rand must be spinning in her grave.

The lesson here for Democrats is that amidst all the success of Clinton (Bill) and Obama at the Executive level, they have sure taken their eye off the ball state by state. The one curse / blessing when your ‘side’ wins / loses the White House (and the bit that many non-Americans too easily forget) is that the US President has limited powers. The Democrats need to forget about finding a nominee for 2020 for the time being, and concentrate on finding better candidates and campaigning more effectively in House, Senate, Gubernatorial and Local races, starting with the 2018 midterms. This is something the GOP has been doing quietly and effectively for a long time. What use would it have been if Hillary had limped across the line on Tuesday anyway, faced with the same intransigent, hostile Congress as Obama, but without his greater political gifts?

Even if Obamacare is repealed and the Supreme Court is packed with conservatives, there is little to stop states continuing with their own versions of a modern progressive polity. SCOTUS is often reluctant to interfere below the federal level, whatever its ideological leanings. And the more these blue states have fewer gun deaths, greater tolerance and diversity, better healthcare and protections for the low paid, the more traction these ideas can gain elsewhere. That said, rust belt ‘blue’ states like Wisconsin and Michigan were notably absent from these ballot initiatives. What the hell were the Democrats playing at? Is it any wonder voters in Clinton’s ‘firewall’ felt left behind?

America is becoming an ever more polarised nation

This is not an emotional statement. As the actual (not the pollsters’!) polling data emerges, the drearily predictable divides and fissures in the US electorate are becoming gaping chasms. Clinton actually made gains in this election on Obama. Yup. She did better than any Democrat in living memory with college-educated white voters: not enough to get her over the line, obviously, but further evidence of education becoming a major electoral faultline. Clinton even improved on Obama in 2012 is some states. Sadly for her, they were either piled up in already blue states like California (and therefore wasted in the electoral college system) or they were wasted in red states because there weren’t enough to turn it blue (e.g. Texas, Arizona). It’s telling though, that Clinton walked New Mexico (theoretically a swing state) while losing or struggling in her rust belt firewall. What does this mean? Put simply, these red, southern states are becoming ever more urbanised, and less rural: another major faultline. If (and it’s always a big ‘if’ with the Dems) the Democrats can get their act together, the future trends for them are powerful. The GOP is fast becoming the party of the rural, the less educated and the ever more exclusively white. Trump would need to close schools, universities and cities as well as building his ‘wall’ to reverse that trend.

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Time to welcome our new orange overlord.

And yet for all this optimism, I don’t want to underplay my dismay at this result. If all political careers end in failure, then the careers of populists with wild talk and big promises usually end in spectacular failure. Trump cannot possibly deliver on his ‘manifesto’: it is incoherent and self-contradictory. Furthermore, the role of president requires compromise and pragmatism far more than dead-eyed decision-making. And even if we accept that a serial bankrupt has some business, if not political, acumen, he might just have broken Golden Rule #1: never over promise and under deliver.

As for his temperament, and his measured victory speech which praised Clinton and talked of healing and unity, well, they all say that. Thatcher quoted St. Francis of Assisi in 1979, for crying out loud. What will he say the next time a gun nut runs amok in a school? Will he argue that it wouldn’t have happened if the kids had been armed? He claims to be sick of NATO and wants the US to take a back seat in international strife. Okaay, but I seem to remember Dubya wanting a bit of good old isolationism until 9/11 rudely thrust him right back in the thick of it. And does his mancrush on Putin mean he’ll just let him walk all over Eastern European states? Reagan would be horrified.

Will he even give up TV? Roosevelt had his fireside chats. Trump could get a new show – “Prez” – where he puts aspiring young political through a reality competition with the winner joining his executive cabinet. Don’t laugh: did you think this guy was going to win a year ago?