• A Shonky Poll

    What to do to improve the public perception of the newly elected National party leader, when her performance so far has no doubt disappointed the expectations of her supporters?

    The answer is to get a National-supporting newspaper (the Herald) to organise a poll that could be guaranteed to provide an acceptable answer.

    The poll was not – in other words – just any old poll. It asked a very specific question to which there was only one answer. The poll – of only 500 people – didn’t ask, as such polls usually do, whether Judith Collins was doing a good job, or was the preferred Prime Minister, or whether people warmed to her.

    It asked instead whether they thought that National’s prospects had improved with her as leader.

    Those polled were asked, in other words, to compare National’s prospects today with how they had been during the disastrous period of changing leaders repeatedly and of the resignations occasioned by irresponsible leaks of private data and the sending of pornographic messages.

    Not surprisingly, those polled thought that anything was better than those dark days for National. Poor old Todd Muller was apparently required to deliver one last service to his party – to act as the fall guy, the benchmark against which Judith Collins was to be measured.

    We must conclude that it is a measure of National’s desperate need to boost their fortunes that so much care and planning was put into such an artificial operation as this Herald poll.

    It also prompts the question as to what National’s own private polling is showing. It suggests that it shows that the public’s perception of Judith Collins is some way off favourable, and that desperate measures are needed to turn things round.

    Polls must always be taken with a pinch of salt – but, beware, this one is particularly shonky.

    Bryan Gould
    11 August 2020

  • Gearing Up for the Election

    Yes, an election is in the offing – and we all know that elections can be polarising, as parties of the left and right square off against each other.

    But we should not allow our party and political allegiances to obscure the fact that, in a properly functioning democracy like New Zealand, what unites us is more important than what divides us.

    And party allegiances are not set in concrete. Even for the individual, they can change over time; and my own experience offers a case in point.

    The conventional view is that people are more radical in their views when younger and that they grow more conservative as they grow older. My progress was in the opposite direction.

    I grew up in a family that took it for granted that “people like us” voted National. I was brought up to believe in the right-wing values – that individual effort should be properly rewarded because it was what held society together and allowed us all to progress, that everyone had their “proper place” in society, that property rights were sacrosanct, and that respect for authority (not to say hierarchy) was the necessary basis on which an orderly society operated.

    It was only as I grew up and my life experience extended that I began to see further and to understand more. I began to see that a society that was happy with itself, because everyone had a stake and an equal chance in it, was not only morally required and appropriate, but also delivered a great practical benefit to all of us, both collectively and individually. I saw that serving the interests of the “have nots” as well as the “haves” was the proper business of government.

    Even today, when my current views are conveniently but not always accurately described as left-wing, I think I understand that most of those on my right are – while misguided – not necessarily ill-intentioned but seek in broad terms the same outcomes as I do. I am satisfied that, if the levers of power were to pass into their hands, no irremediable damage would be done to the fundamentals of a free and democratic society – not least because there would soon be another opportunity to persuade my fellow-citizens that there is a better way.

    There is no need, in other words, to demonise one’s political opponents. From the left, the right might well be attacked for being uncaring and selfish; from the right, the left could be accused of relying on others to fund their ambitions. But in neither case need we be too despairing if we lose the argument for the time being – the emphases and directions may differ but the fundamentals will remain the same.

    We are in the happy position in New Zealand, unlike those in many other countries, of being assured that most of those seeking the powers of government have no intention of seizing that power and keeping it in perpetuity. We are all – or almost all – democrats, and we engage in an entirely proper and productive competition for popular support. It is, after all, that need to please the voters that keeps our governments in check and doing the right thing.

    We might even learn that the terms “left-wing” or “right-wing” are, or should be, descriptive, rather than terms of abuse, and that their application to this or that opinion does not invalidate it or deny its legitimacy, and tells us as much about their user as about those to whom they are applied.

    So, let us welcome the firing of the starting pistol. It signifies that we are once again invited to engage in a decision that billions of people worldwide would give their right arms (and even their left arms too!) to have the chance to enjoy. And, when we express our personal preferences for one person, party or policy rather than another, we are exercising our democratic rights, rather than seeking to deny them to others. We are all entitled to warm to one politician, rather than another, and to think there could be a better way.

    So, let the battle begin – and let us be ready to salute the victors, and to live to fight another day if we lose.

    Bryan Gould
    5 August 2020

  • Does Trump Want to Win?

