Mark Mitchell

Final thoughts on National's leadership contest

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Before midday on Tuesday we should know who the new Leader and Deputy Leader of the National Party are. Within a week or so we'll also have seen the resulting Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. 

The five leadership candidates would all bring their own set of strengths and weaknesses to the role. Given I've worked with most of them in the past, I'm not going to traverse these, but there has been some good (and some not so good) analysis out there, so feel free to google away.

What seems readily apparent is that each of the candidates would, to varying degrees, look to change the direction and strategy of the National Party heading into 2020. I'm firmly of the belief that this is a good thing. National can't spend the next two and a half years fighting the 2017 election campaign over and over again.

Labour made that mistake in 2011 and then fought a quasi-civil war for the next six years as it tried to move on from the Helen Clark era, contorting itself into a host of contradictory policy positions along the way. It's a legacy that still plagues them today, as demonstrated by their newfound enthusiasm for the CPTPP despite it essentially being the same deal as the TPP they so vehemently opposed.

The pace of that transition is important too. If National moves too quickly away from the Key/English era they run the risk of leaving behind the very supporters who delivered National such a large share of the party vote. Move too slowly and National will find itself responding to initiatives the Labour-led Government is proposing, rather than leading the conversation on New Zealand's direction and solution to our issues themselves.

That last part is crucial. National knows better than anyone about how fruitless it is to go after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern directly. It watched as Labour smacked its collective head fruitlessly against the edifice of John Key's enduring popularity for eight years, and they know that a similar approach against Ardern won't deliver results.

As to whether National needs to create or foster its own support parties for 2020, I've decided that it's presumptive to assume that new parties won't appear on their own.

Looking back over New Zealand's electoral history, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone who predicted, only a handful of months into the first term of a new government, the formation of any of the minor parties that have existed. In 1984 nobody would have picked that Jim Anderton would head off and create his own political party, likewise for Winston Peters when National took the Government benches in 1990, or the emergence of the Māori Party from Labour.

Notably, with the exception of the Greens breaking off from the Alliance between 1997 and 1999, minor parties generally get created from MPs occupying the government benches. Meaning that if a new minor party is likely to appear, it's more likely to be from Labour, the Greens, or NZ First, than it is from National.

Time and time again minor parties have been created by events unforeseen by political journalists or commentators at the start of a term. There's still every possibility that a new minor party could emerge organically, whether propelled into existence by a policy issue or a personality clash.

National needn't risk its own voter base, or open itself up to claims that it's falling apart, by trying to foster or split up to create its own minor party partner. A far more useful strategy is to pressure the parties of Government so they can deliver that potential partner party for them.

A bizarre take on the history of private military forces

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If you're writing a hot take on the use of private military forces in conflict, it probably pays to check your history before doing so. Such is the case of Daniel Couch's recently published piece on The Spinoff. Along with demanding questions be asked, and answers given, about National Party leadership candidate Mark Mitchell's past in this field - which is a fair enough concern, Couch makes the absurd claim that:

"Private military and security contractors have become a fundamental part of war. They have been instrumental in creating the increasingly murky and ethically bankrupt landscape of modern warfare."

The above two sentences border on the ridiculous, insofar that their central premise is claiming that the intertwining of private military forces and conflict is somehow a product of the late 20th and early 21st century, and that modern warfare is somehow more murky and ethically bankrupt than warfare throughout history.

The use of private military forces, whether called mercenaries, foreign volunteers, or private military or security contractors, has been a feature of conflict for all of recorded history from Ancient Egypt right through to the modern day.

Likewise, war - whether modern or otherwise - has always been murky and largely ethically bankrupt, regardless of whether private armies are employed. The notion that somehow war would be somehow more ethical and less murky if mercenaries weren't used is laughable. 

The simple reality is that private armies have always had a role in conflict, largely performing roles that the belligerents in a conflict are either unwilling, or unable to do. Whether it's supplementing conventional forces on the battlefield, conducting security services in rear areas away from the front line, or providing analysis and advice on the strategic level, you'll find the use of non-state actors throughout all of history.

Couch makes much of Mark Mitchell referring to an article David Shearer wrote about the use of private armies in conflict. While Shearer does acknowledge that private armies have always been part of warfare, I believe Shearer does err in attributing their changed role in warfare over the past three centuries. Shearer's basis for the assertion is that the rise of the nation-state and associated birth of nationalism meant that "the idea of fighting for one’s country rather than for commercial interests gained currency" and that as a result, mercenary forces which used to make up a significant percentage of the actual combatants in a conflict, markedly declined.

