Joe Hendren

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Maori party could be more effective with more written policy

Just been browsing the applications of the political parties to the Electoral Commission for the allocation of broadcasting time and funds. I found a few interesting points in The Maori party submission. Their president Professor Whatarangi Winiata points out how the media distort an MMP election campaign back into a First Past the Post electoral contest, and refers to a study conducted by Chris Rudd and Scott Connew which found

"....newspaper coverage of the smaller parties during the 2005 election campaign was, overwhelmingly, focused on the political 'game' rather than on substantive policy issues. That study, [Therese] Arseneau explains, revealed that out of a total of 212 stories dealing with the smaller parties, 19% were about policy. The other 81% were about the game or strategy: who is winning, who will cross the threshold, who is the preferred coalition partner.

"Such an analysis points out the unfair advantage (which we acknowledge is a creation of a media with an FPP and presidential election type mindset) that the larger parties hold, in receiving the great bulk of media attention on policy in the lead up to the Election campaign. In the interests of equity that such a disproportionate allocation of time for the larger parties to present their policy arguments makes a strong case for giving the smaller parties a more substantial allocation of time in the opening and closing addresses, in order that the voting audience has access to a more balanced presentation of information, equally applied across all parties.

While I completely agree with the analysis quoted above, the Maori party may have contributed to this situation in 2005 by failing to release more policy documents during the campaign. As a bit of a political junkie I remember looking at their website on many occasions and being seriously underwhelmed by the lack of relevant information offered to voters. I remember there only being a grand total of three 'policy' documents. Looking at their website at the moment, the situation is even worse - the policy page is empty!

I do not wish to attack the Maori party here, only raise the hope they devote more resources to this area and release more detailed policy for this years election. In the last weeks of the 2005 campaign I remember my surprise when Winiata announced during a TV election debate that the Maori party wanted massive tax cuts - my first thought was well, where is your tax table so I can assess whether your policy will indeed help the poorest New Zealanders?

I believe that in releasing more detailed policy, the Maori party have a chance to have a more influential role in parliament, as other parties would be likely to look to the views of the Maori party when considering how their own policies could affect Maori and Treaty issues.

I have long regarded detailed written policy as a key mark of political honesty. Yes, someone can quote policy in the future when it might be inconvenient, but that is what political accountability is all about.

While there may be short term political advantages in fudging policy to hide internal disagreements or, worse, hiding your real intentions from the electorate (hello John Key I hope I am not talking to you), there are likely to be costs over the long term.

First of all, it becomes difficult for voters to work out how a particular party is going to vote on issues as they come up in parliament. I dare say the Maori party lost a few votes when Tariana Turia suddenly decided to vote against the civil union bill. I dare say the party lost support again when three of its MPs voted for the first reading of Wayne Mapp's bill that proposed to strip workers of their rights for the first 90 days of their employment. If these votes had been consistent with previous written policy, people would have had no right to be upset, however voters would have also had the opportunity to consider the position of the party on these issues before they chose to support the party.

In a small party in particular, a lack of written policy can lead to policy being set 'on the hoof' by MPs, effectively disenfranchising ordinary party members from the policy making process.

Ideas normally outlive people by a considerable margin. Its a quirk of life that has led to significant process. In the same vein, political ideas are more likely to endure when they are set out as a independent set of written principles and ideas - that way they do not die with the political careers of particular MPs.

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