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The Winston Syndrome: A Clinical Study of a Disease Afflicting New Zealand Political Elections

In a previous article I explained how the US election and the UK elections were predictable based on a study of the genetics of political decision-making. In that article that followed my book, The Genetics of Health, I pointed out that when there were two “unfavourable” candidates contesting an election, the results can be determined by genetics.

The recent New Zealand election was different because for a start, both main candidates – Jacinda Ardern and Bill English seemed genuinely nice people. When people I meet overseas asked me for a short summary of the NZ election campaign, it went like this:

Jacinda Ardern (“Let’s Do This”), in spite of all the Jacindamania ended up as Taxinda Ardern (“Let’s NOT Do this”). Bill English, considered Boring Bill who had led his party to a disastrous defeat in the past put in a great effort with many people ending up backing Bill (“I got back up”).

If one was to summarise Labour’s main election platform it was a review of taxation (with no detail) and removing tertiary education fees for the first year. This was basically a student-bribe that was nothing more than a watered-down version of Jeremy Corbyn’s education plan. Let’s examine the evidence behind removing university fees and the “trickle-up” effect in the UK, where uniquely Westminster determines university fees. It was Labour that first introduced tuition fees in 1998. Students had to pay up to £1,000 a year, depending on their parents’ income. This increased to a maximum of £9,000 a year, introduced in 2012/13 by a Conservative-led coalition. If Ardern and Corbyn are correct, then the UK experiment should have shown that less students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds now make it to university. Is this true? Detailed analysis shows the contrary. For every year since 2012/23, there has been increased participation at university by students from lower socioeconomic background students. Therefore, one may conclude that removing fees for one year would have minimal, if any impact.

If one was to summarise National’s main election platform, it was tax cuts (“We are lowering tax; Labour is raising tax”). This was also bribe albeit targeted at different pockets – directed at those that wanted a bit more spending money. Given everyone is agreed that New Zealand needs a stronger and more productive economy, do tax cuts help the economy? After all, are not elections won on the economy? A congressional research study done over 65 years looked at the influence of tax-breaks and economic performance and concluded that tax cuts do not lead to economic growth.

If the main election promises of the major parties do not have scientific evidence behind them, what about the claim of the Green Party that the NZ election result was a mandate for change. The final results (pending counting of special votes) are as follows: National: 44% / 56 seats; Labour 36% / 46 seats; NZ First 7.2% / 9 seats; Greens 6.3% / 8 seats; ACT 0.5% / 1 seat. On election night, I heard the leader of the Green party say that this was a mandate for change as National had only managed 46% on the provisional tally (never mind that the next party, Labour, was 10% behind at 36%). How does 46% (or 44%) stack up when compared with election results in the UK (where the NZ system originated from) or Germany (where they have an MMP parliamentary system adopted by New Zealand in 1994).

A graph analysing the popular vote in the UK elections from 1832-2005 shows that 44-46% is a very high popular vote for a winning party (and not one waiting for a minor party to … well, come to the party). Margaret Thatcher’s election win in 1983 was considered the most decisive election victory since that of Labour in 1945. Her share of the popular vote: 42.4% (down from 43.9%).

Recently, Angela Merkel won a record 4th term in Germany. Merkel has become a political symbol of competence, calmness, compassion and coalition-expertise. In 2013, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU)party won 33.8% of the seats and in the recent 2017 election, she won 32.9% of the vote. She led the largest vote-winning party in these elections. In an MMP system, over 44% can be considered a facile victory. But why does New Zealand find itself in a limbo? This is because of the Winston Syndrome.

Winston Syndrome: A pestilence that afflicts New Zealand elections sporadically since the 1990s.

Symptoms: The tail wagging the dog. Winston Peters, after losing his own seat and his party securing 7.5% of the popular vote, finds himself a king-or-queen-maker (again).

Description: The phrase “Tail wagging the dog” was first described in The Daily Republican, April 1872: "Calling to mind Lord Dundreary's conundrum, the Baltimore American thinks that for the Cincinnati Convention to control the Democratic party would be the tail wagging the dog."

The American humourist, SJ Perelman was supposed to have said after escaping from a group of prostitutes: “It was a case of the tail dogging the wag”. Others have noted the similarities between political life and prostitution. As Tina Fey, wrote in Bossypants: “Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience is considered a virtue.”

Signs: A political party with < 10% of the vote or a politician who has lost his own seat gets to choose who forms the government of a country.

Treatment: Eradication or Quarantine (if the former fails).

Angela Merkel is the master of grand coalitions, and has been involved in two. It is when the two main parties get together in a coalition. In fact, grand coalition or the German nickname GroKo (shortening for Große Koalition) was named 2013 word of the year in Germany.

Methods: One day a week (when I am in the country) I teach creative writing to low-decile school children, and have been visiting low-decile (economically disadvantaged) primary schools and running literacy programmes for almost two decades. It is visible that the gap between rich and poor is widening, and I see this wherever I go, a side-effect of neo-liberal economic policies worldwide. New Zealand, a small remote island country must engage in trade with other larger economies and therefore cannot adopt a radically different economic model quickly. But the recent election leader’s debates got me thinking. Jacinda Ardern, the new Labour leader said that removing child poverty was her main mission in politics. Bill English, the National party leader promised to lift 100,000 children out of poverty during this term. Both agreed that child poverty was shameful in 21-century New Zealand. Wouldn’t it be great if the two major parties in New Zealand could form a grand coalition with the express purpose of removing child poverty? After all, an OECD

The Winston Syndrome: When the tail wags the dog

states that between 2007 and 2011 child income poverty in New Zealand increased at a faster rate than in the OECD on average. Just for one term? National and Labour are still re-building and no one has confidence in the deputies anyway. Would it be too much to ask? After all, in the process of helping children, we would, as a side effect, finally eradicate the Winston syndrome. It makes perfect sense. After all both major parties need new blood quickly. Beyond an over-the-hill leader (National) and an up-and-coming leader (Labour), the rest look unacceptable (to the public) as Prime Minister.

Chances of eradication: Slim. That’s why I am not in politics. As Machiavelli once wrote: “Politics has no relation to morals.”

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