Winston Peters

The definitive timeline of the Government's Russia fiasco

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As the Government of Jacinda Ardern heads into its third week of its foreign policy blunder regarding Russia, I thought I'd throw together what's hopefully a definitive timeline of how this has unfolded.

24 October 2017: The incoming Government releases it's coalition and confidence and supply agreements with New Zealand First and the Green Party respectively. Everyone is caught be surprise by a clause in the agreement with New Zealand First which binds the Government to "Work towards a Free Trade Agreement with the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union and initiate Closer Commonwealth Economic Relations." It comes on the back of Winston Peters pursuing the issue with 20 questions in the House over nearly three years.

31 October 2017: The European Union's Ambassador Bernard Savage takes the unprecedented step of bluntly warning the New Zealand Government that pursuing a free trade deal with Russia will be viewed in a negative light by the European Union.

1 March 2018: Jacinda Ardern delivers her first speech on foreign policy to the New Zealand Institute of Foreign Affairs. In it, Ardern talks about as a small country New Zealand puts extra importance on the rules based international order, that New Zealand needs to strengthen our partnerships with out long-standing friends, and that:

We want an international reputation New Zealanders can be proud of.  And while we are navigating a level of global uncertainty not seen for several generations, I remain firmly optimistic about New Zealand’s place in the world.

Our global standing is high: when we speak, it is with credibility; when we act, it is with decency.

They're words that in the events that would start to unfold less than two weeks later now look like a bad joke.

10 March 2018: Winston Peters appears on Newshub Nation in a bizarre interview where he claims there is no evidence Russia was involved in shooting down MH17, or that Russia had tried to interfere in the US Presidential election. He also tried to equate trading with Australia and trading with Russia as equivalent moral issues.

12 March 2018: At her post-Cabinet press conference in Wellington, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ties herself in knots in her attempts to defend her Foreign Minister. Questions are also raised about how often Foreign Minister Winston Peters might be meeting with Russian officials.

13 March 2018 (New Zealand time): British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the House of Commons about the Salisbury attack, unequivocally blaming Russia for launching the first chemical attack on European soil since World War II. Russia is given until midnight to respond and explain their actions. Britain's allies around the world issue statements all condemning the attack and joining Britain in blaming Russia.

13 March 2018: Winston Peters issues a statement which while condemning the attack and calling for an investigation, falls short of blaming Russia for it.

14 March 2018: Russia issues a sarcastic and dismissive response to the British ultimatum. In a rare move, UK High Commissioner Laura Clarke goes on RNZ to make the case that Russia was behind the Salisbury attack. In a message clearly directed at the New Zealand Government following their watered down statement the previous day, Clarke points out that Russia has repeatedly ignored the rules based international system and that New Zealand, more than most countries, relies on that system being respected.

15 March 2018: Pressure mounts on the New Zealand Government as academics, journalists, and political commentators criticise the Government's weak response. The Australian Labor Party's Penny Wong slammed New Zealand's response, as did former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The Australian issues a highly critical editorial, while the family of a MH17 victim joins the chorus of condemnation of Peters' earlier comments denying evidence of Russian involvement in the downing of the plane.

Later afternoon 16 March 2018: Following mounting pressure, Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters issued a statement on joint letter head, but only using quotes attributed to the Prime Minister, which finally blames Russia for the Salisbury attack - a full three days after New Zealand's allies had already done this. After it's noted by media that none of the quotes in the statement are attributed to Winston Peters, the statement on the Beehive is edited. It's blamed on a mistake by staff.

17 and 18 March 2018: Jacinda Ardern, in her first appearance on Newshub Nation and Q&A for 2018 is drilled on the issue. Ardern takes the weird position that the Salisbury chemical attack "changes things", as if there hadn't been a pattern of growing Russian aggression since the Crimean invasion. Ardern is also out claiming that talks on the Russian FTA hadn't been restarted when its revealed that Russian officials, believed to be trade officials, had met with Winston Peters in Manila the previous year. Weirdly, Ardern begins to articulate the myth that all they were doing wasn't actually trying to pursue a free trade agreement with Russia, just a reduction in non-tariff barriers, even though all her comments up to that point had been about a free trade deal with Russia.

19 March 2018: Ardern is once again grilled in her post-Cabinet press conference. Again it's over why the Salisbury attack had changed whether the Russian FTA was a good idea. Oddly, Ardern claims that Winston Peters is the one who first said that the Salisbury attack changed things, that's despite the fact that the Russian FTA was still all go until Friday afternoon when Ardern was quoted in a story by Stuff's Tracy Watkins and Jo Moir that all efforts to restart talks had been halted. In all the other things that were unfolding that week, Ardern's comments at that press conference now seem at odds with both the events of Friday afternoon, and Ardern's own interviews over the weekend. It seems very likely that there was an effort underway to restart free trade talks with Russia, but it was shelved only after Ardern decided it was no longer viable for the Government to keep taking heat over Winston Peters' stance. And there's no evidence Peters ever said that Salisbury changed things with regards to the Russian FTA, the only report of it appears to be Ardern announcing it would be stopped.

20 March 2018: The House sits again and both Ardern and Peters are questioned over the Government's woeful response to Russia the previous week.

21 March 2018: Ardern is again forced to defend Winston Peters' alternative facts around there being no evidence of Russian involvement in downing MH17 or trying to interfere in the US election.

22 March 2018: Winston Peters, responding on behalf of the Prime Minister, is subjected to questions in the House about his comments on Russia.

27 March 2018: Ardern appears on RNZ. In response to questions about how 150 Russian diplomats have been expelled from 26 countries, as well as NATO, Ardern says that MFAT has advised her that there are no undeclared Russian intelligence officers operating out of the Russian embassy. Ardern refuses later to confirm to other media whether there are declared intelligence officers. The comments soon go global, with it being reported and mocked around the world that Jacinda Ardern doesn't think there are any Russian spies in New Zealand, or that New Zealand would expel Russian spies but can't find any. The exact wording of a couple of exchanges towards the end of it are very interesting. Interviewer Guyon Espiner explicitly asks twice about Russian spies, not just the distinction of undeclared intelligence officers.

Espiner: "We don't have spies, Russian spies, in New Zealand?"
Ardern: "I'm assured by MFAT, that after the checks they've done, we don't. But, again, important to say if we did, we would expel them."

and...

Espiner: "You happy with that? Do you believe that? There's no one gathering intelligence for Russia in New Zealand."
Ardern: "Well I can only rely on the advice I'm given."

Twice Guyon Espiner asked about spies, not just the diplomatic distinction of undeclared intelligence officers, and twice Ardern said there weren't any. She went on to elaborate that she wasn't surprised because we apparently wouldn't top the list for global intelligence services. Tell that to the French spies who bombed the Rainbow Warrior, or the Mossad spies caught travelling on forged passports...

It's also important to note that Ardern wasn't briefed by MFAT, it was actually the NZSIS, as was revealed by Winston Peters during question time the following day, and Ardern herself as she was caught on the microphone mentioning it.

28 March 2018: Local media picks up on the fact that overnight New Zealand has becoming an international laughing stock. Stories have run in high profile publications including Time, the Guardian, and Politico. Even Kremlin mouthpiece Russia Today mocked New Zealand's efforts.

In Question Time Foreign Minister Winston Peters is taken to task on New Zealand's lack of action in response to Salisbury. Not only that, but Winston Peters in talking about the NZSIS report given to him and the Prime Minister reveals that the NZSIS have advised him and the Prime Minister that there is Russian intelligence activity in New Zealand! A direct contradiction of what Ardern told Guyon Espiner on Morning Report.

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Along with Security Analyst Paul Buchanan rubbishing Ardern's claimsformer KGB agent Boris Karpichkov also weighed in, pointing out that as part of the Five Eyes, New Zealand was a prime target for Russian spies.

Update - 29 March 2018: Ardern finally announces that the Government is looking at implementing travel bans, and step they evidently didn't look at until Wednesday following two days of mounting pressure and international media coverage her comments regarding Russian spies.

In opposition to the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill

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Yesterday I put in my submission opposing the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill. For interests sake, I'm reproducing it here should anyone wish to read it.


“Members of Parliament have to be free to follow their conscience. They were elected to represent their constituents, not swear an oath of blind allegiance to a political party. If an MP feels that membership in another elected party better serves his or her constituents, then that can be put to the test at election time.”

That was the Leader of New Zealand First, Winston Peters, in 1996 when the then National Party MP Michael Laws defected from National to New Zealand First. Given the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill is being currently considered by Parliament, it’s worth noting that back in 1996, Mr Peters did not demand that Michael Laws resign from both the National Party and Parliament. Instead Mr Peters would have been more than happy for Mr Laws to remain as an MP until the 1996 General Election, had other events in Mr Laws’ career not intervened.

Freedom of conscience and association are justifiably held dear as two of the most important foundations of a healthy and functioning democracy. New Zealand made a point of explicitly enshrining these in our laws through Sections 13 and 17 of the Bill of Rights Act 1990, simply put:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief, including the right to adopt and to hold opinions without interference.”
and:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of association.”

As the Select Committee reflects on the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill, I encourage Members to consider those two sections carefully, and how they apply to the legislation before us. Does it impinge on an MP’s right to freedom of conscience and freedom of association? Does it constitute an interference with those rights?

As I will demonstrate in this submission, the only credible answer to both those questions is a loud and clear “Yes”, and it is for that reason that I have chosen to make this submission which is strongly opposed to this legislation.

While supporters of the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill tout it as being about preserving the proportionality of Parliament as determined at the previous General Election, this claim does not stand up to basic scrutiny. If the Bill were truly about preserving that proportionality, it would deal with other situations that result in changes to that proportionality rather than just when an MP either resigns or is forced out from their political party. The most recent example of a change to Parliamentary proportional that the Bill fails to address was that which resulted from the Northland by-election in 2015.

