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OPINION: The winding paths to victory

Tuesday 5 July 2022 | Written by Petero Okotai | Published in Opinion

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OPINION: The winding paths to victory
Minister George Angene (Maggie). Photo: Supplied/22051309

This column is part of a few which I have entitled “Oversimplifications”.

The reason for this is that almost every subject, and indeed everything that I write, almost always merits something significantly longer, if not a book, to explain the complexity and nuances, analyse the pros, cons, and counter arguments, most of which I have considered, having dwelled on many of these issues for years.

However, if I did include all of these thoughts, 1) I’d never finish any of these and; 2) there’s not enough room in the paper. So remember, below is an oversimplification of a slightly more complex ideas and thoughts. (Disclaimer: I try to make these articles as concise and coherent as possible, this week I failed on both counts, my apologies).

Elections were announced a couple of weeks back and are generally supposed to be a contest of ideas between individuals and parties, as to how the country should be, what values should govern the country going forward. However, none of our parties seems to have an ideology of any sort which could be good, but also, bad. And it is more of the bad, because what we have is akin to (peaceful) gang warfare or sports, green vs blue vs rainbow (kind of unfair for the United Party to take all the colours of the rainbow hmm where have I seen that before?)

This, as previously discussed is due to an outdated system, and a slide towards what is become almost full blown ‘pork barrel’ politics. We hear this term thrown around but I think it is important to define what it is we are talking about here.

“Pork barrel” (politics) is defined by the Oxford dictionary as, 1) “local projects that are given a lot of government money in order to win votes; and 2) the money that is used (i.e. the pork barrel).

My guess is after that formal definition, most are thinking, “yep, that’s exactly what I thought it was”.

The term has dark origins and seems to have been inspired by how rations of salt pork were apportioned to slaves on plantations. “Oftentimes the eagerness of the slaves would result in a rush upon the pork barrel,” wrote a “journalist” named C. C. Maxey in 1919, “in which each would strive to grab as much as possible for himself”.

Ugly stuff, but such is the state of our politics. The “pork barrel” effect can be most clearly be seen in the Northern seats, where it was used to great effect by the former PM Henry Puna to secure a huge margin for himself and then later his wife. This template has now been utilised by newly reinstated DPM, Robert Tapaitau and similarly there has been a number of projects in Pukapuka also. This may mark a refinement in the Cook Islands Party’s “build stuff and they will vote” strategy where it is somewhat easier to do in the smaller constituencies in the North, than in Rarotonga. The tentpole projects of Te Mato Vai and renewable energy were political flops, (there’s lessons there but for another time), but focusing on smaller seats and simpler (in theory) projects has perhaps helped the CIP shore up these Northern seats, that were previously constantly swinging between the parties from election to election.

‘Pork barrelling’ is harder in Rarotonga but there are still obvious attempts specifically in re-roading. Whilst much of this work can be attributed to an ongoing maintenance and upgrading, there is the occasional road to nowhere, reminding us of the ulterior motives at play.

At the individual level, there is a relatively simple formula one has to follow if you want to even run for Parliament (and stand a chance of winning). In short, you have to have done at least two of the following three things:

1. Be active in the local church (CICC is usually the preferred domination but it depends on the seat)

2. Be involved in village/community sports (usually due to age, this means they’re organisers, managers, coaches or patrons)

3. Provide community service (cutting grass, hedges, trees laying waste to anything green or natural)

These are the three prerequisites for success and represent the “grass roots” or the “ground game” that is done before the election or campaigning even starts. The most notable exponent of the “ground game” of course is the Honourable George Maggie. His unlikely rise to political prominence, was a consequence of him winning over Tupapa through his acts of service to the community, cutting grass hedges, etc. In doing so he set the template for how a seat (at least on Rarotonga) can be won and also retained. The MP that has followed this template most closely and successfully is current MP for Nikao, Mac Mokoroa, who is highly favoured to retain his seat – though this tactic/behaviour amongst MP’s at least on Rarotonga, is becoming more common.

The other way to win a seat, is to “buy it”, which is I guess some hybrid of community service and pork barrelling. It requires a degree of personal wealth to fund such a political strategy, but it has been utilised successfully in Atiu and we’re now seeing significant expenditure in Puaikura by the United Party.

Those are the ways an individual MP might win their respective seat. What about the parties?

Well, considering the built-in advantage the CIP had in being able to spring this election on their foes, we didn’t see much in terms of the full-blown party campaign that they had in reserve ready to spring on their unsuspecting opponents, I surmise these might be for a couple of reasons:

1. For the CIP, this is no longer about ideas and how they govern. There may be a calculus that this election is about the pork barrel politics they’ve undertaken in the last few years, and on that alone they can get the numbers they need. The credo has become quite clear, which is that the CIP will do what it takes to remain in power.

