QOTD: Felix Marwick on the OIA and John Key’s hats

I missed this earlier in the week: an update on Felix Marwick’s long-running attempts to uncover the extent of John Key’s communications with bloggers (i.e. Farrar and Slater). The last two paragraphs are spot-on:

What my use of the OIA shows is that leaks and surreptitious acquisition of evidence is the only way you are going to get political material of this nature that is in the public interest. The Official Information Act won’t overcome political self interest as long as politicians are allowed to determine what hat they’re wearing when they’re using public information for their own political ends. Being a Minister and a Prime Minister is a full time job. Politicians shouldn’t get to finagle the system just so as to protect their political manoeuvring. Governments wield immense power so there need to be adequate checks and balances on those that exercise that power.

The other thing you can deduce from a three year battle over access to correspondence is that the most senior politician in the land probably had something to hide.

John Key’s “well I was wearing a different hat at the time” obfuscations were quite literally straight out of Yes, Prime Minister. We’ll probably never know the full truth – especially given Key’s totally-not-suspicious tendency to delete all his text messages – but we can absolutely conclude that he was up to shenanigans he didn’t want the New Zealand public to be aware of, and we need better systems to ensure it cannot happen again.

My plea to the New Zealand left: don’t get cocky

Well. That was a hell of an announcement, wasn’t it? A massive cause for celebration: no matter how true it is that being Prime Minister involves a hell of a lot of hard work and time away from your family, we all know that no one ever resigns, unexpectedly, on the eve of election year, out of selfless sacrifice.

The New Zealand left have spent a good eight years hating John Key. Whatever the reason he’s going, and however little it has to do with anything we’ve actually done, our enemy is vanquished.

And yet, a tiny voice cries out. It belongs to the cynical part of my brain, the bit that, sharklike, never stops working. Because I’m a millennial nerd, it speaks in the voice of Han Solo.

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The question many people will be asking Andrew Little now will be “So do you think you have 2017 locked down now?” That’s a bit of a trap. Labour has to look confident, but not, you know, too confident.

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What encourages me is that so much of the feedback you hear from the Mt Roskill by-election is about how hard Michael Wood and his team campaigned there. There was no taking Roskill for granted, even when up against a gaffe-prone exemplar of the National Party’s “terrible candidates running in theoretically winnable seats” finishing school.

But we have to keep that momentum going.

We – the left, the progressive movement, pick your own label – now have our best chance in nearly a decade. Not just to win. Not just to get comfy in the back of a Crown limo or find out if the seats really are greener on the other side of the House. We can get a Labour-Green government which plans for the future and rebuilds New Zealand into a country which cares about people, leads the world in our response to climate change and growing corporate power, and promotes strong, progressive values over the nasty, cynical individualism of the right.

We aren’t going to get that if we let ourselves think, “Well, Key was National’s greatest weapon; now he’s gone, guess that whole election thing’s in the bag.”

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Now we have to work even harder, because it will be too easy to assume victory is assured. We have to be even bolder, because if voters do want “a change” they’ll have one in the form of a new PM – especially if it’s a woman or, should Bennett or Bridges take the crown, our first Māori PM (commiserations to @LukeTipoki).

People aren’t stupid. They know that our country is being run for a greedy few, not all of us. The change National offers now may only be superficial, but it might be enough for them, unless they’re given a genuine alternative – not just a few decent policies and a good-sounding slogan, but a whole new way of looking at the world, underpinned by serious, progressive principles (these ones are a pretty good start).

It shouldn’t be that big a challenge. Labour has the proud history of standing up for what’s right. The Greens have the cred of always looking to the future and coming up with good policies ten years before they become mainstream received wisdom. In some ways it shouldn’t matter who the Prime Minister is – because we should be setting our own agenda, not just reacting to the government’s and letting them dictate the terms of the battle.

But we need to show determination and vision. We won’t be allowed to sleepwalk to victory. Key’s resignation is a huge opportunity – and it has to be taken, not taken for granted.

A change underway in local government?

Things feel pretty bleak on the left these days. It seems like the forces of short-sighted self-centered capitalism reign supreme, that darned mainstream media isn’t asking the questions we want them to (and only the questions we want them to), and those blasted voters just aren’t getting the message.

Besides, it’s a local government election year, and literally no one cares about local body politics. Right?

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Wrong, apparently. The Spinoff, which is basically my main source of news and great TV reviews these days, didn’t just manage to raise $10,000 to do some honest-to-god active campaigning journalism focused on Auckland’s unitary plan, council elections and housing crisis. They raised it in 17 hours. As of typing up this post they’re sitting at over $23,000.

