On the Nats’ secret agenda for MMP, and a political star in the making

One of the odder subtexts of the campaign is the serial ‘spontaneity’ with which National Party candidates are endorsing the SM (Supplementary Member) system in the MMP referendum. While the political parties have officially claimed they shouldn’t take an overt stance on the voting system, National seems to have whipped its members firmly into line behind SM.

At last night’s Wellington Central electorate meeting, National’s Paul Foster-Bell became the latest in a fairly long line of National MPs – Simon Bridges, Nick Smith, Michael Woodhouse etc – to make a personal endorsement of SM.

On one level, no big deal. Any aggregate of Green or Labour or Maori Party candidates would be endorsing MMP. The question is a strategic one. Why are National candidates putting their weight behind SM en masse, a system that the polling is showing to be among theleast popular of the alternatives facing the public? The answer, ironically enough, is a very MMP one: they’re trying to split the vote.

The voting referendum is really a contest between the only systems that the public know first hand: MMP, and the old FPP system. In a pure head to head contest, FPP would fail. To give it a helping hand, National candidates have been either explicitly endorsing or dog whistling for SM as a moderate, middle ground alternative. It is no such thing, of course. SM contains only a pathetically token trace of proportionality and entrenches big party power. (The Royal Commission dismissed it with disdain as barely any improvement at all on FPP.)

What the advocates for change are hoping for is that enough blue voters will fall into line behind SM that –in combination with the deadweight vote for FPP – this will be enough to deny MMP the majority it needs, and thus force a run-off in 2014. Which would pit MMP against FPP.

In that sense, a vote for SM is merely a vote for delaying the inevitable. In a time of scarcity, a vote for SM is also a vote for pouring more millions of taxpayer money down the drain on another pointless referendum. Yes, the same governing party that has been preaching the need for us to tighten our belts – and that is selling down state assets to raise money for schools and hospitals – is secretly engineering a pretty futile exercise in conspicuous waste.

Not that the pro-MMP campaign can afford to be complacent about its current lead. In 1993, MMP held a commanding lead that all but evaporated during the final onslaught of a well-funded anti-MMP campaign. Only a renewed organising effort in the last stretch led by the likes of Kevin Hackwell (and others) saved the day. A serendipitous “Vote MMP” cover story in the Listener – in those days, a far more substantial publication – also helped to steady the ship. Point being, the pro-MMP campaign needs to be on the front foot during the last week of this year’s campaign. “Save Millions for Schools and Hospitals: Give MMP An Absolute Majority” might be a useful way to go.


Wellington Central

In the latest series of the always entertaining Wellington Central sitcom, James Shaw of the Greens and Stephen Whittington of the Act Party are well cast as the young and rambunctious ingénues. This has left Labour incumbent Grant Robertson playing the bemused Dad figure, who pops his head into the rumpus room from time to time to shake his head in amused irritation at what those darn kids have been getting up to next.

You can bet that by the time the credits roll on election day, Dad will have shown he knew a thing or two after all, and the young lads will have learned some useful life lessons. (National’s Paul Foster-Bell is the Ned Flanders-like doofus down the street. Purely a sympathy vote.)

In Wellington’s cerebral fashion, Shaw/Whittington are the capital city’s version of the Jacinda Ardern vs Nicki Kaye contest in Auckland Central. Robertson remains a shoo-in to win the electorate, regardless of the tide level for the Labour Party, nationally. He has largely Goff-proofed himself, by being an exceptional electorate MP. Shaw and Whittington however, are a pretty fascinating example of clashing political styles. Any political science class should get ahold of this week’s Back Benches show on TVNZ7 for a lesson in how – and how not to – do politics on television.

Neither Whittington or Shaw is likely to get into Parliament this year. In Shaw’s case, that’s something of a tragedy for the Greens because he embodies the party’s aspirations for voter outreach. We’ve come a long way from lentils and Morris dancing, given the background of this guy.

That’s what made the Back Benches contrast so interesting. I hate to hark back to the ancient wisdom of Marshall McLuhan and his notions of ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media platforms – but Shaw does have the ‘cool’ nature of television communication down pat. You don’t overplay on TV, you underplay, you keep the gestures small. You must be articulate, but relaxed with it. Shaw did this brilliantly, despite flubbing his final 30 second pitch to the camera autocue.

By contrast, Whittington provided almost a case study in misreading the medium. The same ‘hot’ intellectual intensity that may work in the cut and thrust of a debating contest looks simply hyperactive on television. (There’s a thin line between staying on message and monomania.) As McLuhan kept reminding us about the nature of television – you are a guest in peoples’ homes. Try to remember not to come in and hector them, and don’t vomit on the rug.

For a lot of new candidates, this year’s contest was always going to be a learning curve. In his particular case, Whittington has to learn (a) how to dial it back and (b) how to vary the pitch. Even in the hotter context of the Aro St candidates meeting last night, Whittington’s attempts at levity tended to misfire – at least for anyone whose idea of party fun doesn’t involve being trapped in a corner by someone telling you why you should read The Fountainhead.

I know I’m talking only about style, but given that television is the prime vehicle for political communication, it is important. It’s one reason why John Key is so successful – he plays relaxed, articulate and intimate very well indeed. Phil Goff sounds strident, shouty and whiny by comparison. Unfortunately, Shaw is one of a number of excellent candidates ( eg Holly Walker, Jan Logie) far more capable than some of the dead wood ahead of them on the Greens list. I know, the Greens are rating through the roof right now. As with the pro-MMP people, the challenge will be to maintain the momentum – and keep something in reserve to stop the traditional erosion of Green support during the last few days of the campaign.


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