• Dirty Politics? Yes!

    The social media have assumed a hugely important significance in modern society.  For young people, in particular, they offer by far the most important means of communication and source of information.   Whether it be bullying at school or concerns about privacy or interference in elections, their influence is felt everywhere – and not always for the good.

    Political parties, in particular, realised some time ago that social media offered a cheap and effective means of influencing opinion; it is even argued that information gleaned from Facebook and then organised and utilised by Cambridge Analytica helped to determine the outcome of the 2016 United States presidential election that elected Donald Trump.

    This kind of intervention in the democratic process may cause concern but – apart from the unauthorised misuse of what was assumed to be private information – the pitching to voters on the basis of what is known about their views and preferences is not necessarily any different in principle from the usual attempt, using more conventional means, to secure their support and to persuade them to vote one way rather than another.

    It is less easy, however, to be relaxed about another recent instance of the political impact that the social media can have.  They can all too easily become the vehicle of a campaign that uses innuendo and scuttlebutt to discredit a politician or his or her associates.

    The damage that can be done by such a campaign is magnified by the sheer volume of misinformation that can be generated over a brief period – and the absence of any substance in that misinformation can be camouflaged by constant repetition.

    The recent campaign of which the Prime Minister’s partner was a victim was just such an instance.  As she and he have discovered, there is virtually no defence against such an unprincipled attack.  While there can be no doubt that the campaign is politically motivated, and is an example of “dirty politics”,  the absence of any identifiable central direction makes it difficult if not impossible to stop it or disprove it at source.  It is truly a hydra-headed monster.

    A social media campaign of this type, in other words, is an ideal instrument for those who wish to inflict maximum damage with the least risk of being uncovered.  A social media campaign, after all, builds its own momentum, as those who had no part in launching it nevertheless see the chance to add to it and to increase the damage it does.  The planners and originators can simply disappear back into the woodwork.

    That problem is magnified by the fact that modern political parties, almost without exception, engage teams of sympathisers to patrol the social media, ready to respond as apparently uncommitted private citizens to postings they do not like, or to add support to those they do.  There would be nothing easier, in other words, than for a couple of enthusiasts to launch a campaign on behalf of a political organisation and then allow their fellow-enthusiasts to jump on the bandwagon and push it along, all without any apparent central direction or encouragement.

    The calumny thereby circulated is not, of course, the end of the damage that can be achieved.  The distress suffered and time wasted by the victims are all part of the price that is paid – and when they complain, quite legitimately, about “dirty politics” they are advised to harden up, or criticised for giving the story more legs, or are accused of bad-mouthing their opponents by suggesting that they are the obvious beneficiaries.   And there will be much sage shaking of the head and muttering about “no smoke without fire”.

    But, if the campaign is “dirty” (as it certainly is) and if it has an obviously political purpose (as it has), why can it not be characterised as “dirty politics”?  The phenomenon is not exactly unknown in our politics; there are, indeed, some political practitioners who glory in and boast of their prowess in such undertakings.  The victims – and the wider public – are surely entitled to draw their own conclusions.

    Bryan Gould

    3 May 2018

     

     

  • Another Commonwealth Gold Medal

    The Prime Minister’s first trip overseas in her new capacity has undoubtedly been a great success – for her personally, for New Zealand and even – perhaps – for the Commonwealth itself.

    The charm, freshness and intelligence which produced a largely unexpected election victory at home have all now been recognised on the international stage and have drawn forth a range of favourable responses from international leaders who have clearly been intrigued not only by a fresh face but by someone they had not expected to see – a young woman leader – not only attractive, but having the temerity to be pregnant into the bargain – and with surprising self-confidence and sure-footedness on her first foray abroad.

    The image she presented is entirely one that New Zealand wishes to present – the image of a country that dares to be different and to break new ground and that is keen to find new and better ways of doing things.

    The response and the special attention she received,  from the Queen herself and from other senior Commonwealth and European leaders – Prince Charles, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, Theresa May – were not just a feather in her cap, but a plus for New Zealand as well.  And that plus could turn out to be of considerable value.

    She has helped to breathe new life into the Commonwealth – so that an international association of amazing scope and variety, whose potential has never been properly recognised, can start to play a full and valuable role – and, if that should lead to a new trade agreement extending across so many countries at different stages of development, that could bring huge benefits not only to us but to a significant proportion of the world’s population.

    Not everyone, of course, will welcome the Prime Minister’s success.  While most Kiwis will be quick to acknowledge the favourable impression she has made, her political opponents at home are clearly a good deal less enthusiastic.  As the good news stories and images filled our screens, their angst is almost visible and audible.

    There, before their very eyes, they could see the next election slipping away from them and, with Simon Bridges struggling to make an impression, not least with his own supporters, we are constantly offered evidence of how desperate they are to prick the bubble of this latest version of Jacindamania – one that has now reached international proportions.

    So, stepping up to the plate are those who are being pressed into service to say something – anything – that might take away some of the gloss.  The problem for such nay-sayers is that they are obviously struggling to find something sensible, let alone anything of substance, to say.

