Joe Hendren

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Could you table a punched card in parliament?

During Question Time in Parliament today, Green MP Sue Kedgley asked how the Government could possibly reduce alcohol related harm while it continues to allow the liquor industry to spend $73 million a year promoting alcohol. To support her question Kedgley sought to table a CD containing recent television advertisements for liquor.

The Speaker, Dr the Hon Lockwood Smith, promptly refused permission to table the CD, and became quite ratty with MPs who were having trouble understanding his ruling. He later clarified that he was using a very narrow definition of 'document', that being that a document is a piece of paper (Hat tip NRT)

"Mr SPEAKER: The Standing Orders provide for the tabling of documents, not for the tabling of CDs. If members want CDs tabled, they will need to change the Standing Orders.

When documents are tabled in the house, copies of each are put in every wooden in-tray in the parliamentary complex, unless you ask the messengers not to.

Last night on TV1 there was a documentary about the cruel people who keep big cats as pets, and the sad tales of owners killed and maimed when their big puddy cats suddenly revert to being wild animals, and surprise surprise, attack them. No doubt there would be some people who would like the idea that a lion could be tabled in parliament, with a live copy of the lion then appearing in every office in-tray. So it is is probably fair that documents to be tabled in parliament should be restricted to things that can be easily reproduced (hmm so can lions, but it takes a while).

But in the digital age there is no reason why 'documents' should be restricted to paper. A CD can be easily reproduced. It also should be relevant that a definition of 'document' that includes digital formats is already part of the law. Take the definition of document in the Official Information Act for example.

"document means a document in any form; and includes—
(a) any writing on any material:
(b) any information recorded or stored by means of any tape-recorder, computer, or other device; and any material subsequently derived from information so recorded or stored:
(c) any label, marking, or other writing that identifies or describes any thing of which it forms part, or to which it is attached by any means:
(d) any book, map, plan, graph, or drawing:
(e) any photograph, film, negative, tape, or other device in which 1 or more visual images are embodied so as to be capable (with or without the aid of some other equipment) of being reproduced

That got me thinking about how the speakers ruling today could be further tested. If one printed out one of the ads on the CD as a printout of binary code, would the Speaker have to accept it on the basis the document happened to be on paper? Ok, maybe it would be better to use hexadecimal to save trees.

Then I thought of a better test. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, before floppy discs or CDs were invented, computers relied on punched cards to input information. These were pieces of stiff paper that represented digital information by the presence or absence of holes in the paper at predefined positions.

This would be a good test of the Speaker's ruling as it is a document made of paper, but happens to represent information digitally.

If the Speaker said no to punched cards, I would then try a document written in braille, which essentially is a similar concept to a punched card. Now if the speaker refuses a document printed in braille, this could make it difficult for a blind person to be a member of parliament.

Am I attempting to trifle with the speaker? Yes, of course :)

Lockwood Smith is normally a good speaker, and deserves some credit for improving the quality of questions and answers at during Question Time. That said, the times I have listened to Parliament this week Lockwood has appeared grumpier than usual. I don't think Lockwood's ruling that a document must be on paper does his office any credit, and I think that is unfortunate. I hope the Speaker 'reflects' on his ruling once again.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Australian minnow socialist parties give the left the mandate to govern!

The Australian election over the weekend has dealt a hung parliament with neither Labor or Liberals (ie Tories) with a overall majority.

Straight away the Tories started screaming that because they won the most number of seats and the highest number of primary votes they should be the government. This is constitutionally a lot of bullshit and is based on some self serving mathematics.

Under a Westminster style parliament government formation is based on gaining a majority in the House of Representatives. If Tony Abbott cannot gain the support of 76 MPs in a house with 150 seats he cannot be Prime Minister. Projected results expected to give Tony Abbott one or two more seats than Labor. Yet if the centre-left can combine the support of the Greens and a few independents they will be able to form a legitimate government.

The inescapable fact is that no party won the election. While there was a 4.87% swing against Labour, the party led by Tony Abbott only gained 0.63%. Hardly a strong mandate to be Prime Minister. The Greens gained by far the largest positive swing of all the parties, gaining 3.63%. While the election of the first Green MP in the lower house is to be celebrated, the inescapable fact is that the Greens were robbed by an electoral system that is fundamentally broken. With 11.42% of the primary vote the Greens would have won 17 seats under proportional representation. It is a small consulation that the Greens hold the balance of power in the upper house (the Senate).

