Concluding Remarks NZ2017

The 2017 New Zealand General Election has concluded, the coalition negotiations are complete, the new government is Labour, New Zealand First, and the Greens.

The outcome is consistent with the general mood of the campaign.  National relied on a majority of voters being satisfied with the status quo, but that didn’t pan out.  The statistics tell us about growing inequality and intractable poverty – even as the wealthy and privileged continue to get ahead, the people being left behind would not have been excited by the idea of more of the same.  National lost a few seats, but their core support remains solid.  Instead, the sitting government was punished on the margins – the Maori Party was obliterated, and Peter Dunne is done.

Labour and the Greens campaigned on changing the government, appealed to those who have been left behind by National’s policies.  It wasn’t entirely clear this would work – a lot of older folk have seen their net worth skyrocket along with the house price bubble, even if this isn’t disposable wealth because you need to keep a house to live in.  But National has done enough odious deals to turn away a majority of voters – privatising state assets, raising superannuation, abusing welfare recipients, polluting rivers, exploiting conservation land, suppressing rail infrastructure, raising GST to cut taxes for the wealthy – the list goes on.  It was not a slam dunk, but a chipping away at votes that eventually shaved off enough to deny them a majority.

But while a significant number of those voters turned to a resurgent Labour under Jacinda Ardern, unarguably a more energetic and charismatic leader than the previous Andrew Little, the election left neither National nor the Labour/Greens with enough seats to govern alone.  Enter New Zealand First, that stubborn, often unwelcome, yet ever-present fringe.  Throughout the campaign, Winston Peters appealed to the rural voters who have been left behind by National’s policies.  In this, his message was similar to Labour and the Greens, only with a conservative accent as opposed to a progressive one.  He appealed to the conservative poor, attacked National from the right – he also campaigned on change.

So it is not so surprising that New Zealand First ultimately picked Labour as their coalition partners.  Despite what the pundits say and what many people believe, politics is not really about left or right, progressive or conservative – it is about the rich vs. the poor, and it is about power.  National keeps talking about New Zealanders getting ahead, but the reality is that their policies have enriched the rich, and ignored the poor.  The reality is that more and more New Zealanders have found themselves being left behind.  Those people, and those who have enough of a conscience to vote against inequality, have increased in number in recent years.  The Greens, Labour, and New Zealand First campaigned for those votes, and now they are the government.

I started The Echo Chamber Project because I am interested in the growing clout of political social media in influencing people’s opinions, and because there is a growing trend of people only following voices they already agree with, and becoming blind to the other side of the argument.  This is a dangerous trend for any democracy, and so I started The Echo Chamber Project to observe what would happen in New Zealand in 2017.  I found that the National campaign were liars, frequently misrepresenting statistics and inviting counter-factual interpretations.  I found that Labour and the Greens were generally honest actors, though of course their interpretations were favourable to themselves.  I found that New Zealand First skirted a fine line between saying what was correct, yet inviting incorrect interpretations.

So, ultimately, the liars were kicked out of office in exchange for marginally more honest folk.  Somewhat good news for our democracy for the lies to have been relatively ineffective, you might say, but perhaps it was less the case of an informed and vigilant electorate, and more a case of National being bad at lying this time.  Steven Joyce’s $11bn fiscal hole was a farce, blatantly wrong to anyone who cared to examine Labour’s spreadsheet, and it forced a number of bigwig economists to have to publicly denounce it – regardless of whether National’s policies would line their own pockets with bigger profits, there was no way they would destroy their own credibility by supporting such deficient arithmetic.  But National told many, many other lies, the vast majority of them unquestioned and un-examined by the media.

What if Jacinda Ardern had not replaced Andrew Little as Labour leader?  What if Steven Joyce had not overreached with his dodgy statistics and accounting?  What if Winston Peters had made a deal with National instead of Labour?  There are many what-if’s, and few of them have anything to do with policy.  The democratic ideal is that voters will examine the policies on offer, and choose the ones that they believe to be best for our society.  The democratic reality is a precarious hotchpotch of a process, where a society confusedly stumble towards making a decision, sometimes the right one, but sometimes alarmingly wrong.  Having spent so many hours on this Echo Chamber Project, observing New Zealand’s political Twitter during the 2017 General Election, I am left with a sense of relief, but little confidence.  I am relieved that the liars were not rewarded this time, but neither were they punished – The Maori Party and United Future paid the price, not National.

Democracy comes with a price tag – either we keep our vigil and reject dishonestly from our politicians, or we let ourselves be deceived into a government led by bad people with bad policies.  For now, I will consider my price of admission paid, as I close The Echo Chamber Project NZ2017.

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Pre-election summary

Now that advanced voting has begun, I will give my pre-election summary of the Echo Chamber Project NZ2017 here.  I will comment on the way each party used Twitter for their campaign.  I will generally not comment on their policies or on specific events that occurred during the campaign – if you want that you should read the news.

