Monday, August 25, 2014

Election 2014 - who should I vote for?

According to Radio New Zealand National this morning, the three big issues in the election this year are health, education and the economy.  I haven't listened to the programme yet, but, if they mean what I think they mean, those certainly aren't the issues I'll be voting on.  As far as I'm concerned, New Zealand is already doing fantastically well in all three areas and it'd take some monumental stuff-ups by a new government to do anything much to change that.

Health
Our health-care system is great!  I heard on the BBC yesterday that most public hospitals in Nigeria don't even have running water.  In that context, we don't have a lot to complain about.  We do have issues with diseases related to poverty (like rheumatic fever in Northland), but dealing with poverty is what will fix that, not tinkering with the health system.

Education
In the latest PISA survey, New Zealand ranked above the OECD average in performance in maths, science and reading.  Rich countries tend to have better education systems than poor countries.  There are 198 countries in the world (I think) and the richest 34 of them are in the OECD.  Ranking above the OECD average in PISA means we're already doing above the average of the richest 17% of countries in the world.  Of course we could do better, but that's basically good enough for me.  I'm not going to be basing my vote on trying to improve this.

The economy
If 'improving the economy' means 'increasing GDP' then I'm not interested.  As mentioned above, we're part of the OECD: the club of the richest 17% of countries in the world.  As of last year, our per capita GDP was in the middle of this group.  In other words, we're already richer than people in more than 90% of the countries in the world.  That's plenty good enough for me and I'm not going to be choosing who to vote for based on who'll make New Zealand even richer.

So, what am I going to base my vote on?

Last election I spent quite some time trying to figure out what issues I thought the Bible described as being important in the governing of a country.  Three things came up: character of the leaders, leading people to follow God and care for vulnerable groups of people (including those who weren't actually citizens of the country).  As I said then, I'm not going to consider whether the various parties want to lead people to follow God: unlike ancient Israel, modern-day New Zealand isn't a theocracy so I'm not sure how to translate this criterion into our context.  However, I will be considering the following things:
  1. Character of the leader
  2. Foreign policy
  3. Climate change
  4. Reducing inequality
Except for the first, these criteria encompass how I think 'caring for vulnerable groups of people' translates into our context.

Character of the leader
The two qualities that came up most often in my Bible survey were being truthful and being there to serve.  To see whether I thought the leaders of the parties had these qualities I decided to look at what seems to motivate them.  I believe that most politicians are in politics to make the world a better place.  However, some seem to be there simply to win.  I think that a leader who seems to be there to win isn't there to serve and can't be trusted to be truthful: they fail my 'character' test.  No matter what their policies, I'm not willing to vote for a party whose chosen such a person to lead them.

So, where do I think the party leaders stand?
  • There to make the world a better place: Colin Craig (Conservatives), Jamie Whyte (ACT), Metiria Turei/Russel Norman (Greens), Laila Harre/Hone Harawira (Internet/Mana), Tariana Turia (Maori Party)
  • There to win: John Key (National), Winston Peters (NZ First)
  • I haven't paid enough attention to them to make a call on why they're there: David Cunliffe (Labour), Te Ururoa Flavell (Maori Party), Peter Dunne (United Future)
From this, I'm not going to consider voting for National* or NZ First.  I'm also not willing to vote for Internet/Mana.  Its leaders, Laila Harre and Hone Harawira, are definitely in politics to make the world a better place but they're financially backed by someone who's there to try and make the world work for him personally (Kim Dotcom) and I'm nervous of his influence.

* If National had chosen their deputy leader, Bill English, as their leader things would be different: he's definitely a man of integrity who's there to serve New Zealand.

Foreign policy
Here I'm interested in:
  • easing the way for asylum seekers to come and seek asylum here;
  • increasing our intake of quota refugees (we're rank 88th in the world per capita for taking in refugees - even Australia does way better than we do);
  • increasing our foreign aid from the paltry 0.2-0.3% of GDP its been at ever since we commited to raise it to 0.7% maybe 20 years ago and spending it based on need rather than based on our own trade interests.
NB If I lived in almost any other country in the rich world my list would also include levelling the playing field on international trade so that it's not skewed against the interests of Majority World countries.  However, so far as I know, New Zealand doesn't have any such trade barriers in place so it's not on the list.

Looking at the parties still on my list (Conservatives, ACT, Greens, Maori Party, Labour and United Future):
  • Conservatives don't mention any of these issues;
  • ACT is pro-immigration, but only immigration that's good for New Zealand (they don't appear to be interested in immigration based on the needs of the immigrant, which is what I'm interested in in terms of asylum and refugee policies).  They also feel we live in a dangerous world, rather than in a needy world that we're in a position to significantly help;
  • The Greens want to increase our foreign aid to 0.7% of GDP but apparently haven't actually included that in their costings.  They also want to increase our intake of quota refugees.  However, given that neither of these policies were mentioned amongst the large number of policies they're electioneering on, I figure that they're not very high priorities for them;
  • The Maori Party won't commit to increasing foreign aid to 0.7% of GDP.  They don't seem to say anything about refugees or asylum seekers on their website;
  • Labour doesn't mention up-front whether or not they support increasing the foreign aid budget, but they do say that they want to refocus it to be used for eliminating poverty (rather than the current focus which is a mix of that and things that benefit NZ businesses).  They don't seem to say anything about refugees or asylum seekers on their website;
  • United Future doesn't mention any of these issues on the policy page of their website;
  • In general I'm not considering National because their leader failed my 'character' criterion.  However, I thought I might mention that in the last year or two wrote to the current minister of immigration to complain that they were taking fewer quota refugees and also making it harder for asylum seekers to get here.  My recollection of his response is that he told me we were taking fewer quota refugees because of the Christchurch earthquakes.  He was also keen to assure me that they were, indeed, making it harder for asylum seekers to get here.  It seemed beyond him that there were people in the electorate who might think that this was a bad thing!