The shift in the balance of forces employed by belligerents - from being heavily reliant on private armies to conscripting their own citizens - has less to do with notions of nationalism motivating people to fight for their country, than it does with the ability of states to equip, feed, and transport ever larger numbers of people.

The industrial revolution, with its resulting ability to cheaply produce more rifles, more canons, more ammunition, more uniforms and kit, and transport vast numbers of soldiers via railways, or via first steam or coal turbine powered ships, was the primary change away from private armies playing such a high profile role in conflicts. The cost effectiveness factor that mercenaries offered belligerents - supplying as they traditionally had their own uniforms and equipment - was reduced very quickly.

The role of nationalism as a motivation for soldiers to fight for their country, as referenced by Shearer, was largely a by-product of the use of nationalism to create internal social and political cohesion within nation-states. Nationalism in itself wasn't the reason why private armies as front line combatants declined.

Yet private armies, whether explicitly as mercenary corps, or euphemistically called foreign volunteers, still continued to play important roles in conflicts throughout the past three centuries. While the French Revolution abolished the use of mercenary forces, Napoleon reinstated their use extensively as he sort to mobilise enough manpower for his wars across Europe and France's colonial empire. Both the Union and Confederacy actively recruited and accepted foreign volunteers to bolster their manpower during the American Civil War - volunteers solicited on the promise of pay glory, and citizenship, both the Prussians and French made use of them during the Franco-Prussian War (most famously the French Foreign Legion effectively operates as a mercenary force with France as its exclusive employer), and the First and Second World Wars, as well as the Spanish Civil War, all saw the use of what were effectively mercenary forces, under the guise of being foreign volunteers.

Shearer also argues that the use of mercenaries declined over this period because states were worried about potential damage to their perceived neutrality by having their citizens participating in someone else's conflict. This argument isn't borne out by facts. Germany objected profusely when American volunteers formed the Lafayette Escadrille and flew for the French in the First World War, primarily on the grounds that by allowing the citizens to go to France and be paid, equipped, and fed by the French army, the U.S. was abandoning its policy of neutrality. To appease the Germans, the French changed the name of the volunteer corps.

A similar situation prevailed in China in 1940/41 with the Flying Tigers, effectively backed by the United States Government, operated as mercenaries in support of the Nationalist Chinese against the Japanese.

Worries about neutrality have always played second fiddle to larger strategic priorities when it comes to these situations.

The notion that the use of mercenaries is somehow a new issue in conflict with regards to their employment in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan simply isn't backed up by the facts.

My next issue with Couch's article is when he somehow manages to equate Mark Mitchell, when he was Defence Minister, calling for New Zealand companies to bid for New Zealand Defence Force contracts as part of the 15 year, $20b investment in upgrading and overhauling New Zealand's defence infrastructure and capabilities, as somehow meaning that New Zealand money will be "promoting further violence."

Who does Couch think supplies the equipment that the New Zealand Defence Force uses? Of course it's private companies. Whether it's their uniforms, the food they eat, the kit they carry with them, the weapons and ammunition they use, it's all virtually all provided by private companies, and it makes perfect sense for it to be.

Mitchell's press release as Defence Minister made perfect sense for a Defence Minister to say. It's much more preferable if New Zealand companies are able to, where practical, supply the equipment and facilities that our defence force needs to perform its roles, rather than sending that money offshore.

Couch's attempt to somehow conflate private military forces or security firms, like the Threat Management Group founded by Mark Mitchell, and a call for New Zealand firms to tender to supply equipment and build infrastructure for the NZDF, is truly weird.

As I mentioned at the start, there are questions that it'd be good to get some answers around Mark Mitchell's background. But Couch's article, very nearly descending into moral and ethical panic as it does, adds little of value to the discussion.

Calls for generational change out of step with aging electorate

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When I hear the latest buzzword "generational change" being bandied about to describe politicians, it makes me cringe. There's almost a element of ageism about the term. It's as if somehow people who don't represent generational change (a term largely based on age rather than anything more meaningful such as values or policies) are less valuable to society, or have less to contribute to our political discourse.

The reality is that New Zealand, like most other Western democracies, has an aging population, a fact which gets amplified through voting patterns. In the 2017 election some 51% of voters were over 50-years-old. The median age of the voting public also greyed - increasing from 47 in 2014 to 48 in 2017.

In fact, the share of the voting public in the age bracket that seems to be most associated with generational change - MPs aged between 35 and 44 shrunk at the last election. While there was an increase in the share of votes coming from those aged 18 - 34, it was offset by growth at the older end of the spectrum.