As a result of Mr Peters winning that by-election and deciding to bring in Ria Bond from New Zealand First’s list to replace him, the proportionality of Parliament was changed relative to that determined by voters little more than six months previously. National’s share of seats was reduced from 49.59% of Parliament on 20 September 2014 to 48.76%. Meanwhile New Zealand First’s share was increased from 9.09% to 9.92%.

Why is this example important? Because if the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill was genuinely interested in preserving the proportionality of Parliament, then it should include sections to address situations like the Northland by-election changing proportionality. Such a section would stipulate that in an event where an electorate seat switches between parties during a Parliamentary term as the result of a by-election, other parties would be required to gain or lose list MPs as necessary to preserve that previous proportionality.

If we use the Northland by-election as an example of such a new section in the Bill: Voters had determined on 20 September 2014 that National should have 60 seats in the 51st Parliament and that New Zealand First should have 11. To preserve that proportionality of Parliament after Mr Peters’ win in the Northland by-election, it would have been National that would have been permitted to bring in an MP to bring their number of seats back up to 60, while New Zealand First wouldn’t have been able to bring in someone off their list to replace Mr Peters and would have remained with 11 seats.

The fact that the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill omits to address such a situation, and only looks to deal with the situation where an MP either leaves their political party and/or switches political allegiance during a Parliamentary term, is indisputable evidence that this Bill is not about preserving proportionality at all.

It is clearly about legislating to introduce a tool for parties and their leaders which constitutes an interference on MPs’ rights to freedom of conscience and freedom of association.

At this point it’s worth noting that the country with an MMP system with which New Zealand is most often compared – Germany – places such a high value on preserving the freedoms of conscience and association for its elected representatives that it has explicitly protected those rights for Members of the Bundestag. Article 38 of the German Constitution states:

“Members of the German Bundestag shall be elected in general, direct, free, equal and secret elections. They shall be representatives of the whole people, not bound by orders or instructions, and responsible only to their conscience.”

The second sentence is especially important for us to consider in that it creates a protection for German MPs to vote with their conscience, against the wishes of their respective party, and not be dismissed from the Bundestag by their party as a result of such an action.

All of this is to say that Germany sees the freedoms of conscience and association for elected representatives as being a fundamental part of a healthy, functional democracy. Germany, perhaps more than any other country, knows the risks of undermining such freedoms.

New Zealand has, relative to other comparable democracies, very few checks and balances on Parliament and the Executive, especially checks that can be accessed and used by ordinary citizens. As a result of this situation, the ability of MPs to disagree with and vote against their party and remain as elected representatives, functions as one of the last and most important combination of checks and balances on the powers of both Parliament and the Executive.

The right of MPs to defy their party and vote against it, or even leave their party should their conscience demand it in more serious situations, while remaining an MP acts as a check on the power of parties to simply force through whatever they like willy-nilly. It functions as a balance against parties enacting or promoting policies which are either too far of a departure from their values or election policies, or are potentially too radical or backwards, in that party leadership should take into account how their own MPs might react to any given course of action.

New Zealand has a proud history of MPs exercising this right to stand up for and act as a check against the power of Governments to do whatever they want. Whether it was Marilyn Waring defying Muldoon’s attempts to invite nuclear powered or armed ships to New Zealand, Jim Anderton rallying against the economic reforms of the Fourth Labour Government, Winston Peters and Michael Laws defecting over a continuation of those reforms under the Fourth National Government, the split of New Zealand First MPs over the behaviour of their leader in 1998, the Alliance fracturing over the Fifth Labour Government’s support for the War on Terror, Tariana Turia fighting back against the foreshore and seabed legislation, or Hone Hawawira disagreeing with the Māori Party being too close in its relationship with the Fifth National Government, this right of MPs to exercise their freedoms of conscience and association has become one of the defining and most important features of our political system.

I, as would many others, would argue that so vital is protecting this right for MPs, that we cannot simply hope that parties and their leaders don’t exercise the powers the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill would give them to effectively sack defiant MPs from Parliament, such as what happened with the Alliance in 2002, but rather we must ensure that we don’t put the tools to abuse such power in the hands of political parties and their leaders to begin with.

It is clear to any observer that the only purpose of the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill is to give parties and their leaders a tool that interferes with an MP’s rights to freedom of conscience and freedom of association. It does so by effectively taking away the power to elect, or not elect, MPs from voters, and hands it over to the internal processes of each party’s caucus and internal processes.

As Members of this Committee will well know from their own personal experience, even if they won’t publicly admit it, the claimed “safeguard” of needing two-thirds of the caucus to agree to written notice being given to an MP is little more than a rubber stamp exercise, and in reality will offer no safeguard to this legislation being exploited to quash internal dissention.

While I appreciate that parties and their leaders are mindful of maintaining the cohesion and unity of their Parliamentary members, largely for reasons of their own self-preservation in the face of voters at the next General Election, I would make the point to the Committee that the best way to achieve that is not through regressive legislation that impinges on MPs’ fundamental freedoms under the Bill of Rights Act, but rather through political parties themselves ensuring that not only do they have the processes in place to manage such issues internally, but that they also develop, pursue, and support policy and positions on issues that are palatable to their MPs.

Another consequence of the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill, and I would go so far as to suggest it may even be an intentional consequence of it, is that it will effectively create two tiers of MPs with different levels of recourse and protection under the law. Electorate MPs who are removed from Parliament under this legislation would have the recourse of contesting the resulting by-election to get back into Parliament, however List MPs would have no such option, and would simply be removed from Parliament barring any legal challenge brought to bare through the court system.

Ironically for a piece of legislation with the word “integrity” in its title, creating two tiers of MPs in such a way would effectively undermine the integrity of our electoral system. As things stand without this legislation, both Electorate and List MPs enjoy essentially the same legal rights and protections and, as such, voters can have confidence that when they cast their party vote they are doing so for a list of MPs that are broadly representative of their values and the needs of their community. Voters also cast their votes the understanding that those List MPs are empowered in the same way as Electorate MPs that they will be able to act as a check against the party or its leadership moving too far away from the policies and values it campaigned on.

However, should the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill be passed, it would then devalue the position of List MPs by making them far more vulnerable to being summarily removed from Parliament by their party. Voters would not have the confidence that their party vote would be cast for anything more than appointing rubber stamp MPs who would smile and nod at whatever policy platform or legislation their party leadership puts before them.

We currently have a system where party leadership, when considering a course of action to take on an issue or a policy, must take into account not only the advice they receive about the policy, and the views of the public, but also the views of their caucus too, regardless of whether those members were elected via an electorate or the party list. That final bit is so crucially important to the integrity of New Zealand’s democratic system. The political calculation that a party’s leadership must take into account the views of their caucus acts as one of the last balances on the ability of party to simply rely on the pressure of the majority to force MPs to support any position they may take on a given issue.

With the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill, that balance would be altered in such a significant way that it would have a huge negative impact on the integrity of our system. Party leaderships would no longer have to worry about threat of MPs voting against legislation, or standing up independently against a proposed course of action. They’d no longer have to worry about those MPs, especially List MPs, remaining in Parliament as a thorn in their side, if such a parting of the ways resulted in the dissenting MP either resigning or be sacked from their party. Under this Bill, those MPs would be effectively gone for good, freeing up parties and their leadership to behave much differently than they are now.

Here I think it’s useful to remember the words of the former Green Party co-leader, the late Rod Donald, when he spoke to Parliament opposing virtually identical legislation to that being considered now, “It is vital that MPs are not turned into party robots. Anti-defection legislation is designed to gag outspoken MPs and crush dissent.”

At its core, that is what the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill is about. It is demonstrably not about preserving the proportionality of Parliament, as it fails to address all other situations which might result in a change to that proportionality. This is especially ironic seeing as the party which is the main proponent of the need for the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill – New Zealand First – was the beneficiary of the most recent example of such a situation which changed the proportionality of Parliament. Yet they’re not arguing to legislate to prevent that happening again.

The only rational and credible reading of this legislation is that it is designed to equip parties and their leaders with a tool to interfere with the legal rights of MPs (a point which Attorney-Generals present and past have noted with this and similar legislation) and make it harder for MPs to oppose policies or legislation that go against their conscience by the threat of their removal from Parliament by their leaders.

It is simply not good enough to suggest that MPs’ freedom of conscience and association won’t be negatively impacted by this Bill. To put in place a legislative framework that allows parties and their leaders to sack dissenting MPs sends an unmistakably chilling message: dare to defy the party line and you’re gone. That message attacks the very heart of the Bill of Rights Act, and very clear fails the test set out in Section 5 of that piece of legislation which states, “the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights may be subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

Disagreements over policy or personalities within a political party are simply not compelling enough reasons to place limits on the freedoms contained within the Bill of Rights Act, especially when imposing such limits undermine one of the few sets of checks and balances within our Parliamentary system.

To the Labour Party Members of this Committee, I would ask you to look to the words of your former leader and Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who said, “MPs should make honourable undertakings, not legal undertakings. They may be coerced by argument, by public opinion, but not by stand-over tactics in closed rooms by party leaders.”

When you read those words, ask yourself – how does a piece of legislation that gives party leaders the tools to remove MPs who dissent or disagree too much from Parliament support the freedoms, rights, and democracy that we hold so dear in New Zealand?

Furthermore, and I note both with interest and regret, that there are no Green Party MPs on the Justice Select Committee, I would still use this opportunity to call on them to look to the principles of their party, look to their past leaders like the late Rod Donald or Metiria Turei, who have spoken out so strongly against such legislation in the past as being fundamentally undemocratic and an attack on the basic rights and freedoms of MPs. As Metiria Turei put it, “He [Winston Peters] may want to corral his MPs for fear of that they may have an independent thought, but the Green MPs value each others' right to disagree and feel no need to be kept in line by the party leadership.”

The Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill effectively removes one of the last, and most important sets of checks and balances on the power of Parliament and the Executive branch. Despite the claims of its small handful of supporters, it is not genuinely interested in maintaining the proportionality of Parliament, failing to address any of the far more likely events that would change that proportionality. Instead, it explicitly seeks to interfere with the rights and freedoms of MPs through giving party leaders a tool through which to threaten MPs who disagree or dissent too much with sacking, and it undermines the integrity of our electoral and Parliamentary systems by creating two tiers of MPs with different protections and resources.

It is for these reasons that I make this submission in strong opposition to what is both a poorly written piece of legislation, and a disturbing attack on some of the fundamental pillars of our democratic system.

Ardern stumbles badly on Putin-Peters axis

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I can't think of a bigger foreign policy faux pas in New Zealand's recent political history than the absolute train wreck that unfolded this week over Russia. It started with Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters bizarre interview on Newshub Nation. In it he denied there was evidence of Russian interference in the US Presidential election, or evidence of Russian involvement in the downing of MH-17.

Those two claims fly in the face of the growing list of charges being brought against Russians by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the mounting body of evidence from the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team, the British Security and Intelligence Committee, and NGO investigators Bellingcat.

I was one of the first political commentators to call out Winston Peters indefensible and incoherent comments, suggesting to maintain credibility in her leadership and for international partners to have faith in New Zealand's membership of security and intelligence sharing arrangements, Jacinda Ardern needed to sack Winston Peters.

It's a call I stand by having made, especially in light with how badly this week has played out for the Government and the damage it will have caused for New Zealand with some of our most crucial security, intelligence, and trading partners. The source of all these issues is Winston Peters, and only by sacking him can Ardern fully restore confidence in her Government's ability to handle significant foreign policy issues.

It continued on Monday when, at her weekly post-Cabinet press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ineptly tried to avoid contradicting her Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and defended his continued push for free trade talks with Russia.

On Tuesday things got worse.

Around the world governments moved to condemn the Salisbury chemical weapons attack and squarely point the finger of blame at Russia, with the Canadian, United States, British, Australian, French, and German governments all taking an extremely firm and united stance against Putin and Russia. All New Zealand could manage was a meekly worded statement from Foreign Minister Winston Peters that was massively out of step with New Zealand's key security partners in that it didn't blame Russia, a point that no doubt would have been noticed by our friends and allies.

A yardstick of the seriousness with which Peters' pathetic response was taken by our security partners, their growing concern about his pro-Putin apologism, and how it was going unchecked in the Beehive, was delivered on Wednesday morning when British High Commissioner Laura Clarke made a rare media appearance via RNZ's Morning Report to deliver a blunt message to Jacinda Ardern - Russia was clearly responsible for the Salisbury attack, New Zealand's refusal to publicly acknowledge that responsibility was not good enough, and New Zealand's pursuit of a free trade agreement with Russia was deeply concerning in light of Russia's increasingly brazen pattern of aggression with complete disregard for international rules based diplomacy.

While Clarke was diplomatic enough in the interview, diplomatic representatives simply do not make media appearances outside of their arrival or departure in the country, unless it is to send a very clear message to the government of the day. Clarke's appearance would only have been the tip of the iceberg, with unofficial back channels being used extensively to convey sterner messages to level nine of the Beehive about the gravity with which New Zealand's actions, or lack thereof, were being taken in Westminster.

Not constrained by the need for diplomacy, the Australian Labor Party's Penny Wong (who is staffed by a former New Zealand Labour Party staffer), and former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott slammed Winston Peters' comments, and an even more stinging editorial in The Australian.

The growing domestic and international backlash finally forced Jacinda Ardern's hand.

Having realised how poorly she had judged the entire situation, and the damage that had been already done and the risk of even more damage had she persisted in defending Winston Peters' pro-Putin stance, late on Friday afternoon she issued a joint statement that finally got in line with the significant international outrage at Russia's actions. What was odd about the statement though was that other than Russia's sarcastic response to Britain's ultimatum for a response, nothing much else had changed.

The reason why so many governments got in behind the British position so quickly is because the British shared their intelligence on the Salisbury attack with them, intelligence that would have been shared with Ardern too. She would have had access to that intelligence much earlier in the week, most likely on Tuesday before Winston Peters made his first underwhelming statement on the attack.

The disaster continued to unfold on Newshub Nation. Drilled on whether Russian FTA negotiations had restarted, Ardern was caught out having just denied that they'd restarted, when Lisa Owen pointed out that Winston Peters had already met with Russian officials in Manila, where it's believed the FTA was announced.

What was even more incredible is that Ardern stated the reason for suspending Winston Peters' pursuit of a Russian FTA was that "Salisbury changes things." Really? In case Ardern hadn't noticed, that since invading and annexing the Crimea in 2014, Russia has:

  • Interfered with elections in the US, France, Germany, and possibly also in Italy.
  • Continued to carry out a clandestine war in Eastern Ukraine.
  • Provided military support in the form of soldiers, air power, equipment, and training to Assad's regime in Syria which is again using chemical weapons on civilians.
  • Continued to murder and harass political opponents and journalists in Russia.
  • Continued to repress ethnic and minority groups within Russia.
  • And Putin has even revealed he's antisemitic too in trying to blame Jews for any meddling in the US election!

Salisbury hasn't changed anything. Russia is still the same brutal, aggressive, and repressive dictatorship that it was in 2014 when FTA negotiations were suspended over Crimea, the only thing that changed in that time was that Winston Peters had the balance of power following the 2017 election and used that power to wring a concession for a Russian free trade deal in his coalition deal with Labour.

The height of Ardern's absurd response to her abysmal handling of the situation this week came when she tried to compare what she claims New Zealand is trying to do is just trade on a equivalent basis to how the UK and EU trade with Russia around sanctions.

I hate to tell the Prime Minister this, but essentially the only thing the EU trades with Russia for is to get oil and gas, largely to heat their homes during the European winter. It's something of a necessity, a fact the Prime Minister should be aware of from her own time working for Tony Blair. Some 65% of the EU's trade with Russia is for oil and gas, and New Zealand simply is not dependent on such a relationship in order to not freeze to death each winter. So trying to argue that Peters' FTA plan is little more than trying to trade in a similar manner to how the UK and EU do with Russia is a false analogy.

In many ways what unfolded this week was the culmination of a diplomatic disaster whose first warning signs were very clear made by European Union Ambassador Bernard Savage in November 2017.

This past week Jacinda Ardern has displayed an appalling lack of judgement with her handling of Winston Peters' incoherent comments on Russia, her week long defence of pursuing the Russian free trade deal, and her Government's failure react appropriately to the abhorrent Salisbury chemical weapon attack until late on Friday. It was all capped off by her own poor performances in her post-Cabinet press conference, as well as on Newshub Nation where she has still failed to adequately explain the complete and utter mess of our foreign relations she and her Deputy Prime Minister managed to create.

Most importantly to keep in mind is that this entire episode has damaged New Zealand's international reputation. It will cause our security and intelligence partners to think twice before passing sensitive information to New Zealand, it will make both the UK and the EU more reluctant to concede ground to New Zealand's requests as we work on free trade agreements with them, and we will see less support from them if and when New Zealand takes any international issues we might have to the world stage.

There are also now questions being rightfully asked about why Winston Peters motivations and why is he so single-mindedly obsessed with getting a Russian free trade agreement when he's historically been so fiercely opposed to deals like the TPP, the Korean FTA, and the China FTA.

Why the sudden rush now to do a deal with Putin now, Comrade Peters...?

To maintain credibility Ardern must sack Winston Peters

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Following an interview on Newshub Nation today, where New Zealand's Deputy Prime Minister claimed that there was no evidence that Russia either meddled in the US election, or was responsible for the shooting down of MH-17 over Ukraine, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern must sack Winston Peters from her Government, as his position as Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister is no longer tenable.

Mr Peters went so far as to suggest New Zealand trading with Russia would be no different to New Zealand trading with Australia given Australia's treatment of criminals who are New Zealand citizens living in Australia.

Perhaps Mr Peters hasn't noticed, but last time I checked Australia hadn't conducted invasions of South Ossetia and the Crimea, nor was Australia supplying troops and equipment to a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine and backing the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad which has repeatedly and recently used chemical weapons on civilians.

Nor has Australia been involved in attempts to disrupt elections and referendums in the US, France, Germany, and the UK.

The Australian Government also hasn't been attempting to carry out assassinations of dissidents and former intelligence officers using chemical weapons either.

So there's a big difference there, Mr Peters. A mighty big difference.

Mr Peters' comments are completely inappropriate coming from our Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.

If you're one of New Zealand's friends or allies and you're seeing those comments today, you'll be asking yourself what is an apologist for Russian aggression doing as Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand. If you're one of our intelligence and defence partners, Mr Peters' remarks will undermine your faith in sharing intelligence with your New Zealand partners. And if you're one of the countries whose citizens died in the attack on MH17, you'll probably be weighing up whether to summon New Zealand's diplomatic representatives and demanding a "please explain" from them.

In short, what Winston Peters said on Newshub Nation this morning has the potential to turn into a significant diplomatic incident for New Zealand, damaging our crucial security, trade, and travel relationships around the world.

But not only that, Mr Peters comments will be upsetting and offensive to the families of victims from the downing of MH-17.