    As polling day in the American presidential election draws closer, things are looking bad for Donald Trump. The polls show that he is tracking well behind his Democrat rival. Most people assume that the President will be striving might and main to avoid what looks increasingly likely to be a humiliating defeat.

    I have a hunch, however, that this may be to misinterpret what is really happening. Consider the evidence.

    The President is spending most of his time playing golf on his own golf courses, attracting a good deal of unfavourable comment as a result and dismaying his supporters who would expect him to be working doubly hard to overcome the Covid 19 pandemic. This is hardly the behaviour of someone who wants to keep the job.

    He manifestly spends little time concerning himself with dealing with the virus and its deadly progress. He can’t seem to focus on what he should be doing; his press briefings on the subject are perfunctory and do not include his senior adviser on the subject, Dr Fauci. He seems to have lost interest in the subject altogether.

    He offers no strategy for dealing with the pandemic, other than assuring people that, contrary to all the evidence, it will “go away”. The economy is in an unprecedented nosedive as case numbers and deaths multiply.

    His one positive reaction to the crisis is that he has suggested that the election should be delayed and has warned that the high numbers of postal votes, necessitated by the virus, will mean that the election result will be the least reliable in history and will be vitiated by fraud. He has refused to give any assurance that he would accept the result if he loses.

    What conclusion does all this suggest? My thesis is that he is is not only resigned to losing the election but would actually welcome that outcome. Here, I believe, is someone who knows that he is out of his depth, on the issue of the virus and on everything else – who is not enjoying the job, and has a sense that it is all beyond him, who would be glad to have the immediate burden of dealing with the pandemic removed from him and for others to have to shoulder it.

    If, as I suspect, this is the case, what then is his priority? It is not to win the election, since that would mean that all the burdens and responsibilities would come crashing and crushing back down on him for another four years.

    No, his main objective would be to escape the burden of a further term but to do so without having to accept that he had been rejected by the voters, which would be a serious blow to his ego and to his place in history. He has always been a President whose ego is much greater than his ability. His inaction and ineffectiveness in dealing with the virus have simply illustrated and exemplified a much wider truth, which is his overall unfitness for the job – it is a truth of which he cannot, however self-deluded, be unaware and that will weigh increasingly heavily on him.

    So, if he is resigned to, or would welcome, losing, his focus would be on salvaging what he can of his reputation, which requires him to be able to say, as he hands over the reins to his successful rival, that it was not a fair contest and that he lost only because his opponents cheated.

    This interpretation may be regarded as fanciful but it at least makes sense of the two apparently contradictory elements in his behaviour – contradictory, that is, if he is really trying to win.

    There is, first, his manifest lack of interest in being seen to deal effectively with the pandemic, something he must know is the pre-condition of getting himself re-elected.

    And secondly, there is his deliberate attempt to undermine the electoral process and his unwillingness to accept its outcome, an attitude that opens him up to the criticism that to re-elect him would be to empower someone prepared to threaten democracy – a perception that cannot help his chances of appealing to voters. Watch this space.

    Bryan Gould
    5 August 2020

  • The Change in the Political Debate

    It hasn’t taken long for the advent of Judith Collins as National party leader to change the tone of the political debate.

    After several days of headlines and airwaves dominated by reports of a National MP sending pornographic images to young women, the National leader had had enough of that story, and found a way to turn the tables. She devised a way to release into the public domain reports that a Labour minister had had an affair that had ended some months earlier.

    No matter that the affair had been known about in political circles for some time; the focus of attention was now on Labour. The Prime Minister had no option but to sack her minister; a failure to do so would have allowed Judith Collins to pursue the second leg of her stratagem, by daily hounding Jacinda Ardern with questions as to when she would “show leadership and do something about it”.

    The contagion seems to have spread rapidly. We have now had Winston Peters attributing to the Prime Minister a readiness to lie and, when she does, to lie “big” – a practice usually attributed to Nazi leaders like Hitler and Goebbels; even for NZ First, this is surely “over the top”.

    But before we get too depressed about this descent into gutter politics, we should pause to count our blessings. As we look around the globe, we see daily evidence of a world that, as the WHO constantly points out, has totally failed to grasp the severity of and threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

    In Europe, there is worrying evidence of a second wave of cases and deaths. The virus is raging, almost unchecked, in countries like India and South Africa. Even in counties that have so far done quite well, like Australia, Israel, Japan and Hong Kong, there is a threatening resurgence. And as for the US and Brazil, a total failure of leadership in those countries is exacting a tragic toll of rising daily numbers of cases and deaths in the tens of thousands.