Although this is a summary of the election campaign, the campaigning is not over, and the project will continue until election day.

About the Echo Chamber Project NZ2017

This Echo Chamber Project, if you’re not familiar, is basically me monitoring the Twitter accounts of New Zealand’s political parties and sitting MPs, collating all the tweets for each party, summarising them in daily bulletins, and archiving any tweets that I have found to be deceptive or misleading.

If you don’t care for my opinion, feel free to peruse the echo chambers for yourself:

If you want to see me expose the lies, please refer to the False Tweets Archive.

Summaries for each party

National

Most of the time, National’s Twitter feeds are filled with photo-ops and schmoozing with various business-people around the country.  If you judged them on their Twitter feeds alone, you’d think that they were a bunch of corporate aristocrats whose only role is to socialise with other corporate aristocrats.  There are a few exceptions – Nikki Kaye tweeted a lot about the money spent on each individual school as Education Minister and appeared exceptionally hard-working, while Brett Hudson and Christopher Bishop sometimes linked to articles that directly contradicted their own assertions, presumably because they didn’t actually read the articles they linked.  Up until July, there were some misleading quotes and misuse of statistics, but nothing egregious.  For the most part, National’s strategy seemed to be to ignore the opposition and talk up their own accomplishments.

Then, starting from the second week of July, the character of the official National Twitter account changed markedly.  The deceptive misuse of statistics and the misrepresentation of Labour’s policies started coming at a steady pace.  There was a clear pattern of cherry-picking economic data to make National’s record on the economy seem rosier than it actually is.  There was also the repeated conflating of “average income” with “middle New Zealand”, when it is actually the median that is the middle.  After Jacinda Ardern took over Labour and started shifting the poll numbers, National felt compelled to attack Labour more.  And then there was the @nzfactcheck account, run by National as partisan propaganda, but pretending to be neutral.

The deceptive tweets culminated in Steven Joyce’s “$11.7 billion fiscal hole”, and that was the point when National jumped the shark.  They had gotten away with so much lying without the media noticing, but this one caught everyone’s attention, and a whole bunch of economists came out to explain that Joyce doesn’t know how to read a spreadsheet.  The lies from National’s Twitter accounts continue, but if any businessperson still thinks they can be trusted to manage the economy, I don’t think those are rational voters.  And if you think that maybe this is all Joyce’s shenanigans, you should note that the other National MPs will join his chorus without checking the numbers for themselves.

Labour

There was, of course, a difference between Andrew Little’s Labour and Jacinda Ardern’s Labour.  Under Little, Labour’s tweets sounded like the opposition party, and most of the effort focused on the things that National did wrong.  The things they said were factually correct, but it came across as a whole lot of nagging.  They had their policies, and they were the usual Labour things.  In principle, I think voters should vote for the policies they agree with, but I conceded that, in practice, many voters are more motivated by a sense of excitement.  I was expecting Little to “do a Bernie” or “do a Corbyn”, by which I mean that the template for rallying the political left has already been demonstrated, and Little only needed to copy it.  He never did, and I still don’t understand why.

But that doesn’t matter now, because Jacinda Ardern “did a Jacinda”.  She said that her campaign would be relentlessly positive, and she meant it.  Labour’s tweets went from nagging National to describing an aspiration vision for New Zealand.  Again, I would prefer if voters voted on policy rather than personality, but I have to concede the reality that Jacinda’s personality draws in the voters.  In truth, Labour’s policies haven’t changed that much since Andrew Little, but their attitude has, and maybe that is the important difference.  It should be noted that, in this, I am not critical of Ardern or Labour as much as I am critical of the voters, who also seemed to like John Key more than his policies deserved.

For the most part, Labour avoided deceptive tweets, and the few that occurred early on could plausibly be attributed to genuine mistakes.  During the leaders’ debates, however, their fact-checking at times got a little too economical with the details, but it was more a case of omitting the references rather than outright deception.

Greens

As far as I can tell, the Greens made no deceptive or misleading tweets at all.  More than any of the other parties, the Greens seem comfortable with social media, and their echo chamber resembles a community of like-minded people.  Throughout the campaign, the Greens demonstrated their remarkable competence at live-tweeting question times in parliament, and in the absence of similar live-tweeting from their opponents, their echo chamber sounded like they won every argument handily.  They knew how to make themselves look smart, positive, and personable.  Social media savvy out the wazoo.

There’s no secret who their friends are – the likes of Greenpeace, Forest and Bird, and other environmental groups are regularly retweeted into their echo chamber.  Later in the campaign, after Metiria Turei got martyred (yes, I meant to use that word), the Greens used their platform to amplify the voices of beneficiaries, like @WeBeneficiaries.  As their supporters became more active on social media and the election campaign ramped up, they were more frequently retweeted into the Greens echo chamber, too.  The Greens are activists, they’re crowd-sourcers, many of them are millennials, they’re social media savvy.  They win the internet.