2. They simply have nothing to say… they’ve run out of election slogans. “Lets make it better again… one more time?” It is tough when you’ve been in this long, people have generally made up their minds about the CIP as a party and unless there’s a dramatic change in the party prior to election, no one expects any different regardless of the slogan (to that end, perhaps we should be thanking the CIP? Is there anything worse than a bad political ad?) 

The United Party need to hope for a couple things to go their way. Firstly, they will need to win at least three seats whilst simultaneously hoping that neither of the parties make it to 11 or 10 seats. If either party (particularly the CIP) get to 11 or 12 seats and the ‘Super’ Browns take Atiu again, that will allow them to form a coalition without the United Party, and leave them out in the cold. Ideally, for United they can secure the middle with about four seats and the two major parties with 10 or less, and if at least one of the Atiu seats were not retained by the Brown family.

At that point they could name their price. There is also no love lost between United leader, Teariki Heather and the current PM, thus it could make for an interesting negotiation considering Heather’s closeness with Mac Mokoroa and his standing as a former CIP with the possibility to take advantage of the growing tensions in the CIP itself. The reappointment of the DPM was controversial within the CIP (as well as his initial appointment) with long time CIP’s and back benchers feeling slighted and concerned about how the controversy of this was impacting on their efforts to elected. Whilst the CIP are the odds on favourite to return to power, Teariki Heather is doing his best to ensure that if so, it will be on his terms.

So what about the Democratic Party. Is there any hope against the spending might of the CIP and others? Perhaps, but they have their work cut out.

The Democratic Party have to make this an election about ideas, and values, and if they do so they might be able to get some traction, particularly on Rarotonga where pork barrelling is less effective due to the larger population.

However, even in the Rarotonga seats, the Democratic Party already hold five seats, all of which will be hotly contested. Additionally, early(ish) stage, their ideas have been less than inspiring and their messaging convoluted. So I’m going to do the Democratic Party a favour and give them three pieces of advice (it probably should be noted I advised the CIP in the past also, however, I can’t say how much of that advice was heeded):

1. Use the Rule of three – This is communications 101 and based on cognitive science (the original paper was called “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information” by George Miller). In short, people remember about two three bits of information or key messages really well, and anything more than that starts to dilute your message. It is fine (and important) to have a manifesto, but know that pretty much no one is going to read it.

2. Message discipline – Once you have these three things, keep hammering them. Trump often sounded like a lunatic at his rallies, but he knew to play the hits (her emails, immigrants, and the country sucks but I can make it better i.e. MAGA). Whilst Clinton was well reasoned and thoughtful in all her interviews and communications, it was hard to remember what she really stood for, or what her platform was. She had ideas, but there was too much noise, and Trump’s message (however racist it is/was) stood out like his orange face and was (unfortunately) just as memorable.

3. Be Specific –The one common thing I have seen in Democratic Party messaging is on rooting out corruption… But aside from the DPM reinstatement, I haven’t heard much in the way of specifics, and it’s not like there aren’t a plethora of issues they couldn’t be picking on. The Democratic Party need to choose issues people care about and get excited about and can give clear direction

As a starting point the Democratic Party need to build alliances. It is unclear whether they have any relationship at all with the ‘Super’ Brown hegemony of Atiu, as for two terms the Browns have partnered with the CIP. Regardless, they should be reaching out now and looking to develop the foundations of a coalition deal. The same goes for the United Party. Whilst the United Party have designs on being THE major second party, they should still be looking to do business, even at this early stage.

It should be noted that it is very strange that the Democratic Party were not the government this time around. They won more seats than the CIP but they were simply unable to form a coalition. Winning 11 seats in 2018, they only needed to convince the other ‘Super’ Brown to join their side to secure a majority, whereas the CIP had to stitch together three different alliances (with Maggie, Tapaitau and the Atiu seats).

As recently as well, anytime in the last three and a half years, the Democratic Party could have offered the Super Browns a better deal than the CIP were able with Rose as DPM and her daughter as another cabinet member (whilst retaining four other cabinet spots, including leadership). Somehow, they failed to do this, I cannot for the life of me figure out how or why.

All in all, the Democratic Party have been an incredibly disappointing opposition. When losing an election, you can’t just wait to pack your bags up and go home. There is an important democratic responsibility to hold the sitting government to account, to demand Parliament sit and thoroughly debate the issues facing the country. This was not prevalent in the last four years and one wonders whether life was too easy for many of the opposition MP’s, getting paid a decent amount to sit maybe 20 to 30 days max in the year? It was also apparent some were quite cosy with the government, often voting on issues of supply with the CIP, in return for a piece of the pork barrel. All this amounts to the fact that 12 years later, when the Democratic Party should be ripe for a return to power via the winds of change… the task ahead is much more difficult than it should have been. Aside for a seat or two in Mangaia, there seem no sure bets for the Democratic Party. Somehow the Democratic Party need to make this election about more than “the pork barrel”, and they have only about four weeks to do so

NEXT: The big issues facing the country (but no one will talk about it in their campaign)