Turns out “the people” do know good media when they see it, and are willing to stump up the cash. I mean, who wouldn’t pay for regular video content of Shamubeel Eaqub calling bullshit on things?

It makes me feel hopeful. Not just that we’ll get solid, in-depth reporting on the future of Auckland for the next few months, but that this can set a tremendous precedent for political engagement and how our media operate – instead of having to rely on clickbait and churn to get those ad impressions up.

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There’s also a change happening in the capital, with the National Party all-but-outright endorsing a mayoral candidate in the Wellington race. National have always had proxy candidates in the capital – Nicola Young, even Nick Leggett if those much-denied only-Whaleoil-seems-to-have-heard-them rumours about his fundraising are true. In Auckland, the Citizens & Ratepayers group or whatever they’re called these days was always deep blue (and Labour and the Greens have taken the same approach in the big city with united brands like City Vision and Future West.) And it’s perfectly understandable for Bill English to say nice things about Jo Coughlan, given they’re in-laws.

But then you look at what English did say – not just “Jo’s a mate and I think she’d be a great mayor”, but quite baldly, “wouldn’t it be nice if you had the right kind of mayor, and then I could give you aaaaaaaaall this money”. You look at the fact that National have unsubtly asked their members for money for her campaign. You see John Key, a man painfully precise about how his image is used (even if we on the left think he makes terrible choices in that regard) posing for a friendly snap with Coughlan at the flash opening of the new David Jones department store:

This isn’t the usual “if you know Wellington politics you know who the Tories are and who the lefties are, even though everyone calls themselves an Independent” variety of partisanship. Though the field is more crowded by the day, and no cups of tea have been publicly consumed, the hopes of the Right to get a friendly mayor into Wellington are clearly pinned on Team Jo.

It may not be the smartest move. Wellington is a pretty solid Labour/Greens town. But it obviously irks the Parliamentary right to have the city council in their own back yard doing silly things like holding onto assets and not building ALL THE ROADS. They have to unite around someone if they’re going to defeat the incumbent mayor (Wade-Brown) and a well-resourced Labour ticket (Lester) on the preferences. So “go, Jo” it is.

The government’s housing message dilemma

John Key was across the media yesterday, trying to tamp down suggestions the Budget would do anything at all to address the housing “issue” which everyone else in New Zealand has accepted is a crisis. The lines are familiar: there’s no quick fix (so no point doing anything at all), Kiwis are more interested in other things (… which my government has also failed to do anything about.)

Unfortunately, 76% of people and even 61% of National voters don’t think enough is being done to address the fact there are families with newborn children living in cars in Godzone. And the usual lines are ringing more and more hollow.

Watching Key on Breakfast yesterday, it felt like he was honestly surprised at the backlash on housing. At the way his brush-offs and shrugs weren’t met with a jolly laugh and a diversion into What Max Has Been Up To With That New Hair.

But that’s fair enough. Looking at the polls and broad media narrative for the past eight years, we – the embodied Common Sense of Middle New Zealand – have accepted an awful lot of stuff from this government.

We accepted that beneficiaries should be drug tested, and forced into work before their babies are even school aged. We accepted that social housing could be better run by the private sector, and that imposing basic standards on private rentals would hurt landlords too much.

We accepted that it was too difficult to get rid of zero hour contracts – until it wasn’t – and that health and safety shouldn’t apply to “low risk” endeavours like farming – unless worms were involved – and that giving new parents a full 26 weeks paid time with their babies was way too expensive.

We accepted that a surplus was the most important thing a government could deliver, and that there was nothing wrong with the price of housing, especially in Auckland.

For eight (long) years there’s been little mainstream pushback against the ideas that ordinary people deserve near-zero support from their community, and the market must not be meddled with.

But this week John Key has looked up and everyone’s staring at him saying “WTF, mate? People are living in cars? We’re putting them up in motels so their kids can sleep in a bed for once and we’re charging them for the privilege? What the hell is going on and why aren’t you doing anything about it?”

And I don’t think he really knows what to do.

I’m not going over the top to declare The Honeymoon Is Over or try to sell a 1.6% drop in Key’s preferred-PM rating as A Catastrophic Landslide Of Support. I’m definitely biased, and seriously frustrated after eight years of a government which oscillates between do-nothing when people are struggling to feed their families and men-of-action when Saudi billionaires throw temper tantrums.

But the same old lines aren’t working. The discontent is getting mainstream. And John Key may no longer have all the answers.