    So, the headlines tell us that Jacinda is “just like Trump” and that Jacinda’s partner, Clarke Gayford, is open to criticism because he travelled with her (so much for gender equality) and commits the crime of spelling his first name with an “e”.  Anyone who bothers to read beyond the headlines in an effort to find any substance to support them is doomed to disappointment; one suspects that the headline is all there is and that it is in any case the real point of the exercise, intended simply to plant the impression in the reader’s mind that those not ready to join the Jacinda fan club at least have some company.

    It may be that the Prime Minister’s return to home territory will alleviate the panic that has beset her opponents and that we will then return to politics as usual and a greater preparedness to give credit where it is due.  In the meantime, as we celebrate another win for the Black Ferns to follow up on their Commonwealth Games Gold Medal, let us also enjoy the success achieved by another of our most promising and well-performing young women, as she carried our flag into the international arena and came home with a gold medal.

    Bryan Gould

    24 April 2018

     

     

  • The Dogs of War

    In 1954, Sir Winston Churchill famously advised an American audience that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”.

    Churchill was of course someone who knew about “war-war”.  His political career had encompassed both world wars and he had been a great leader of Britain in the Second World War; no one knew better than he did the price that is paid when countries go to war.

    He also knew how major conflicts could start unexpectedly.  He would have remembered that it was the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that precipitated Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia – and that in turn caused the Central Powers (including Germany and Austria-Hungary) and Serbia’s allies to declare war on each other, thereby launching World War One.

    If he had been alive today, Churchill would no doubt have been alarmed at the similarities between that episode and the stand-off that recently occurred between Russia and the West over Syria.  In this latter case, there was the same build-up of tension between great powers, and a precipitating event – this time, the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime against civilians in Douma – prompting a warlike response from the US, the UK and France; all the ingredients were there to set in train yet another major conflict.

    There was of course no shortage of hotheads who were keen to see military force used by the Western allies and who were quick to dismiss any thought that diplomacy might have had a role to play.  It is understandable that the West felt that they could not allow such a criminal act by Assad against his own people to go unchallenged; but it is still regrettable that their first recourse was to arms, rather than an attempt to persuade the United Nations to authorise a sanction that was appropriately condemnatory but less risky.

    Sadly, of course, the United Nations had revealed itself to be impotent in such a circumstance, by virtue of Russia’s willingness to use its veto in the Security Council to preclude any sanction that would harm the interests of its Syrian ally.  It might nevertheless have been useful to force Russia to own up to its willingness to support an ally that had made itself an international outcast through its use of chemical weapons against a civilian population.

    In all of this, our own Prime Minister – new as she is to the international scene and to issues of war and peace – showed amazing maturity and good judgment in recognising both the need to take a stand against chemical warfare but also the desirability of turning first to diplomacy as a solution.  “Shoot first, talk later” is a good policy for small boys in the playground, but it is a dangerous course in the real (and nuclear) world.

    It is also the favoured option of those simple-minded commentators who see themselves as hard-headed realists, “telling it like it is” and debunking the illusions of the “idealists” (those, that is, who would prefer not to go to war).   Warmongers like these should be asked about Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and whether those wars validate the view that military force always guarantees the best outcomes.

    War invariably creates more problems than it solves, and that is to say nothing of the suffering and loss endured by those who actually have to wage it on the ground.  Churchill himself, the architect of the ill-fated Gallipoli adventure, would be the first to acknowledge that it is easy to launch military attacks from the behind a desk, when the main brunt is borne by others, and the outcomes are far from certain.

     

    The gravest risk facing mankind is that there is never any shortage of those ready to “let slip the dogs of war.”   Diplomacy and working through international agencies may be less thrilling to armchair warriors but that is where we should be putting our efforts.

    The United Nations was created by the victors in the Second World War as a means of reducing the chances of a further world war.  It is far from perfect, but we have avoided the worst for nearly three-quarters of a century.  We would do better to address its frailties rather than give up on it.

    Bryan Gould

    22 April 2018

  • Life in Opposition Is Not So Easy

    General elections are significant events with many ramifications.  They not only determine (in most cases) which party will form the government – they also set the political agenda for both winners and losers over the three years until the next election.

    Particularly in cases where the government changes, that agenda will be dominated by the new challenges created for the major parties by the changed role they must take up.

    For the winners, especially if they have been out of government for some time, there will be a host of new challenges.  As Labour is discovering in the wake of their 2017 success, they must take over the government of the country without a core of experienced former ministers.

    As I know from my own former political experience, being in opposition is a very different matter from shouldering the responsibilities of government.  In opposition, you can pick and choose your issues – and the choice is usually an easy one; you can head straight for those issues where the government is under pressure or where public opinion is demanding new answers to high-profile problems.  There is less need than there is in government to have an answer to every question.