    It is beginning to dawn on people that, until there is a vaccine (and I salute my old university, Oxford, for the promising work they have done in that regard), the virus will continue to seek out new victims until there are no more.

    And – what about us, here in New Zealand? We have brought the pandemic under control, by ending community transmission, and we have now resumed normal life. We, alone in the world, can go about our business more or less as usual, and we alone can attend in large numbers to watch thrilling rugby matches and other sporting events. And, we can cheer when we see Ashley Bloomfield, “The Eliminator”, score a try!

    None of this would have been possible if we had listened to the siren voices from various parts of the political spectrum, urging us to abandon the lockdowns prematurely, to open our borders, and to open up “bubbles” with other countries. It is noteworthy that none of the owners of those voices has ever “fessed up” that they got it wrong.

    And one thing is even more certain; none of it would have been possible without the most effective, clear and courageous leadership from our Prime Minister and from Ashley Bloomfield, and without a truly uplifting community effort and resolve from all of us – ordinary Kiwis.

    We can afford to ignore the efforts of politicians to re-focus on the grubbier aspects of life. We can afford to sympathise with those millions overseas whose governments have let them down.

    Best of all, we can afford to congratulate ourselves and our leaders on a job well done.

    Bryan Gould
    29 July 2020

  • Game On

    The advent of Judith Collins as leader of the National Party has, whatever else one may think about it, restored some semblance of normal order to New Zealand politics. The National party at last has a leader who relishes the job and who is happy and confident in taking it on.

    However disappointed she may have been in her earlier quests for the job, Judith Collins has so far demonstrated that she is at last in her happy place. She has manifestly enjoyed the process of sorting out her front bench (perhaps taking the odd opportunity to settle an old score or two), she has looked comfortable in handling the press, and – while her policy statements have involved nothing more so far than reading out a speech on infrastructure written for Todd Muller – she has done so competently enough.

    This means that the voter now has something approaching a real choice. The next election will no longer be a cake walk for Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party. So how do the rivals shape up?

    In purely personal terms, the advantage must surely lie with our current Prime Minister. She does not carry the baggage – in terms of Judith Collins’ image as a “crusher”, her past association wth “dirty politics”, and the occasional past misdemeanour as a minister – that are inevitably part of the burden that the new National leader must carry.

    Jacinda Ardern, by contrast, has distinguished herself throughout her term as Prime Minister by virtue of her empathy, kindness and ability to unite and inspire us all in a great national campaign to defeat the coronavirus pandemic. So, in personal terms, advantage to Ardern.

    But what about the policy front? It is here, surely, that Judith Collins will seek to establish an advantage. As her predecessors, Simon Bridges and Todd Muller both incessantly claimed, and indeed all National party leaders have always claimed, it is in managing the economy that National governments come into their own.

    And Winston Peters, worried no doubt about NZ First’s poll ratings, has weighed in, claiming that National’s nine-year stint in government from 2008 to 2017 meant that they alone had the necessary experience.

    But how well do these claims stand up to proper examination? Would a new National government, at this time of great economic risk, extend the legacy bequeathed to us by earlier National governments?

    That legacy, let us remind ourselves, included a run-down health service, with underpaid nursing and midwifery staff, rotting hospital buildings, and struggling GPs. It included under-funded schools and underpaid teachers. And it included the deterioration of our environment, so that we can no longer swim safely in our rivers or trust our drinking water.

    And, in macro-economic terms, it has included perennial trade deficits and record levels of debt. It has included selling off state houses and allowing overseas interests to buy up some of our most valuable assets, and allowing others to blackmail us by demanding continuing subsidies as the price for keeping their businesses going.

    “Managing the economy” under National governments, in other words, has usually meant sacrificing everything for the sake of producing a government surplus, even if that has meant running down our essential public services and abusing our public servants by failing to pay them properly.

    So, the contest between Ardern and Collins may not quite follow the usually expected course. It may not be quite as simple as Ardern’s personal qualities versus Collins’ hard-headed approach to running the economy.

    Judith Collins will at least make a fight of it, but the balance of advantage may still weigh – in both personal and policy terms – in the Prime Minister’s favour. Game on.

    Bryan Gould
    23 July 2020