Both the Joint Investigation Team and the British Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament have found that it was a Russian supplied 9M38 BUK missile system that shot down MH-17, but that the BUK system crossed the border into Ukraine from Russia on the day of the attack, and was then slipped back across the border shortly afterwards. Given both the nature of a BUK missile system (in that it's not the type of weapon you could just supply to rebel forces without significant training on how to use it), and that Russian soldiers are on the ground in Eastern Ukraine under the ridiculous guise of claiming to be civilians (even though they've been demonstrated to be serving in the same command structures with the same officers as they did in the Russian army). In fact, the UK based NGO Bellingcat has amassed evidence that shows that soldiers from Russia's 53rd Anti-Aircraft Rocket Brigade were operating the missile unit responsible for shooting down MH-17 on that day.

With all this in mind, it is simply not credible to claim that there is no evidence that Russia had any responsibility, or wasn't involved, in the attack, when the evidence points towards either the Russians pulling the trigger themselves, or doing everything but pulling the trigger. It's essentially a question of whether they're guilty of murder or aiding and abetting a murder, including the destruction of evidence and obstruction of justice.

While Winston Peters has tried to argue that there's no enough evidence for a case to be brought in a court of law, he should probably look to the UN Security Council, where Russia was forced to veto a Malaysian drafted resolution that would have led to an international investigation. I wonder why that was?

With regards to Russian interference in the US 2016 Presidential election, each week we're met with more evidence about Russian attempts to meddle. There's the FSB linked hackers targeting the Democrats, fake Twitter profiles trying to amplify Donald Trump's tweets, Russian linked Facebook pages running political ads, or Special Counsel Robert Mueller's growing list of charges being brought against those involved in the Kremlin linked campaign. It is beyond any reasonable doubt that there was a Russian backed attempt to destabilise the US political system during the 2016 election.

Once you've read all that, keep the in mind the following:

  • As Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters is effectively the second most important person in the Executive.
  • As Foreign Minister, Winston Peters is meant to be representing both the New Zealand Government and our interests as a country overseas.
  • As a member of Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, Winston Peters is responsible for the oversight of our intelligence agencies.
  • When Jacinda Ardern has her baby in June, Winston Peters will be Acting Prime Minister for six weeks.

In light of Winston Peters' indefensible comments on Newshub Nation, it's no longer tenable for him to be Deputy Prime Minister or Foreign Minister, or for him to be Prime Minister for those six weeks in June and July. Not only are Winston Peters' remarks immensely embarrassing for New Zealand on the world stage, but their impact of our most crucial relationships with our allies and friends, as well as the hurt they'll cause to the families of the 298 victims of that horrific attack.

If Jacinda Ardern is to maintain both her own credibility as Prime Minister, and New Zealand's credibility in the international community, especially with our friends and allies, Winston Peters must be sacked.

Greens betray principles for Winston, don't even get a t-shirt

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The opening two days of the Parliamentary sitting year have been a disappointment. First the Green Party turned their backs on nearly two decades of principled opposition to waka jumping laws to vote the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill through its first reading.

Then, last night, Chlöe Swarbrick's Members' bill on medicinal cannabis saw a similar situation grip several Labour and National Party MPs who, despite having previously indicated they'd take a principled position to support the bill, didn't support it when the vote was called.

In National's case, as a whole the National Party has historically been opposed, or very reluctant, to liberalise laws around cannabis. From that perspective, at least, the eventual result of every National Party MP voting against the bill was largely consistent with the party's previous positions on the issue. The disappointing thing was that National's Hutt South MP had initially indicated he would vote for the bill, only to reverse his position around lunchtime on Wednesday. Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye had also been expected to vote for the legislation, but ended up opposing it.

In the Green Party's case though, their decision to vote for the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill has been nearly universally condemned.

Former Green Party MP Sue Bradford summed things up pretty well:

At the heart of the issue for many people is that the Green Party have traded in their principled opposition to any waka jumping legislation essentially to keep New Zealand First leader Winston Peters happy. In return, they received absolutely nothing from either New Zealand First with regards to supporting Swarbrick's bill through to Select Committee. Even Labour didn't have all of its MPs vote for her bill either.

Had the Green Party thought about the situation, they could have had a win/win outcome. As was demonstrated with the failure of an attempt to pass similar waka jumping legislation in the 2005-2008 Parliament, which didn't end the Labour/NZ First coalition then, the Green Party should have been negotiating across the House to get Swarbrick's bill over the line.

Knowing that killing off the waka jumping legislation wouldn't end the government, the Greens would have been well served to stick to their principles, do a deal with National to oppose the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill in exchange for National either allowing its MPs a proper conscience vote, or National voting Swarbrick's bill through to Select Committee.

In that scenario, the Green Party would have been celebrated for honouring their principles, won plaudits for demonstrating an ability to work across the House if needed that would strengthen their negotiating position with the government, kept Swarbrick's bill alive longer.

That latter part is important, because as a minor party in Government, it's important to find ways to differentiate your party brand from the major party you're working with. Medicinal cannabis, especially the more liberal view that Swarbrick's bill was pushing for, would have been an ideal platform for the Greens to demonstrate that independence of brand. While they'll still get some benefit from the Government's bill lesser bill, there's a sense among Green Party members that they've gotten the short end of the stick from their partner parties.

On the flip side of such a deal - it would have been National that would have taken the heat from its supporters for working with the Greens and breaking with their previous opposition, a situation that would have also been useful for the Green Party (and the Government).

I'd also add that as someone who wants to see the National Party take a more pragmatic and less ideological view to medicinal cannabis, and possibly even recreational cannabis use, I'd be happy to see National take a bit of internal strife to advance an issue that's eventually going to move forward anyway.

The other option for the Greens would have been to tell Labour and New Zealand First that their support for the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill was dependent on support for Swarbrick's bill getting to at least Select Committee. While this would have still had the Greens being slammed for turning their backs on their principles, at least they would have walked out of this week with something to cheer about.

As former NZ First and National Party MP Tau Henare put it:

Instead, James Shaw and the Green Party have sold out their principles to appease Winston Peters ego-driven inability to work constructively with his own caucus, and they didn't even the t-shirt.

If, like me, you're concerned about the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill, I'd encourage you to head over to Change.org and sign a petition I'm running, which is calling on the Green Party to stand up for what they believe in and withdraw their support for the bill. If you need it, here's a shareable link: https://www.change.org/p/green-party-of-aotearoa-new-zealand-green-party-to-withdraw-their-support-for-the-electoral-integrity-amendment-bill

Previewing 2018: New Zealand First

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New Zealand First should have one priority in 2018 - launch their new website. It's hugely embarrassing for Winston Peters that three months into the new government, the coalition's junior partner still doesn't have a website.

It's almost as if NZ First's website's issues as symptomatic of the problems facing the party so far this year. Already Forestry Minister Shane Jones has been forced to confess that the party didn't due any research into their 1 billion tree policy, with it turning out that there's only enough available land current for around 5 million additional trees to be planted each year. One of NZ First's big signature wins of the coalition agreement and they're going to struggle to deliver even 5% of what they promised.

Likewise Deputy Prime Minister is also coming under pressure with regards to NZ First's changing position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Despite having a new name - the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership - and a few minor changes to the text, it's largely the same deal that NZ First has adamantly opposed for some time. Even Foreign Minister David Parker has conceded on RNZ's Morning Report that, for a trade agreement made up of thousands of pages, the changes amount to only a "few pages".

Winston Peters' flip flopping isn't surprising, it's politically expediency on his part in order to not cause tension for Labour. The problem is, much of NZ First's support stems from a small group of conservative voters who want a far more protectionist trade policy for New Zealand. One of Winston Peters' biggest challenges this year, especially as the CPTPP goes through Parliament, will be to not haemorrhage too much support as a result of his changing position on the CPTPP.

Other pitfalls lurk ahead for New Zealand First too. The eventual launch of the $1 billion a year Provincial Growth (Regional Development) Fund is going to see Shane Jones come under immense scrutiny. He's already demonstrated a fairly slack approach to the fund, having gloated that he'd been approached by numerous political figures about projects in their regions late last year, which turned out to only be two people when I OIAed it.

Jones has already hinted that the fund will also largely be an exercise in pork barrelling, singling out Northland and the Wairarapa as likely recipient regions, without either of those regions having approached him with ideas. That's not to say that those regions don't need investment, but rather given NZ FIrst's representation in those regions, I'm wagering that Shane Jones is going to get caught out badly on this.

The controversial Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill - the Waka Jumping legislation specified in NZ First's coalition agreement with Labour - likely won't hurt NZ First much, but it will stoke internal pressure within the Green Party, who have historically been strongly opposed to such legislation.

The party will also need to find a way to manage several competing personalities in its caucus. While Ron Mark may currently be deputy leader, it's no secret that Shane Jones fancies that role for himself, with a view to eventually succeeding Winston Peters as leader of the party. Shane Jones will also have the benefit of the Provincial Growth (Regional Development) Fund to build his profile with over the year, while Ron Mark won't get the same opportunities with Defence. There's also the question of where people like Tracey Martin and Clayton Mitchell fit in, with Martin having previously been deputy leader, and Mitchell looking for more rewards for his fundraising abilities for the party.

The End of Life Choice Bill and associated referendum, as well as that for legalising marijuana, will also require NZ First's MPs to navigate potentially controversial waters for its supporters.

The biggest risk to NZ First's year will be during June and July while Winston Peters is acting Prime Minister while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has her first child. If anything goes wrong during this time (and there's no reason to suspect it will, as during the post-Budget period it'll be Finance Minister Grant Robertson doing most of the heavy lifting for the government) it'll be Winston Peters and NZ First's credibility that takes a hit, not Jacinda Ardern or Labour.

Peters should manage those six weeks well. He's been acting Prime Minister before. But with that expectation that he'll do well, it does create a risk that should it not be all plain sailing, it'll further hurt his party's prospects for 2020.