Climate change
I believe that climate change is the biggest threat to vulnerable people the world over at the moment, and that New Zealand is definitely not doing it's bit to reduce it.

The four things that contribute the most to New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions are:
  • methane from dairy cows;
  • road transport;
  • agricultural soils;
  • consumption of hydroflurocarbons (this one surprised me - I'm not certain what it means but I think it's to do with refrigeration).
In order to address these, I'm interested in parties that have a 'carrot and stick' approach to climate change.  For the 'carrot' I want them to give people alternatives to engaging in these activities that cause so many emissions: e.g. fund research into how to reduce dairy emissions and support for starting other industries that emit less, give more support to freight trains and public transport and less for roading etc.  For the 'stick' I want them to put in either a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme (I don't care which) that has teeth and that includes all four of the activities that contribute the most greenhouse emissions.

Looking at the parties on my list:
  • Conservatives don't mention climate change directly, nor do they seem to have anything to say about road transport or agriculture;
  • ACT wants to get rid of the emissions trading scheme and let climate change happen.  They also want to commit more resources to roading;
  • Unsurprisingly, the Greens have a strong policy on climate change.  They also want to support industries in New Zealand other than those that currently contribute so heavily to our greenhouse gas emissions through their digital manufacturing strategy and their smart green innovation policy and they're big fans of public transport and freight rail;
  • The Maori Party don't directly mention either climate change or any of the issues I've identified as being related on their website;
  • Labour want to strengthen the ETS (although I'm a bit sceptical of that, given that the scheme they put in was pretty weak even before National gutted it).  They also want to 'rebalance' transport spending so it includes spending on public transport, ports and rail freight, not just roads.  They don't explicitly mention anything about reducing emissions from agriculture;
  • United Future supports the current ETS and opposes a carbon tax.  They want to establish forests as carbon sinks but don't mention dairy farming.  They're keen to build yet more roads although they say they're keen on public transport, too.  Interestingly, they want to "investigate a humanitarian resettlement plan for the thousands who will be physically displaced by rising sea levels in the Pacific region, such as the Tokelaus, Tuvalu and Kiribati.";
  • I haven't checked National's website as I'm not really considering them, but they've definitely significantly weakened the emissions trading scheme in the time they've been in office (and it started out pretty weak anyway), I've seen no evidence of them promoting less-greenhouse-gas-emitting industries and they strongly favour roading.
Reducing inequality
New Zealand is, apparently, a very unequal society: more so than most people realise.  This has a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of poorer people.  While I have no interest in increasing New Zealand's wealth overall, I have a strong interest in restructuring society so that this is no longer the case.

No one seems to have a magic bullet for how to reduce inequality, so here I'm looking for parties that are willing to try new things (ideally ones with some kind of decent research or rationale behind them) and see if they help.  I'm not interested in parties that simply want to increase wealth overall in the expectation that wealth will then trickle down and make everyone better off: that's what we've already been trying and it hasn't been working.  I'll also be giving only a few 'brownie points' to parties that want to make it easier for people to buy a house: it seems to me that that's a measure that will only help people who are already relatively well off, not those who are really poor.

In terms of reducing inequality I'm also looking for parties that offer a decent welfare system.  I don't think that welfare is actually going to fix the situation were're in but it provides an important backstop for those who haven't yet found a way to make it on their own.

Looking at the parties on my list:
  • Conservatives have "A belief that it is the responsibility of individuals to provide for themselves, their families and their dependents, while recognizing that government must respond to those who require assistance and compassion";
  • ACT is keen to grow the economy although they also want to make housing more affordable, primarily by getting rid of the Resource Management Act.  They also want to further weaken the welfare system.
  • The Greens want to reduce child poverty by direct redistrubtion of money and they want to support people with disabilities by increasing funding for various support services including ones that aim to get people into jobs.  They also feel that their smart green economy policy will raise wages for a lot of people;
  • The Maori Party have a bunch of ideas to reduce inequality.  There's their signature 'whanau ora' policy (the link to which on their website is currently broken!), they have many policies to increase employment (plus they support raising the minimum wage to $18.80), they're advocating better care for vulnerable elderly people (and their caregivers) and their Christchurch policy includes support for people with disabilities;
  • Labour's 'Economic Upgrade' policy aims to support innovation and hence increase wages for everyone.  I don't see much concrete information on their website about how they're going to do this, although they do talk about some specifics like restructuring the meat industry and supporting research and encouraging investment in processing in forestry.  They want to increase the availability of housing stock and slow the increase of prices via. a capital gains tax.  They also have a bunch of 'family' policies that mostly consist of wealth redistribution;
  • United Future supports regional employment initiatives to figure out why there's high unemployment in various particular regions.  They want to introduce programmes to upskill older adults who find themselves out of work.  They also want to introduce 'flexisuper' (a kind of regressive super where the earlier you take it up the less you get, significantly disadvantaging manual labourers over office workers).  They have policies to increase home ownership but also social housing.  They want to improve access to various services (like police and GPs) in rural areas;
  • I haven't checked out National's website but my impression is that their main strategies for helping the less-well-off appear to be growing the overall economy and making being on welfare as unpleasant as possible.
So, there we are!
I was disappointed that no one seemed to support the things that are important to me in Foreign Policy: the Greens came closest to it, but still fell far short of what I'd like.  The Greens also take Climate Change the most seriously and tie with the Maori Party on trying a range of strategies to reduce inequality.  Looks like it'll be party vote Green for 2014, then :-)

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