MMP Looney Tunes
Remember Giovanni di Stefano? In 1990, the Italian wide boy became a local superstar, with his exotic name, beautiful wife, intriguing backstory and apparently unlimited funds to invest in property. The media and the property industry lapped it all up and he ended up owning a number of properties, including the Royal Oak Mall.
Kim Dotcom is not the same as di Stefano. For one thing, he actually does have significant wealth. For another, in the internet age, he is not as mysterious. We have known from the outset that he has been convicted of crimes including computer fraud, data espionage, embezzlement and insider trading.
What is the same is the Kiwi willingness to be duped. The fawning media coverage, this time led by TV3’s John Campbell and the Herald’s David Fisher, has again turned perception into reality. Like the previous owners of poor old Royal Oak Mall, which has never been the same since, the leaders of no fewer than three parliamentary political parties — Act’s John Banks, the Greens’ Russel Norman and NZ First’s Winston Peters — have made fools of themselves taking the hoax seriously. These three matter. Both current polls and experience since 1996 suggest that, under MMP, it is they who may determine who is Prime Minister this Christmas.
By then, of course, Dotcom will almost certainly be in the United States awaiting trial on online piracy, racketeering, copyright-infringement and money-laundering charges. His so-called Internet Party — if it is ever established — will not exist. For all his legal manoeuvring, designed to delay the dreadful day, the 1970 extradition treaty between New Zealand and the US is straightforward. Unless he can show he might face torture or the death penalty, or that the charges are not crimes in New Zealand, or that there is not even the minimum amount of evidence to allow committal to trial, he cannot prevail.
This year’s election is the most pivotal since 1984. Labour’s David Cunliffe is not so much campaigning against John Key but against David Lange, Jim Bolger and Helen Clark. Not for him a return to a Clark-style government, merely tilting employment law to the unions, adding six cents to the top tax rate and expanding welfare. If Cunliffe is to be believed, a government he leads — even before the Greens are brought into the mix — will radically change the basic economic model that has operated in New Zealand, Australia, Europe, North America, East Asia, China, India and pretty much everywhere else since the 1980s and 1990s.
Globalisation, free and open markets, light-handed regulation, containing the size of government and rejecting Keynesian stimulus in favour of fiscal constraint are, in his words, part of “a sinister revolution” designed to “sell inequality to the masses”. They have been, he says, “a disaster,” “complete lunacy,” “madness,” caused the Global Financial Crisis and will “collapse under their own weight”. In contrast, he says, prior to the economic reforms, productivity grew, inequality was minimal, and governments made sure that “children didn’t grow up in poverty, that medical care was available for people that needed it [and] that decent housing was available for the poor and the elderly”.
A different case can be made. Some might argue that New Zealand was not quite as idyllic in the 1950s, 60s and 70s as Cunliffe recalls. After all, what social factors lay behind the 1981 Springbok Tour and 1984 Queen St riots? It could be pointed out that since so-called “neoliberalism” was implemented in East Asia, China and India, more people have moved out of poverty and into the middle class than ever before in the history of the world. Domestically, it could be said that the New Zealand economy has had a good 20 years overall and is now one of the strongest in the world. It could be asked whether voters desire the radical change Cunliffe is promising. Is it objectively desirable?
These are serious arguments and their resolution will profoundly affect New Zealand over the next quarter-century. What’s more, whether we like it or not, they will be resolved at the ballot box, one way or the other, later this year. Dotcom and his fan club have no stake or even any interest in that outcome. How bizarre if the media, politicians and voters continue to be distracted by the antics of a foreign narcissist so that we wake up the morning after the election without having really thought about which path we want to take.