Back to Abbott's dodgy maths. Abbott is attempting to claim a mandate because the Liberals and the parties that normally support the Liberals gained more votes than Labor on its own. Of course its is fundamentally ridiculous in this situation to compare a coalition of parties on the right and not also add the Green vote to the centre left.

If we add the Labor total of 38.51% to the Greens 11.42% we get a figure stupidly short of a majority - 49.93%. Rather amusingly, it is the stupidly small Socialist parties that push the centre left over 50% and give the left the mandate on a first preference basis. These are the Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Equity Party, on 0.07% and 0.09% respectively!

Hence my tongue in cheek title :)

The Labor party won the popular vote, on a two party preferred basis, with 50.67% of the vote, compared to the Liberal share of 49.33%.

Over on Red Alert, Chris Hipkins wonders about the public reaction in the situation where the government ends up being led by the smaller of the two major parties. This could happen in Australia as a result of this election, and is even more likely to occur in New Zealand given we have a proportional electoral system.

The public reaction will only be a problem if the born to rule screaming from the Tories is given the oxygen it does not deserve. What it represents is a demand for single party rule on the basis they failed to gain the support of a majority of the population, just as the Tories used to demand their right to rule under First Past the Post when over 60% of the population did not vote for them.

Despite it being constitutionally improper and fundamentally undemocratic Tory friendly commentators in Australia on Saturday night started the screaming - 'our party won the most seats'. They were just following the lead of the UK Conservatives who attempted the same swindle in the aftermath of a hung parliament in the UK earlier this year.

In the case where the smaller of the two main parties gains a majority in the house by forming a support arrangement/coalition with a minor party, in my view the left needs to welcome this as a result representative of the wishes of a larger number of voters.

I look forward to the day the National party in New Zealand is stranded on 55 seats, and Labour forms a government with say 49 MPs and support from the Greens and other parties providing 12 or so seats. Let the Tories scream away - it will be a day to celebrate as our proportional electoral culture matures once again, and the FFP mindset of the dinosaurs finally gives up for dust.

PS: Of course there is an argument that the policies of the Australian Labor party are essentially those of a centre-right party, and it is true that many Labor MPs would have more in common with the Liberals than they do with the Greens or the real social democratic left. A grand coalition of the major parties is not going to happen - the aim of my post was to highlight Abbott's dodgy maths and willful constitutional ignorance.

PPS: The percentages may change over the next few days!

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Friday, August 06, 2010

Update on Hawkins and why a by-election would be good for Labour

In my last post I looked at how Labour leader Phil Goff was handling the fallout from Chris Carter's brain explosion, and the reaction of Labour MP George Hawkins to being mentioned in Carter's missive.

Carter claimed Hawkins was to face a challenge from within the party for the candidacy of Manurewa, the seat Hawkins has held since 1990. I said that Hawkins reaction demonstrated the same 'sense of entitlement' that Goff (justifiably) criticised Carter for in relation to large travel bills.

Hawkins has now announced an intention to stand for a local board in the October Auckland local body elections. He says he will withdraw his nomination for his parliamentary seat if he is elected, meaning that he will not stand at the next election. But if he is not elected to the local board he will stand for parliament again.

The least charitable interpretation of this would be to claim Hawkins is attempting to discourage a potential challenger to his seat, as nominations close on the 1 September. The most charitable interpretation was that standing down from parliament for the local board was always Hawkins intention, and Carter chose to put an uncharitable spin his intention for effect.

Yet in either case Hawkins still gives the impression of wanting to hang on for dear life, which looks like a sense of entitlement to me. I still hope the challenge happens.

The more I think about it, the more I think a by-election in a seat like Manurewa or Te Atatu would be entirely in Labour's interests. Take this for a scenario.

Hawkins resigns from his seat, and challenges Carter to do the same thing. Labour regain the initative, and Hawkins gains a graceful exit in the arms of a grateful party.

Explain to the public that while by-elections are expensive, at the end of the day democracy and the right of the people to have a say is worth more. This would tie in with a strong message about the lack of democracy in the Super City too. Highlight how National Maungakiekie MP Sam Lotu-liga oped to stay on the council after being elected an MP, and avoided a by-election for the political convenience of his CityRat mates.

At the beginning of the by-election campaign/s Labour annouce they will use every public meeting to tell people about the National party's attempts to bring back the Employment Contracts Act in drag, and every pamphlet delivered for the by-election will also be accompanied by a leaflet explaining the negative effects of the proposed employment law changes on 'every wage and salary earner'. Strong soundbites against '90 days' echo through news bulletins for three weeks.