Winston Peters alone on Waka Jumping Island

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While Iran's regime has been brutally crushing anti-government protests, moves that have been met with silence from our government despite condemnation from around the world, Foreign Minister Winston Peters has found time to write an opinion piece in support of the controversial Waka Jumping Bill that was a condition of his going into coalition to form government.

So I thought I'd do a little exercise, and tally up how many articles and blogs have been written about the Waka Jumping Bill and categories them as to whether they are for or against it.

Against:

  1. David Farrar: The real reason Winston wants the ability to expel MPs
  2. Andrew Geddis: Who controls the past now, controls the future
  3. Nick Smith: House of representatives or party poodles?
  4. Karl du Fresne: Winston Peters top of the political pops with willingness to exploit wonky system
  5. Pete George: Peters defends his waka jumping bill
  6. Keith Locke: Party-hopping bill is a restraint on MPs' freedom of speech
  7. Dominion Post editorial: Waka-jumping bill gives too much power to party leaders
  8. David Farrar: Dom Post opposes waka jumping bill
  9. Pete George: The tail wagging the dog and pup?
  10. Gwynn Compton: Andrew Little borrows from North Korea's playbook
  11. RNZ: 'Waka-jumping' law plan dangerous - English
  12. David Farrar: The terrible waka jumping bill
  13. ODT editorial: Bill attacks democracy
  14. Henry Cooke and Jo Moir: National: Waka jumping bill 'an affront to democracy'
  15. NZ Herald: National says bill would gag MPs and make them loyal to leader, not voters
  16. NZ Herald editorial: Waka jumping law shouldn't be necessary
  17. Martyn Bradbury: How ill prepared are the Greens for Government? This ill prepared…
  18. David Farrar: Greens will sell out electoral law for a Parihaka Day!
  19. NZ Herald: Discontent in the new Government over 'cheap horse-trading'
  20. No Right Turn: Horse Trading
  21. Gwynn Compton: If there's a minor party split when is it likely to happen?
  22. Andrew Geddis: Well you picked your tree, now bark up it
  23. Gwynn Compton: Why you should be concerned about Winston Peters' Waka Jumping Bill

For:

  1. Winston Peters: 'Waka-jumping' bill makes our democracy more responsive to MMP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


So there you go, one article or blog in favour, 23 opposed.

Winston Peters is completely, and utterly on his own in defence of his pet Waka Jumping Bill. He's not just alone on his Waka Jumping Island, he's not even part of an archipelago. He's St Helena, sitting completely isolated in the middle of the southern Atlantic.

Even Andrew Little, who has responsibility for the Electoral Integrity Amendment BIll, won't say a word in support of it.

I can't think of a situation in recent memory where there has been such an overwhelming consensus of opinion against a bill as this. Notably, the New Zealand Herald, Fairfax, and the Otago Daily Times all strongly oppose it too.

It's time for MPs from Labour and the Greens to sit up and take notice and not risk backlash from voters for being the dog that Winston Peters wagged.

Helen Clark's government in 2005 survived a failed attempt by Winston Peters to get a similar law across the line. There's no reason 2018 need be any different.

The Green Party, in particularly, should stand up to Labour and Winston Peters, and stay true to their earlier principled opposition to such legislation.

Andrew Little borrows from North Korea's playbook

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Just as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is neither democratic, or for the people, so it is the same with Andrew Little's Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill. The Waka Jumping Bill isn't anything to do with the electoral system, or its integrity, rather it's an undemocratic move to abolish one of the key checks on the power of political parties and their leaders.

I suppose the use of the word "integrity" in the title could have been placed there ironically by Little. As the reality is that his bill does undermine the integrity of our Parliamentary system, effectively muzzling the ability of MPs to oppose their parties on issues other than conscious votes.

In the past, most famously with Marilyn Waring, an MP could cross the floor to oppose a policy of their party that they fundamentally disagreed with. They were able to do so safely in the knowledge that doing so wouldn't immediately cost them their seat in Parliament, meaning that their action wouldn't simply be a delaying action until their party was able to replace them. It was on this basis that Marilyn Waring famously informed Robert Muldoon in 1984 that she would cross the floor on the issue of a nuclear free New Zealand, a move that helped push Muldoon into calling the 1984 snap election.

Should Andrew Little's bill come to pass, that type of moment, where an MP has the ability to defy their party on an issue they feel strongly about, will become a thing of the past. If Little's bill had been law in 1984, it's foreseeable that Muldoon and the National Party could have just sacked Waring from Parliament, ensured a pliable replacement was picked in the by-election, and passed the legislation anyway.

Because that's what's fundamentally at stake here. As things stand, there's a balance of power between Parliamentary parties and their MPs. Parties obviously have a range of policies they want to enact should they get into government, they also usually have a broad range of MPs who usually agree with most of those policies, but possibly not all of them.

The ability of an individual MP to vote against their party acts as a counterweight to the bulk of the party simply steamrolling through whatever they want. MPs are only able to act as that counterweight if they're able to remain in Parliament having defied the wishes of their party.

Andrew Little's bill would kill off that ability quite spectacularly.

The "concessions" Little has included in the bill, such as requiring two thirds of a caucus to agree to get rid of the dissenting member, are not concessions at all. Marilyn Waring would have struggled to get two thirds of her colleagues to support her in 1984, and as a result, would have seen her tossed out of Parliament by Muldoon and replaced.

The reality is that Little's bill is kowtowing to Winston Peters. Rather than acting in a collaborative and cooperative manner with his MPs, Peters is hellbent on carrying on in exactly the same way that caused the 1998 split in New Zealand First. Peters' inflexible stance on policy, erratic behaviour, and propensity to play his cards so close to his chest that his caucus and staff don't know what he's planning to do until he actually does it, has frequently put him and his MPs at odds with each other.

As I pointed out earlier, in other parties the check against this type of behaviour from the leader or leadership group, is the threat that should those decisions be ones that an MP couldn't support, then they would be able to cross the floor, and remain in Parliament. That nuclear option for an MP to resort to if their back is against the wall, however drastic it may be, is a fundamental check on political parties.

Andrew Little, Labour, and the Green Party (should they support the passage of this bill), are doing New Zealand's Parliament and democracy a massive disservice by eroding one of the few check on power that we have.

 

If there's a minor party split, when is it likely to happen?

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New Zealand has a mixed bag when it comes to minor parties surviving a full Parliamentary term if they've entered into a coalition or confidence and supply agreement. Since the first of these was signed in 1996, if you exclude agreements with single MP parties, five have failed and five have succeeded. Though the United Future split in 2005 nearly made it to the election, falling about a month short.

Survived

Progressives 2002 - 2005

NZ First 2005 - 2008

ACT 2008-2011

Māori Party 2011-2014

Māori Party 2014-2017

Failed

NZ First 1996 - 1998

Alliance 1999 - 2002

United Future 2002 - 2005

United Future 2005 - 2007

Māori Party 2008 - 2011

That makes for a 50% chance that either NZ First or the Green Party will experience a schism during this Parliamentary term. That being said, We haven't had a minor party combust in Parliament since the 2011 election. This might suggest parties are learning to manage the pressures of these arrangements better, but then again the Māori Party had three MPs in the 50th Parliament and two in the 51st Parliament, which likely lends itself to better stability.

Here's the length that each of the five failed coalition or confidence and supply agreements have lasted.

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Given that the Labour and United Future confidence and supply agreement did nearly last the term, if you exclude this from the results, it drops both averages for agreements with the Labour Party and overall agreements to 711 days.

If there is a split, and there's a roughly 50% chance* one of the two parties will splinter, when is it likely to happen? Using the averages in the above table we're looking at a period anytime from 7 October 2019 through to 12 February 2020. Excluding the United Future 2005 split, leaves us squarely on 7 October 2019.

When you think about it, this makes sense as to when a split might occur. It's roughly 12 months out from the next election and both the major and minor parties in the agreement, but especially the minor parties, are beginning to flex their muscles to differentiate themselves from their partner and demonstrate some independence to get attention and show voters why they still matter.

If you want to look at a broader time period on the above numbers, the earliest a split might occur is 24 May 2019, and the latest (excluding the 2002-2005 United Future split which did run for three full years if not the full Parliamentary term) would be 19 February 2020.

It's also likely that by this point, most, if not all, of the undertakings made in the coalition or confidence and supply agreement have been, or are being delivered, and the two parties are having to negotiate on a policy-by-policy basis.

Usually it's taken a specific policy decision or external event to cause underlying tensions to erupt into a schism. In 1998 it was the sale of Wellington airport that triggered NZ First's breakup, for the Alliance in 2002 it was the build up of tension following a string of poor poll numbers and an internal party perception of subservience to Labour, and for the Māori Party in 2011 it was Hone Harawira's objection to National Party policies.

As the issues over the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary this weekend past illustrated, there are differences in policy and ideological approaches between NZ First and the Green Party that Labour is going to be stuck in the middle of trying to bridge. While these will be easy to manage in the early days as each of the minor partners is this agreement focus on getting there policy wins on the board, as we close in on the 2020 election, the pressure on the two minor parties will grow, especially if Labour remains, as I expect they will, very popular under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

While National will struggle to put pressure on the Greens, they will be able to squeeze NZ First's support by targeting their voters in rural areas and provincial cities. If National is successful in doing that, and they could very well be, then with the added combination of Winston Peters' advancing years NZ First may well be the ones to give out first.

Which is why Winston Peters is pushing so hard for his Waka Jumping Bill. He can see the dangers that lie ahead for his party, and he's trying to nullify them before it's too late.