    In government, however, everything you do, or fail to do, is rightly assumed to be on behalf of the government.  You cannot say, if caught out doing or saying something that you would rather keep out of the public domain, “that’s my business”.

    Jacinda Ardern has had an uncomfortable few weeks largely because of mistakes made by one or two ministers who are enjoying their new status but who have not realised that new standards of responsibility are also expected.   The good news for her is that the passage of time, and growing experience of what is required, should remedy these failings – and Jacinda herself will no doubt learn lessons as to the best way of dealing with ministers who fall short.

    But the change of role is not just a problem for Labour.  The transition for National – in their case from government to opposition – is, if anything, even more difficult.  They have suddenly lost the status that comes with calling the shots and being in charge, and they have lost not just the perks of office (such as the chauffeur-driven limousines) but more importantly the advice and support of usually highly competent civil servants.

    They need to rely much more on their own judgments as to what points to make and how a particular issue is likely to develop.  They have to work much harder to set the agenda – journalists no longer hang on their every word.  And they have to strike that difficult balance between holding the government to account and seeming to be perpetual nit-pickers and nay-sayers – all the while trying to persuade the voters, with an eye on the next election, that they could do so much better a job next time.

    And, as in the case of National at present, they might also have to bear the burden of skeletons in their cupboard coming to light, as issues and problems that had previously been buried far away from the public gaze get an airing.

    There is a further problem for National.  A general election defeat, leading to the loss of the government benches, can often mean that a number of long-serving members will call it a day, finding little reason to stick around in opposition.  And so it has proved with National this time.

    With the departure of Bill English and Steven Joyce (Jonathan Coleman may not count for this purpose), National has lost a good deal of experience and ballast. It is not just Labour that needs to re-build in terms of experience.

    As they face up to the twin challenges of being an effective opposition and getting fighting fit to contest the next election, National are suddenly looking somewhat lightweight.  It is not just the loss of their heavyweights but the fact that Simon Bridges has yet to make much of an impression – let alone a favourable one – that leaves them looking a little short of fire power.

    New governments usually find it easy to grow into the role – it’s not so easy for recently defeated oppositions.

    Bryan Gould

    14 April 2018

  • Mr Micawber ifs Not A Good Guide When It Comes to Public Finances

    It was Charles Dickens’ Mr Micawber who famously defined the principles of successful economic management, when he said “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

    Most people, with experience of running their own household accounts, will nod in agreement.  But while Mr Micawber no doubt got it right for individuals and households, he may not have been so percipient when it comes to public finances.  A government’s role in managing the country’s economy is very different from running your own affairs.

    We have had until recently a government whose most important goal was, it seems, to run a “surplus”, and most people would no doubt again agree that a surplus has to be preferable to a deficit.  But, as we are beginning to find out, a surplus is not all unalloyed benefit.

    The surplus we are talking about, first of all, is not the country’s surplus (that is quite a different matter – the country has been in deficit from one year to the next over a long period) but the government’s, and whether there is a surplus or a deficit in the government’s finances will impact rather differently from what one may expect on the lives of most citizens.

    If the government is in surplus, it is really just another way of saying that it takes more from us in taxation than it spends on public services – it takes spending power away from us, in other words, but doesn’t make good the loss to the economy as a whole by increasing its own spending to compensate.  The result – from the viewpoint of the economy rather than the government is not necessarily benign – we are likely to have a smaller economy and a lower level of economic activity than would otherwise be the case.

    There is also, of course, a potential downside if the government runs a deficit.  It will then in all likelihood have to borrow in order to finance the shortfall, and that will come at a cost, assuming that someone can be found who is willing to lend – though this will not normally be a problem since lenders like lending to governments (often at low rates) because their credit is good.  Borrowing – so often frowned upon – is a perfectly sensible policy option if the outcome is a more vibrant economy and it is even more sensible if the borrowing is for capital rather than current expenditure – something many of us are familiar with when we borrow on mortgage to buy a house.

    So, we might conclude that elevating the achievement of a government surplus so that it is the government’s primary goal may not have quite so much going for it as we might have thought – and we haven’t even begun to look at the other side of the equation, which is the price we pay when the government does not spend the money it takes in.

    The government’s accounts, in other words, are laid out like any other accounts.  There are two columns – Mr Micawber’s income and expenditure.   It follows that a surplus can be achieved either by taxing more than is needed or by spending less than is needed.

    The problem for a government that seeks to achieve a surplus by cutting pubic spending is that there is a cost to such cuts, as we are beginning to find out.  Right across the board – from health care (rotting hospital buildings and all) through to underfunded schools and underpaid public servants such as nurses – the country is worse off and less able to function efficiently.  A properly run economy will need both the public and private sectors working together in unison – each accepting the responsibility that is properly theirs.

    A surplus might please the ideologues and be seen as the badge of good government, but even Mr Micawber might see that we will all be better off if we use all our resources – whether in public or private hands – to the best effect.  A surplus is of little use as figures in a balance sheet if the price we pay is that essential services are run down.

    Bryan Gould

    4 April 2018