Maybe they’re also idealistic and a bit lacking in political ruthlessness.  If I asked their candidates whether they can be ruthless, I imagine none of them would give me a clear “yes”.  You can decide for yourself whether that’s a positive or a negative.

New Zealand First

They have 12 MPs but only 3 tweet regularly.  Mostly, they link to videos and media releases that few people would read in full.  Sometimes, Winston Peters will tweet entire speeches in a thread, one sentence at a time.  There are few graphics, and their black colour theme doesn’t help.  New Zealand First uses Twitter the way old people would use Twitter, but given the demographics of their supporters, maybe that’s exactly right.

Winston Peters himself is a remarkably competent orator who is skilled at walking the fine line between saying the appropriate but suggesting the inappropriate, portraying his version of the story but without misrepresenting the facts in order to do so.  Whether his followers can do likewise is a different story – you can see for yourself if you care to look through the replies to Winston’s tweets on immigration (spoiler: naked racism).  Given the fine line that Winston is navigating, not a lot gets retweeted into the New Zealand First echo chamber – their message is tightly controlled.  Despite that, there are still a few slips of the tongue from time to time, but if you dislike New Zealand First, you might be surprised at just how small their section in the False Tweets Archive is.

Maori Party

The Maori Party are the opposite of social media savvy, which is a shame, because they seem like awesome people.  They use Twitter the way an ordinary person would, tweeting casually and retweeting things of interest.  The problem is that we’re not talking about ordinary people, we’re talking about politicians who are meant to have a brand and a message and policies, who are meant to be out there winning votes.  Maybe they want to be real.  Maybe they hate doing publicity.  I know I do, but you don’t see me going into politics.

I want to tell them to hire some publicity people, or train some, or ask the Greens for help.  I want them to spend every day tweeting their kaupapa, in clear and concise sentences of 140 characters or less.  I want them to use Twitter as a platform to amplify Maori voices.  I want them to thump the metaphorical table and educate the ignorant masses on the real New Zealand history.  I want them to use Twitter like it matters, because after a few hundred years of colonisation, using your voice really really matters.

And they seem like awesome people.

ACT

The David Seymour show.  ACT doesn’t have policies as much as it has the opinions and musings of David Seymour, and those opinions are sometimes factually wrong or self-contradictory.  Despite that, Seymour is an overachiever, prolific on Twitter and very good at communicating his message, whether you agree with that message or not.  Everything he tweets is either himself or agreeing with himself.  He definitely knows how to use Twitter to his advantage.

United Future

It used to be the Peter Dunne show, but now Damien Light has taken over the reins.  Dunne seems like a reluctant tweeter, not eager to do publicity.  Sometimes he’ll think of something to say, and he’ll link to a wordy blog post.  If he were a private citizen, this would be fine, but he’s a politician supposedly competing for attention and for votes.  Maybe he just doesn’t want to do that.  Anyway, he’s not contesting this election any more.  Damien Light seems more chatty on Twitter, but also is not a publicity machine.  If there is still a United Future after election day, then maybe they’ll want to work on getting their message out efficiently on social media.

Bulletin 23/6/2017

Summary:

National and ACT keep talking about Matt McCarten’s mismanagement of his Campaign for Change, making counterfactual attempts to connect it to Labour leadership and unions, despite the facts being that McCarten left Labour before the scandal took place, and that unions refused to give McCarten money for his project.  Labour continues to talk about the Todd Barclay scandal, and Bill English’s actions in covering it up.

Labour pledges to invest in rail in Christchurch.  The Greens pledge to repeal fees on residential solar panels.

 

Echo Chamber National:

On Matt McCarten’s Campaign for Change:

 

(!) Is this a loaded question designed to implant a certain presupposed conclusion into the readers’ minds, while also obfuscating important facts such as the disassociation of Matt McCarten from Labour before the alleged immigration fraud took place?:

 

(!) The linked article quotes one union leader who specifically says that their union wasn’t involved.  The whole point of the scandal is that Campaign for Change didn’t get any union money or official Labour support, and that’s why things went bad:

 

Echo Chamber Labour:

On transport:

 

On Todd Barclay:

 

On superannuation:

 

Echo Chamber Green:

On renewables:

 

On transport:

 

Echo Chamber New Zealand First:

Nothing significant.

 

Echo Chamber Maori Party:

Nothing significant.