*In terms of the 50% chance of a split, I've calculated this off the five failed and five successful agreements featuring parties of more than one MP. If you drop the United Future confidence and supply agreement of 2002 - 2005 from this list, as it very did nearly run the full Parliamentary term, you could also argue that the Māori Party agreements from 2011 to 2014 and 2014 to 2017 should be considered as one and the same, largely because there was significant continuity between them.

Where NZ First and the Green Party might come to loggerheads

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There's a chasm between New Zealand First and the Green Party, and throughout the 52nd Parliament Labour will be forced to find ways to bridge that gap. While this can be done, it also opens up opportunities for National to apply pressure to, and test the stability of, the coalition arrangement.

Over the long weekend we've already seen one possible area of contention open up around the Kermadecs Sanctuary, with NZ First and the Greens seemingly being promised different things on it by Labour. I've already suggested that this is a perfect opportunity for National to put a Members' Bill in the ballot to create the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary as a way of pitting NZ First and the Greens against each other, and forcing Labour to either take a side or use its financial veto.

All this begs the question - what other opportunities exist to pit the parties against each other and squeeze Labour in the middle of them? Importantly too for National, is where can they use these differences in NZ First's most valuable electorates to win back crucial votes over this term. With the NZ First seats that achieved a higher party vote than their final result, only West-Coast Tasman, East Coast, Rimutaka, and Palmerston North saw National perform lower than they did across the country, and those seats make up more than half of NZ First's support.

This isn't a full list, just some areas that could create tension in the coalition arrangements.

Primary Industries

NZ First supports irrigation projects and water storage schemes, the Green Party opposes these on the basis that they support more intensive farming. This in turn flows onto dairy operations, where the Green Party wants a moratorium on dairy conversions while NZ First is pro-dairy.

There's also likely to be some tension around Labour's now discarded water tax, which the Green Party was in favour of but NZ First opposed, and the Green's proposed nitrate levy, which if NZ First acquiesces to will hurt them in provincial New Zealand as National seeks to win back support there.

Defence

NZ First and the Green Party have vastly different visions for the New Zealand Defence Force. While NZ First's policy includes such things as restoring offensive capabilities to the airforce, enhancing the offensive capabilities of the navy and army, and ensuring that our armed forces are capable of "expeditionary warfare."

The Green Party's policy, on the other hand, is conspicuous by its lack of any mention of offensive capabilities for the NZDF, instead focusing on peacekeeping, disaster and humanitarian relief, and border control.

There's a clear conflict between their two visions for the NZDF. Labour's current policy supports the 2016 Defence White Paper and its spending, which is closer to NZ First's position. As the purchases required in the White Paper come up for approval, it'll create opportunities to illustrate the divide.

Justice

Broadly speaking you can categorise NZ First's justice policies as focusing on harsher punishments for offenders via tougher sentences and the like, the Green Party is much more focused on providing rehabilitation and giving judges more, not fewer options when sentencing offenders. National's opportunity here is to take a middle ground approach, and force NZ First and the Greens into publicly disagreeing with each other on the issue, making Labour pick sides once more.

Social development

NZ First wants to see a Work for the Dole scheme re-introduced, the Greens are opposed to it. This has been a long-running policy of NZ First's, so they could well be prodded over selling out their principles in pursuit of government.

Intelligence Services

The Green Party essentially wants to abolish the Security Intelligence Service and gut our intelligence gathering abilities, (via Waihopai). While NZ First hasn't specified their position on our Intelligence services, given the fairly bellicose tone of their defence policy, I'd be surprised if this is something they'd permit to happen.

Transport

While both the Greens and NZ First are broadly in support of beefing up rail services, where NZ First is vulnerable is if large roading infrastructure projects get cancelled in the provinces. With NZ First needing to defend it's position in the provinces this term, the potential cancellation of earmarked roading projects could hurt them. 

These are just some high level ideas, and based on a comparison of the two parties' websites, so there'll be plenty more opportunities, especially in the early days, to pit NZ First and the Greens against each other and test how Labour handles being pulled in either direction. National will be watching every media interview, reading every Facebook and Twitter post, checking every article written for quotes, and going through every line of the Hansard, to find even more.

NZ First's most and least valuable electorates

Even more so than the National Party, New Zealand First relied on a handful of seats to deliver the bulk of their party vote this election.

In terms of New Zealand First's most valuable electorates, there's nothing particularly surprising here. Whangarei benefited from Shane Jones' high profile candidacy, while Winston Peters himself helped New Zealand First slightly grow its share of the party vote in Northland. Tauranga, Bay of Plenty, and Coromandel probably benefit from higher than average numbers of voters aged over 65, and for the first two probably a bit of legacy support for when that was Winston Peters' voter base. Waiarapa also has an above average grey voter base, but also features New Zealand First's deputy leader, Ron Mark. While Rodney has their former deputy leader and relatively high profile MP Tracey Martin as their candidate, which are also likely to be factors.

Of note, New Zealand First only managed to grow their share of the party vote in three other electorates - Clutha-Southland, West Coast-Tasman, and Tukituki.

Of those three other electorates where New Zealand First grew their share of the party vote, none of them ran New Zealand First candidates back in 2014, so there's possibly a lesson there about ensuring you run candidates in as many electorates as possible to maximise your exposure.

The other area where New Zealand First's most valuable electorates echoes National's top electorates is that they're all high turnout electorates, and actually average a slightly higher turnout than National did.

As for New Zealand First's least valuable electorates, nothing here particularly stands out either. It doesn't surprise me that the more cosmopolitan parts of New Zealand are also the least likely to vote for New Zealand First. No guesses for why that might be either.

Electorate strength for New Zealand First clearly depends on both the popularity of Winston Peters, but also the ability of high profile candidates to turn out older voters in support of the party. This strength is also their greatest weakness. The party's existence seems to largely depend on Winston Peters own fortunes, and if they're down, then the party is out, so closely are the two brands aligned.

As to what opportunities that presents for New Zealand First at the electorate level? It's a hard one. If we assume that Winston Peters is going to contest the 2020 election (and it's entirely possible he might), then New Zealand First needs to identify electorates that share characteristics with their 10 most valuable and maximise their party votes there too. Some possibilities include Kaikoura, Ōtaki, Waitaki and Rangitata. These electorates also represent an opportunity for New Zealand First to transform itself from a platform for Winston Peters into a party representing rural New Zealand, a niche exploited relatively well by the Nationals in Australia.

Bill and Winston almost owe Colin Craig a beer... almost

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When they're sitting down for coalition negotiations over the coming days, Bill English and Winston Peters should raise a glass in honour of Colin Craig, the man who saved both their parties this election.

Well, I'm exaggerating a bit there. But an analysis comparing preliminary results from both the 2014 and 2017 elections suggests a correlation between electorates where the Conservatives won a high share of the party vote and the electorates in 2017 which comparatively contributed more to the final overall party vote totals of National and New Zealand First this election.

The idea is simple. In 2014 approximately 95,000 New Zealanders voted for the Conservative Party led by Colin Craig. In the preliminary results on 20 September 2014, that figure was 86,616. In 2017's preliminary results that figure had dropped to just 5,318. On election night there were some 81,298 voters who had left the HMNZS Colin Craig in those three years, and I wanted to find them.

There were a few assumptions that were easy to make. I thought it was pretty unlikely many of them would have switched their votes to Labour, the Greens, or even The Opportunities Party given TOP's liberal stance on marijuana.

The issues that motivated voters to cast their ballots for the Conservatives were predominantly social issues that they had a conservative take on. That meant there were only three likely parties for those votes to go to.

Given ACT got so few votes, it was clear they hadn't all rushed there. Plus ACT under David Seymour emphasises a more libertarian ideology than say the ACT of John Banks or Richard Prebble which had a healthy does of social conservatism mixed in with its Rogernomics bent.

That left only National and New Zealand First as the two contenders for those votes. National under John Key was a fairly socially liberal party, but Bill English, as a Catholic, does have a socially conservative streak in him. Likewise New Zealand First and in particular Winston Peters, have always appealed to the protectionist, anti-outsider, harking back to the good-old-days mentality that is commonly associated with voters of a conservative nature. And, if overseas experience teaches us anything, those of a conservative nature aren't shy about voting, so I didn't expect them to stay away in large numbers.

What I wanted to see specifically though was whether this translated into my previous examination of the changing party vote share in each electorate between the two elections. Maybe I'd missed something. Could National's stronger than expected (and Labour's weaker than expected) results in Auckland be explained purely off Conservative voters bulking up the ranks of National and New Zealand First.

The answers surprised me. As you might imagine, there seems to be a pretty clear correlation that generally shows that in electorates where the Conservatives did well in 2014, then those electorates managed to contribute more to the overall party vote totals of National and New Zealand First than they did in 2014.

And bare in mind that this is off preliminary results from 2014 and 2017, so I'm trying to compare apples with apples as much is possible across two elections.

In case you can't expand the above image, the light blue line is the share of the party vote that the Conservatives received in each electorate in 2014. The dark blue and grey lines is the percentage change of how those electorates contributed to National and New Zealand First's overall party vote in 2017 compared to 2014. If the lines jut out to the right it means that electorate has contributed a greater share to the party's overall party vote than it did in 2014. If it's to the left, it contributed less overall. Where I'd earlier just looked at individual electorates in isolation, this allows us to compare electorates within the context of the overall party vote. So I'll dig more into this later.

As you can see in the above image (if you need a bigger version feel free to contact me) where the Conservatives got over 4.47% of the party vote in an electorate in 2014 (that's Waitaki in the above) there appears to have been enough support transferred to National and New Zealand First in 2017 to shore up their support.

As New Zealand First needed fewer of those Conservative votes in each electorate to prop up their party vote numbers, I have to wonder if there was a bit of a churn cycle going on as National sought to replace the support it was losing to Labour. This cycle would see Conservative voters largely going to New Zealand First and some to National, but New Zealand First shedding voters towards National, especially in the large rural or provincial city electorates where National made a big push during the campaign.

Where the Conservatives got 4.47% they generally don't seem to have had enough votes to protect National or New Zealand First. Notable at the bottom of the list are Wellington Central, Auckland Central, and Mt Albert, all places that were in the top 10 locations that Labour grew its party vote relative to 2014.

Where things start to get interesting too is that this highlights the importance of National's performance in West and South Auckland outside of just collecting former Conservative and New Zealand First voters. Looking at the top 10 electorates where National grew it's share of the party vote relative to 2014, only Botany and Pakuranga sit above that tipping point where the number of Conservative voters was high enough to protect National and New Zealand First.

What's also worth noting about all of those electorates is that they have some of the worst voter turnout rates - if not the worst - in the country. It means that not only did National manage to capitalise on Labour's weaknesses with ethnic communities and potentially the mortgage belt in Auckland, but also Labour simply was not able to turn out voters with nearly all of those electorates down in total votes in the 2017 preliminary results compared to 2014 (only Botany and Te Atatu recorded more preliminary votes) which seems incredible when you consider that there should be more people living in those electorates relative to 2014!

There's a few outliers in the data. New Zealand First's Clutha-Southland performance for one, which I suspect is driven by other, more recent events in that electorate, while Northland and Whangarei were likely driven by the presence of Winston Peters and Shane Jones respectively.

That's enough for now! Will churn through some more insights from this dataset soon hopefully. And obviously I'll try to re-run this analysis to to compare the final results from 2014 with the final results from 2017.

You won't believe what happened in South Auckland!

Two things appear to have gone badly wrong for New Zealand's centre-left bloc this election. We know the youthquake hasn't happened, but the other appears to be that Labour's traditional South Auckland strongholds have failed them badly. Not only did those electorates deliver well below Labour's average gain across the country, but National was actually able to increase their share of the party vote there too!

Before you read any further you should note that these are based off the preliminary count, and don't include the 385,000 special and overseas votes yet to be counted. I'll try to another recalculation of these statistics once we have the final declared result, as I imagine there could be some shifting around in these rankings.

National.png

Of the 71 electorate seats, National managed to increase its share of the party vote compared to 2014 in 12 of them. All 12 of those seats were Auckland seats too. As you can see from the above, where National has done surprising well across both South and West Auckland. In a campaign where issues like housing affordability, inequality, and health were meant to be top of mind for voters, and Labour touted their solutions to these problems, that they not only failed to gain traction in South and West Auckland, but allowed National to grow its share of the party vote there, is what stopped them from winning last night.

Where National lost most ground is interesting too, with National being most punished in the urban centres and a few provincial cities too. There could be a couple of things going on here. The first, I suspect, is the Jacinda effect showing up with young, urban voters in the big centres going Labour's way. Mt Albert will definitely be the Jacinda effect at play given it's now her home turf, and Christchurch Central and the Port Hills could be to do with simmering issues over Christchurch's earthquake recovery.

Interestingly, despite having lost badly in Mt Roskill in last year's by-election, National has performed well there. Which makes you wonder if they fielded a better candidate there whether they might have a better chance of winning the seat in the future.

I've including National's performance in the Māori seats here for consistency with the following graphics, but the reality is that National doesn't collect many votes in these seats and is usually outpolled easily by New Zealand First.

Labour.png

If I were Labour the first thing I'd be doing on Monday is sacking whoever was in charge of campaigning in Auckland, and probably Phil Twyford - Labour's overall campaign manager - too. While Labour grew its share of the party vote in all electorates, its failure in Auckland is little short of a disaster for them. To win an election in New Zealand you effectively have to win in Auckland, and South and West Auckland should have been areas Labour did better in.

There's probably a few reasons why Labour failed in Auckland. The large Chinese and Indian ethnic communities would likely have voted National following Labour's various anti-immigration debacles over the past three years. It's notable that Jacinda Ardern, when presented with a chance to back away from these policies, hasn't done so, and Labour has paid the price.

I'd also wager that Bill English's Catholic faith and his wife Mary's Samoan heritage has played a role here too. It would have allowed many Pacific Island communities across Auckland to identify with him more than Labour, and comes off the back of National having made a real push to these communities over the past two elections.

The real stars for Labour though were the Māori electorates, which were not only the top five best performing, but took out seven of the top 11 spots. While Willie Jackson did nominally fill the role of Māori campaign chair, I'd wager that most of this growth had little to do with him, and more to do with a backlash against the Māori Party, Kelvin Davis' elevation to the deputy leadership, and Jacinda Ardern eating the Green's party vote across the country.

NZ First.png

Beltway sorts should have a nice chuckle that New Zealand First grew it's share of the party vote the most in Clutha-Southland. Other than that there's not much for Winston Peters to get excitged about here. Him being the MP for Northland clearly helped there, as did the selection and focus on Shane Jones in Whangarei. Other than that, it's pretty grim reading. Losing 2.78% points in Tauranga and Bay of Plenty is bad news given that this used to be Winston's stronghold.

They also didn't fare particularly well across the country in general, growing their share of the party vote in only five electorates and getting badly hammered in the Māori electorates which were their six worse performing overall.

With all this in mind, it's clear that once Winston Peters is gone, New Zealand First is gone. Winston and his party are utterly incapable of succession planning, and there's clearly nobody in the caucus who would remotely be able to pick up the mantle once Winston is gone.

So enjoy Winston's theatrics while they last.

There was no good news for the Green Party across the country, only terrible news, bad news, and not quite as bad news. The really damning stuff is how poorly the Greens did in Wellington Central where, in 2014, they got the second highest share of the party vote. It appears that the Greens urban liberal base have deserted the party in droves to go with Labour.

Rather than a youthquake, we've had a youth exodus from the Greens to Labour.

Where the Green Party can take heart I think is their performance across South and East Auckland where they stemmed the bleeding, in part helped by Labour's seeming inability to run a successful campaign north of the Bombays. I have a fleeting suspicion that some of their relative success here will also be down to Chlöe Swarbrick, who's likely converted much of the support and subsequent media coverage she received in her 2016 Auckland mayoralty run into support for the Greens.

Hopefully the Greens realise what a huge asset Chlöe is for their future, as they'll need her to turn things around at the next election.

In terms of the Māori seats the Greens have been hit by the swing to Labour in them, though not to the extent that New Zealand First was hit.

Mood for Change.png

The final thing I wanted to throw in here was looking at the biggest swings around the country. To measure this I took the combined shifts in Labour and the Greens share of party votes, and looked at the gap to what National had lost (and vice-versa for any swings to the right).

Only four seats recorded a net swing to the right - again all in South and West Auckland! I suspect that on special votes Manurewa might drop off this list those as 0.11% points would be well within the 0.3% point drop I've predicted for National's party vote share from advance voting to final results. Even if Manurewa drops out, this still represents a massive failure for Labour in Auckland, and it's an issue they have to sort out if they're to beat National.

As per the other results, the seats where Labour did well and National did poorly largely figure here. The Māori electorates would have had larger net swings that I've recorded above due to my not including the Māori Party in these calculations.

What's crucial to remember though is while 67 electorates have experienced a net shift to the left, Labour and the Greens are still 4.3% points short of National, meaning that you can't necessarily claim a mood for change exists within the country, as more people voted for the status quo than for the alternative centre-left bloc. I don't think you can justify lumping New Zealand First's party vote in with a mood for change, as it's more just a "mood to be listened to" by those who vote for him.

Why Winston Peters will choose Labour over National

Used under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 licence

With polls showing Winston Peters (well New Zealand First, but let's be honest, Winston calls all the shots) will hold the balance of power after the election, trying to predict which way he'll jump has become a national sport for political commentators. I've been thinking a lot about this question over the past week, and I've come to conclusion that Winston Peters will pick Labour as a coalition partner, supported by the Greens in a confidence and supply agreement, over National.

Back in 1996 pundits guessed Peters would go with Labour, rather than National, as that was where much of his support from the Māori seats had come from. Instead Peters surprised everyone and opted to support National's third term. This decision would almost prove disastrous for New Zealand First, as in 1998 the party split in two and in 1999 it's party vote collapsed to 4.26% (having hit 13.35% in 1996), only being saved by Winston Peters winning Tauranga by a extremely narrow margin of 63 votes.

Again in 2005 Winston Peters surprised people by going with Labour over National or sitting on the cross-benches bartering with whoever formed the minority government. National was considered a likely fit largely because many thought New Zealand First's policy platform was relatively similar to that promoted by then National Party leader Don Brash. The cross-benches approach was also one Winston Peters himself had promoted in a speech in the lead-up to the election, saying he wasn't interested in the baubles of office.

However once again in 2008 New Zealand First's support collapses after the party was caught up in two scandals during Helen Clark's Labour government's third term. Having polled at 5.7% in 2005 and Winston Peters narrowly losing Tauranga, in 2008 they fell to 4.07% and Peters was trounced with National's Simon Bridges winning twice as many votes as him in Tauranga.

This is the crux of why I think Winston Peters will, if he holds the balance of power, pick Labour over National. Twice he's supported a third term government and both times it's nearly spelled the end of New Zealand First. At 72, Peters will know that he's eventually going to have to hand over the reigns of the party to a successor, and he'll want that person to enjoy electoral success as one last middle fingered salute to all the nay-sayers (like me) who say that New Zealand First is a personality party based solely around him.

Having twice been nearly annihilated at the ballot box by supporting third term governments and getting caught up in a mood for change, Peters will be eager to avoid that happening again by and so won't support a fourth term National-led government.

Instead, much like in 1996 where it was suggested by Michael Laws that Peters was always going to support National and used the threat of going with Labour as a way to get more policy and ministerial concessions out of National, Peters will use that same threat as a way to get concessions out of Labour. He'll also doubly know that a first term Labour-led government is less likely to do damage to the long term electoral prospects of New Zealand First following his eventual departure, as first term governments generally play it relatively safe with the policies they implement.

The real trick for National is, if it finds itself in this position after the election, to ensure that the price that Peters extracts from Labour is such that it undermines the credibility of both Winston Peters, Jacinda Ardern, and the Labour Party.

Top photo credit: European Union Centres Network 2008, used under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 licence: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WinstonPetersEuropa.jpg

Labour and Jacinda surge in the polls

What an incredible two weeks in politics it's been! Andrew Little gone as Labour leader, Meteria Turei resigning as Green co-leader, and now polls from Newshub and a leaked UMR poll that show Labour has surged in the polls, and Jacinda Ardern has rocketed right up to be level pegging with Bill English in the preferred Prime Minister stakes.

Obviously Jacinda Ardern has been not just a circuit breaker, but a game-changer for Labour. Her ascension has hit the Greens at the same time that Meteria Turei's leadership was being called into question, and appears to have been a double blow that has caused the Green Party to shed support. At the same time, on the surface of it, it looks like New Zealand First has lost support to Labour too, with National only down 0.8 points in the Newshub poll.

At first glance I, along with many others, assumed that it was Jacinda Ardern taking votes off the Greens and New Zealand First. But the more I've thought about it, I'm not entirely sure that's the case. I can see why Jacinda would reclaim support from the Greens where she'd get back some of the former Labour supporters that Andrew Little had lost to them, but I'm still not quite sure why as much of New Zealand First's support would go her way as initially appears to be the case.

What I've since released is that there's another possibility, that it might be more likely that there's been a significant number of undecided voters in these polls who have come off the fence in support of Jacinda. My understanding is that these polls usually just report on decided voters, leaving undecideds out of the final numbers presented (though I'm not 100 per cent sure this is the case). What might be motivating the movement of these undecideds is that they perceive Jacinda as having the ability to not just to be a very capable leader, but also to transform Labour into a party they can support. They identify with her values, her identity, and her brand, in a way that they just couldn't with Andrew Little. 

I've arrived at this conclusion mainly because I can see there being two logical places for Jacinda to get already committed voters from - the Greens and National. The Green voters she'd get back are the disenfranchised Labour supporters who didn't rate Andrew Little, the National voters she'd win are those in the centre ground who turned out to vote for Helen Clark in 1999, 2002, and to a lesser extent in 2005, and who I think Jacinda has a very strong appeal to.

Given that National and Bill English's support hasn't budged much in either of the polls I linked to in the first paragraph, I think New Zealand First might be leaking its support to National. What I think is happening here is that conservatives who have gravitated to Winston Peters over the past year and returning "home" to National in the face of Labour's recovery. Jacinda, meanwhile is broadening Labour's support both at the expense of the Greens and National's centre-block, and bringing in those undecideds I already mentioned, so National's loss of support to Labour is masked to some extent by gaining back voters from New Zealand First.

At this stage it's all instinctual guesswork on my part, but I've asked Newshub's Political Editor Patrick Gower if he can shed any light on the matter, as Newshub's polling data bank doesn't reveal what the undecideds were in each poll. We'll wait to see if more details come out in the coming days.

Election 2017 Facebook stocktake - or how Labour abandoned Brand Little

Facebook is the social media channel of choice for politicians and political parties. The reasons are pretty simple:

  • A more representative audience of New Zealand
  • Superior audience reach
  • Comprehensive content tools
  • More mature advertising platform
  • Better ability to convert post engagement to political engagement
  • Ties into Instagram.

Facebook's user base in New Zealand has reached 2.9 million active users per month, with around two-thirds of those using it every day. Twitter usage statistics are much harder to come by, but seem to indicate around 500,000 accounts in New Zealand, but the number who are active on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis is much harder to find. Judging by international trends, it's likely to be as little as 5% - 10% of that number are online on a daily basis, with even fewer bothering to tweet (leading to discussions being dominated by just a handful of very vocal users). Not all is lost for Twitter, as its usage does seem to be dramatically improving in Australia.

So with that in mind, the first thing that needs to be addressed is the massive impact that John Key's resignation had on the social media playing field. In an instant the National-led Government went from having the largest political Facebook page for the country's most popular Prime Minister in living memory, to not having it.

Comparison of major political Facebook pages in New Zealand as at 4 December 2016, the day before John Key resigned as Prime Minister.

Comparison of major political Facebook pages in New Zealand as at 4 December 2016, the day before John Key resigned as Prime Minister.

As you can see from the above, John Key's Facebook page dwarfed all others in the country, bringing with it an ability to organically (non-paid) reach a pretty massive audience.

The raw numbers were:

  • John Key 248,890
  • Greens 90,332
  • Winston Peters 69,660
  • National 64,048
  • Labour 52,283
  • Andrew Little 28,866
  • Bill English 13,361

The net result though is that losing John Key as the major Facebook presence was always going to leave a massive hole that needed filling. I knew from the successful election 2014 just how important Facebook was in terms of reaching voters (more on that in the future), so the challenge was set to minimise the loss of the John Key page and build the new Prime Minister's page up to be as large as possible while still maximising opportunities to get targeted content in front of relevant audiences.

Comparison of political Facebook pages as of the commencement of the Regulated Period, three months out from polling day.

Comparison of political Facebook pages as of the commencement of the Regulated Period, three months out from polling day.

What you can see here is a pretty incredible turnaround in little more than six months. It was always going to be a challenge to overhaul the Green Party within that time, but to come within a whisker of being the largest political page in the country in such a short period of time took a pretty amazing effort to achieve.

Relative to 2014 it's a bit of a mixed bag. Around 23 June 2014 (the only statistics I have available) John Key was around 148,000 likes, the Greens around 48,000, Winston and Labour both at 15,000, National at 13,000, and Cunliffe was somewhere in the order of 12,600. The big difference being that at the start of the 2014 Regulated Period, John Key was a dominant Facebook presence, whereas National lagged behind everyone. Fast forward to 2017 and while Key is gone, National is larger than Labour and has significantly closed the gap on the Greens.

There is one difference for Bill English versus John Key though. For John Key many of his page likes were what I referred to as "legacy likes". They were people who had liked his page years earlier, but didn't interact with it at all and, as a result, were unlikely to see his content. Bill English has the advantage now that nearly all of his likes are relatively fresh, meaning there's more of a chance they'll see and engage with what he posts.

One thing did strike me over this period though, and admittedly struck me well before then too, was just how little Labour seemed to invest in Andrew Little. Around the Wellington beltway people suspected for a while that Labour had just decided Andrew Little was never going to be appealing, and so instead focused on their own Party brand and promoting Jacinda Ardern as the face of Labour. The lack of growth in Little's Facebook page lends credence to this.

Facebook page like growth from 4 December 2016 through to 23 June 2017, note Andrew Little off to the right.

Facebook page like growth from 4 December 2016 through to 23 June 2017, note Andrew Little off to the right.

And if you're curious, here's the raw numbers:

  • Bill English 85,691
  • Labour 12,119
  • National 11,350
  • Winston Peters 9,756
  • Greens 9,180
  • Andrew Little 4,720

As to how Bill English did so well? That's a trade secret. Becoming Prime Minister obviously helps. But what's really interesting here is the complete non-performance of Andrew Little. When you delve behind the headline numbers, it's easy to understand why. Over that six month period Andrew Little posted just 156 times, versus 342 for Bill English, 423 for the Labour Party, 262 for the National Party, 350 for the Greens, and 195 for Winston Peters.

It's clear that Labour is putting all their effort into promoting Brand Labour rather than Brand Little. In my mind that approach works when you're the Green Party, when you know that you're not going to supply a Prime Minister, so instead the focus is less on the leader and more on the collective whole. But when you're one of the two main parties, the approach makes next to no sense. On a fundamental level, the Party Vote component of MMP is the closest New Zealand gets to a Presidential style election, where I believe that vote is driven by how much someone likes a Party leader, with the exception of the Greens who have always had a much stronger party brand than individual brand.

Herein lies Labour's problem come 23 September. They simply haven't invested the time, effort, or money into developing Andrew Little's online profile, so they're going into the campaign with one arm very firmly tied behind their back.

Labour's approach was also betrayed in a recent Fairfax story on political social media:

A spokesman for Andrew Little said the party was "very active on twitter, facebook and instagram" as effective platforms "to connect to people of all ages".

"We're really excited by the possibilities that social media offers to help us explain Labour's story to voters.

"We're very happy with the engagement we get from people, but we're continually looking at creative ways to improve the way we communicate to voters and we expect to roll out some innovative approaches in this regard during the election campaign."

What that quote says to me is that they're placing the Labour Party before Andrew Little in their social strategy, and in a campaign where Andrew Little and Bill English are going to be pitted head-to-head on a regular basis, it seems like an odd strategy given the nature of modern campaigns.

Of course, having a large Facebook following isn't ever going to win you the election, but it makes it much easier to get your message out to a much larger audience. Page likes have an element of being a bit of a vanity metric, in that it's nice to have a larger Facebook page than your rivals, but the real benefit is that it enables you to reach more people without spending on ads.

Where that matters in an election campaign is that you can guarantee a relatively large audience will see your daily out and about posts, and instead focus all your paid advertising on the tailored messaging you need to reach specific target audiences.

All of this also begs the question of what position would Labour be in if Jacinda Ardern was the leader. She's more active on Facebook, has a larger number of page likes, and while she hasn't grown that presence as much as Andrew Little over the past six months, she doesn't have control of Labour's Leader's office budget. Yet...