Factoring into this too is that the median age of New Zealand's population is rapidly increasing, sitting at 37 in 2016. It's likely to likely to hit 40 by the early 2030s, and could accelerate further due to a falling fertility rate.

Throw in analysis around how each of the parties performed for the party vote in each age bracket (remember that this is a fairly broad analysis, so is indicative rather than gospel), and the whole idea of generational change for generational change's sake is a tad nonsensical. There's a very large pool of voters (and I mean people who go and actually participate in elections by casting votes) who aren't representative of generational change at all.

Ignoring or discounting the importance of those voters who emphasising or overstating an apparent need for generational change is done at your own peril.

How do you think Winston Peters has managed to claw out an ongoing niche for himself over the years? I'm not suggesting that National should go down the route of emulating Winston Peters. But they have to be mindful of not turning their back on older voters. If those voters perceive National doesn't care about them anymore, there's really only one place for them to go, and that's to Winston, and that doesn't help National's cause at all.

There are generational policy challenges ahead. Issues like climate change and the housing crisis require long-term thinking. Yet the age of a party's leader and a claim to represent generational change in leadership in itself does not qualify one to be any better equipped to deal with those challenges than their gender, marital or familial status, sexual orientation, or their accent.

What matters more is whether their values match enough of the electorate, whether their policies can deliver outcomes that benefit enough voters and, not least of all, whether their personal style engenders confidence that they understand people's concerns and a sense of trust that they will address them.

Age, and by extension generational change, in itself does not provide politicians with a monopoly on these things. The world is far more complicated than that.

Ultimately, leaders are meant to lead for all New Zealanders, not just lead  for one generation over another.

There are old conservatives, there are young conservatives. There are old liberals, there are young liberals. Judge a leader's suitability on their values, their policies, their personality and style, but not their age and whether it symbolises generational change.

Libertas Digital's National Leadership MP Endorsement Tracker

To help everyone keep track of everything that's going on with National's leadership race, I thought I'd throw together a tracker so we can see who's running and which MPs are backing them. At this stage I've included both Mark Mitchell and Steven Joyce in the race, even though neither have made a declaration about whether they're in or out at the time of writing. I figured it'd be easier to include them now and remove them later than the other way around.

I've listed them in order of announcing, with Mark Mitchell and Steven Joyce alphabetically by first names. There's 28 blue bars as they need 29 to win, but obviously their own vote is the finishing line. I'll endeavour to keep this up-to-date based on publicly available endorsements, of which I'm only aware of four in favour of Amy Adams.

If they don't run it'll mean I don't have to have all those words awkwardly on the left like that. The fun of optimising graphics to display in link snippets on social media platforms!

LIVE: National Party Leadership Race

20 February, 8am: Steven Joyce announced he's in the leadership race on RNZ's Morning Report.

19 February, 2.40pm: Mark Mitchell has now announced that he's running for leader. Says he's had strong support, was approached three weeks ago to consider standing in the event of Bill English resigning.

19 February, 12.55pm: It's been a bit quiet over the weekend. But Mark Mitchell is poised to make an announcement at 2.30pm in Orewa. Still no word from Steven Joyce. We've put together a MP Endorsement Tracker to keep up with any public endorsements from MPs for a specific candidate. We appreciate there's a lot of speculation about how many votes each candidate might have behind the scenes, but we're no really able to count those.

15 February, 3.40pm: Jonathan Coleman has ruled himself out of the leadership race.

14 February, 3.35pm: Amy Adams has announced she's running for leader. She was joined at the announcement with Nikki Kaye, Maggie Barry, Chris Bishop, and Tim Macindoe, the first show of support from any MPs for a leadership candidate

14 February, 11am: Simon Bridges has announced he's running for leader.

14 February, 10:30am: Correction: RNZ only say that Mark Mitchell had confirmed he's considering making a bid, but only after he's visited his daughter in Australia. I misread their tweet!

14 February, 9.45am: Newstalk ZB has Steven Joyce saying he's considering options on running for the leadership.


Over the coming days I'll try to put together a quick graphic as and when news breaks about who's in and who's out of the National Party's leadership contest. I'll endeavour to update it as and when announcements are made, though I'm still recovering from a nasty illness and injury so will be entirely dependent on whether I'm able to get out of bed.

The above is based on publicly reported statements that I've seen on Twitter. Where an MP hasn't yet made any statement (e.g. Amy Adams hasn't said anything at all on the race) I've opted to not include them in any of the boxes.