Labour would be bound to win Manurewa with an ok candidate and Te Atatu with a strong candidate, which would help build momentum and exposure and make it more difficult for the Nats to control the news agenda. There is not likely to be any harm in the Greens running good candidates in either seat, for the same reasons.

So Chris Carter is going on two months 'sick leave'? Is this to waste just enough time so the 'election is too close for by-election' excuse can be trotted out? Please Chris, you may not care for Goff, but please resign from parliament immediately for the sake of the party you claim to care about. The public want you gone.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

Telling Carter to go while protecting Hawkins is a mistake

Overall Labour leader Phil Goff has handled the impact of his MP Chris Carter's brain explosion reasonably well. Carter's antics, which have included sending an unnamed gossip sheet to the parliamentary press gallery yet addressing the envelopes in his own handwriting, must go down in New Zealand political history as one of the most inept attempted coups ever. It has to take a vain individual to start an whisper campaign against his leader, when the said individual secretly wants everyone to know it was him all along.

Goff has made the best of a bad situation, using last week as an opportunity to demonstrate how he can be a decisive and strong leader. While Goff has done well overall, some weaknesses in Goff's public position have begun to emerge. The suggestions from senior MP Trevor Mallard and Goff that Carter is 'unwell' may be an honest attempt to explain the bizarre behavior of the later, however this may rebound on Labour if Carter and Government MPs accuse Labour of bullying. Better to state the facts of Carter's behaviour and let the public work that one out for themselves.

The second weakness is the apparent differing treatment of Carter and long time Labour MP George Hawkins during this affair. In his gossip sheet to the gallery Carter alleged unionist Jerome Mika was looking to challenge long time Hawkins for his Manurewa seat, and that Hawkins was threatening a byelection if the challenge went ahead. Significantly, Hawkins refused to deny this was the case when he was questioned about this by journalist Rebecca Wright.

Not only did Hawkins chose to comment on an issue that should have been immediately redirected to the press office of his leader, he did so in such a way that confirmed 'all sorts of rumours'. I am not saying that Hawkins conduct is on the same scale as Carter but the underlying issues at stake are similar.

Goff has criticised Carter for having a sense of entitlement. From the looks of things you could say exactly the same thing about Hawkins sense of entitlement to his seat. Hawkins said that it wouldn't be the first time someone with political ambitions has eyed his safe Manurewa electorate as an easy way of getting into Parliament. That goes for staying there too George.

While acknowledging the seat was subject to a party selection process, Goff sent a message of support to Hawkins by saying "I am confident that George is well supported by the people in his electorate and that he would be confident of being elected even if it was contested". At the same time Goff has called on Carter to resign his Te Atatu seat as he no longer represents the Labour party. The danger is that the Te Atatu electorate committee could also demonstrate support for their troubled MP, as they have now done so.

For these reasons, and some potential legal difficulties in expelling Carter from the party, its good to see some Labour figures backing of this threat for now. A plea bargain of sorts may emerge, perhaps along with a lighter punishment like suspension, where Carter promises not to publicly comment on the leadership of the party, not to travel or be involved in any way in the selection of a new candidate for Te Atatu. Carter has already said he will not stand at the next election. Better to state the facts of Carter's behaviour and let the public work that one out for themselves.

It would a great shame if Hawkins held on for another three years on the back of Carter's stupidity. When now Act MP Roger Douglas resigned his Labour seat in 1990 he anointed Hawkins has his successor, and Hawkins has been a member of the right wing faction in Labour ever since. After a single bumbling term as a minister between 1999 and 2002, Hawkins was quietly told to stand aside as a minister before others made the decision for him. Hawkins career isn't going anywhere, and Manurewa stands as one of the most obvious electorates where rejuvenation is required.

I have only briefly met Jerome Mika, so I don't feel I can comment on his suitability as a candidate. I have heard he is not lacking in ambition, and that he is such a natural at 'working a room' that he sometimes does this at work. Recognition among some of South Auckland's large industrial sites, along with support from Labour's Pacific networks could make some interesting numbers. He may not win the nomination, but Jerome would help send a message.

To my mind the worst thing for Labour would be the appearance of an attempt by head office to stop the challenge to Hawkins, as this would only give Carter's outbursts more credibility and highlight the differing treatment of Carter and Hawkins. Either Hawkins should face the challenge with a little more grace than he has demonstrated so far, or he should announce his intention to stand aside at the next election. The later would also allow alternative candidates to emerge - a more open contest can only increase the chances of Manurewa getting the kind of MP its healthy majority deserves.

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