 

Echo Chamber ACT:

(!) McCarten was not part of Labour when it happened:

 

Echo Chamber United Future:

On Matt McCarten’s Campaign for Change:

 

Bulletin 17/5/2017

Summary:

National has finally realised that housing is a big election issue, and makes a big deal of their newly announced state housing policy.  Labour is quick to point out National’s past 9 years of inaction on housing and unfulfilled promises as proof of their lack of credibility.  New Zealand First and ACT also have their own criticisms of the policy.

 

Echo Chamber National:

On housing:

https://twitter.com/nzyoungnats/status/864344124270325760

 

On education funding:

 

Echo Chamber Labour:

On housing:

 

On political bullying:

 

On government data privacy:

 

Echo Chamber Green:

Nothing significant.

 

Echo Chamber New Zealand First:

On housing:

 

Echo Chamber Maori Party:

Trade mission to Malaysia:

 

Echo Chamber ACT:

On housing:

 

(!) Claims the need to build houses at the same rate as from the 40’s to the 70’s, fails to acknowledge the significant number of state houses built during that time, dismisses current policies by National and Labour to build more state houses:

 

Echo Chamber United Future:

(!) The Daily Mail is a tabloid that openly supports the UK Conservatives and the UK Independence Party, and is known for its, at best, inconsistent dedication to journalistic integrity:

 

Bulletin 24/3/2017

Summary:

After yesterday’s quiet, National comes out with an announcement on trade policy today.  National also finally says something about housing – not addressing affordability, but maybe putting a roof over the homeless.  Labout/Greens announce their Budget Responsibility Rules – combining three words that usually don’t get people’s blood pumping, no matter how good an idea it is, but might appeal to business folks.  Labour and Greens talk about a range of issues, including putting a price on water extraction, housing, and oil exploration.  ACT and United Future’s offer to National regarding Resource Management Act reforms is rebuffed – National not going to throw the Maori Party under the bus for this.  .

 

Echo Chamber National:

On housing crisis symptoms – at least National has something to say about housing finally:

 

On trade and exports:

 

Echo Chamber Labour:

On ACT and United Future’s Resource Management Act proposal:

 

On early childhood education:

 

On healthcare funding:

 

On pricing water extraction:

 

On housing:

 

On war crimes allegations against SAS:

 

On Labour/Greens Budget Responsibility Rules:

 

On National’s trade policy:

 

On Point England public land for housing development:

 

Echo Chamber Green:

On New Zealand’s fossil fuel industry:

 

On early childhood education:

 

On water extraction:

 

On Maui’s dolphins:

 

On Labour/Greens Budget Responsibility Rules:

 

On war crimes allegations against SAS:

 

Echo Chamber New Zealand First:

Tough on crime:

 

Echo Chamber Maori Party:

Nothing significant.

 

Echo Chamber ACT:

On Resource Management Act reforms:

 

Echo Chamber United Future:

Nothing significant.

 

Bulletin 20/3/2017

Summary:

Quiet weekend.  Housing just won’t go away, of course.  Still some talk about Apple not paying taxes.

 

Echo Chamber National:

On military spending:

 

On Wellington student bus fares:

 

Echo Chamber Labour:

On housing:

 

On multinational corporations and taxes:

 

Echo Chamber Green:

On consent education in schools:

 

On pricing water extraction:

 

On housing:

 

On multinational corporations and taxes:

 

On money laundering:

 

Echo Chamber New Zealand First:

More police:

 

On multinational corporations and taxes:

 

Echo Chamber Maori Party:

Nothing significant.

Echo Chamber ACT:

Remove iwi consultations from the Resource Management Act:

 

Echo Chamber United Future:

Nothing significant.

 

Bulletin 1/3/2017

Summary:

Bill English made some comments about people being unemployed because they’re on drugs, and he’s getting push back from both opposition parties and facts – it sucks when the facts are against you, too.  Annette King steps down as Labour deputy leader, Andrew Little to nominate Jacinda Ardern for that position.

 

Echo Chamber National:

43 unit of emergency housing built, thousands left to go:

 

Administration:

 

Gisborne economic action plan:

 

On Annette King stepping down:

 

National does education funding a few million dollars at a time.  There’s been a lot of Tweets like this, but they never have a big plan to show, just handing out cookies one at a time and a photo op for each one:

 

Echo Chamber Labour:

On Bill English’s false unemployed drug-users claims:

 

On the housing shortage:

 

On Annette King stepping down and upcoming election of new deputy leader:

 

Echo Chamber Green:

On Bill English’s unemployed drug-users claim:

 

On Annette King stepping down:

 

Bill for workplace protections for domestic violence victims:

 

Echo Chamber New Zealand First:

On Bill English’s unemployed drug-users claim:

 

Ground work:

 

Echo Chamber Maori Party:

 

Echo Chamber ACT:

Actually, unemployment is about education:

 

Schools are failing, let’s guarantee it by closing them:

 

Echo Chamber United Future:

On immigration: