Key Stays In, Goff Out. It’s a good time to be Green or NZ First.

John Key and the National Party received a commanding result in last Saturday’s election in New Zealand, obtaining its best election result in 60 years with 48 percent of the vote. Now with 60 seats in Parliament, National seeks to form a government with several minor parties to increase its legislative power. Support for Labour declined to 27 percent of the party vote, landing them an estimated 34 MPs. In addition to the strong “mandate” given to John Key and National, the lead story out of NZ is the results for minor parties and the voter approval of MMP at the referendum. 

With a diverse Parliament, coalitions are being built and parties are strengthening their positions. After being out of government for the past three years, New Zealand First made a surprising comeback, gaining an estimated 6.8 percent of the party vote and 8 MPs. The ACT Party was touted to surge with Don Brash as its new leader; however following the election of just one MP and failing to meet the party vote threshold, Brash resigned in shame. The Green Party obtained an estimated 10.6 percent of the party vote, giving them 13 MPs; after special votes are counted, the Greens are likely to have 14 total MPs, 5 more than the previous election.*

United Future’s Peter Dunne retained his party’s sole seat; as with the ACT Party, the loner MPs have been sought after by National for a coalition to add to its majority. The Maori Party won 3 reserved seats, and will also be courted by National.

The sale of state-owned assets has been a contentious issue, and most minor parties are against the idea except ACT, National’s closest partner. It will be the issue to look out for over the next three years, as Parliament is split almost in half (61-60) for or against selling public assets. The New Zealand Herald website has a useful map of Parliamentary seats.

Voter turnout lowest percentage in 120 years

Had more Kiwis turned out to vote, the election results might not have been so stark. According to estimates, one million eligible New Zealanders did not make it to the polls for this election.

“Turnout dropped by just over 90,000, from 79.5 percent of those on the rolls in 2008 to 73.8 percent. Overseas votes included in this total plunged from an estimated 32,000 at the last election to 19,527.”*

Election watchers credit this drop in voter turnout to two primary factors. First, youth voters continue to be apathetic and do not comprehend how the election affects their lives. Second, early polls showed an easy victory for National and drop in support for Labour, keeping supporters of both parties at home. Additionally, Labour’s lost votes are likely due to increased support for the Greens and New Zealand First. Given that the Greens typically poll better overseas, the drop in overseas voting may have hurt their chances to have an even stronger presence.

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ASEAN, People of Burma, UN, US – Everyone wants a bit of Burma

Tensions in the South China Sea, China’s currency, American troops in Australia and opening markets have all been significant news stories over the course of the APEC, ASEAN and EAS meetings. Amidst these events one evolving story could have a unique impact on bilateral and multilateral relations in the Asia-Pacific. Over the weekend in Bali, US President Barack Obama announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would travel to Burma. Set for the first week of December, Clinton’s trip will be the first visit by a US Secretary of State in 50 years. The recent announcements in favor of engagement with Burma led to a flurry of events and discussions which will hopefully ultimately signal a more open and peaceful Burma.

Since becoming the first civilian president of Burma in fifty years in March 2011, President Thein Sein steadily proceeded with national democratic reforms and attempted to gain greater legitimacy among members of the international community. The current leadership of Burma (now Myanmar) understands the importance of domestic and international legitimacy, especially given the events of the Arab Spring and global Occupy movements. By releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from home detention, allowing the National League for Democracy to participate in elections, releasing hundreds of political prisoners, attempting peace with ethnic groups and seeking to host ASEAN in 2014, the Burmese government has garnered potential conditional support of the US government, United Nations and ASEAN members. President Thein Sein was seen smiling and answering to reporters over the weekend, a sign he’s getting the hang of being less guarded and more open.

It is possible that President Thein Sein and his government’s recent concessions including halting work on an unpopular dam and passing a law that enables workers the right to strike were pursued to maintain power and prevent massive civil unrest. The situation in Burma, including the human rights abuses that occurred, failed to reach the agenda of the UN Security Council due to China’s veto and its respect for state sovereignty. Now, however, times are changing and UN leader Ban Ki-Moon welcomed “just as ASEAN did, the recent developments in the country under the leadership of President Thein Sein”. Given the “flickers of progress” in Burma the goal of Secretary Clinton’s trip will be “to test what the true intentions are, and whether there is a commitment to both economic and political reform”.

Developing a more hospitable domestic environment and international relations will be critical to improving human development indicators, lifting Burmese out of poverty and creating a safer East Asia. At one point Burma’s isolationism was akin to North Korea’s, and there were even worries about sales or transfers of weapons and what that might mean for the region. As a former ‘problem’ child for ASEAN, Burma appears to be shedding its incessant cling to Chinese leadership and influence; now that President Thein Sein and the government has been given a confidence boost, the next few months should provide a useful path for improvement; in particular the international community will closely watch the December by-elections and the role that the NLD is able to play.

Business and Labor Mobility in the Asia-Pacific

On November 12, 2011, US President Barack Obama signed a bill into law which enables US citizens to join the APEC Business Travel Card (ABTC) scheme. The US already provides a ‘fast lane’ for entry for ABTC members, and the timing of America’s entry into the system is fitting given progress toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the recent and upcoming multilateral meetings in the Asia-Pacific. This weekend, other complementary initiatives are being launched as part of the APEC Travel Facilitation Initiative. But what is behind these initiatives, and who will they benefit? Are they stepping stones toward greater regional integration or another advantage for businesses?

According to the Business Mobility Group, the ABTC was originally developed “in response to the need for business people to gain streamlined entry to the economies of the Asia-Pacific region,” and “enables business people to explore new business opportunities, attend meetings and conduct trade and investment activities”. The main benefits are:

• “Fast-track entry and exit through special APEC lanes at major airports, and multiple short term entries to these economies for a minimum of 59 days stay each visit (click for details).

• No need to individually apply for visas or entry permits each time you travel to any of the participating APEC economies as the card is your visa.”

After trials in the late 1990s, countries have continued to sign onto the scheme, and the group now includes the following: Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada (Transitional Member), Chile, China, Hong Kong (China), Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, PNG, Peru, the Philippines, Russia (Transitional Member) Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.

A study by the Policy Support Unit (“an independent research unit at APEC”) found that those who participated in the scheme cut down on their transaction costs and saved time and money in their visa process. The target audience of the Mobility Initiative is explicit in its title: business. By saving time and money during repeated business travel to and within the Asia-Pacific, participants may be encouraged to travel even more frequently and create more business opportunities in the region with greater ease.

However, there has been no significant effort for greater mobility of permanent workers. There are several successful guest worker programs in the Asia-Pacific (primarily in Australia and New Zealand with Pacific Island nations), but each state maintains their own labor and immigration standards which conflict with the idea of a more mobile Asia-Pacific workforce. Oceania has the highest share of migrants than any other region, with 15 percent of residents in 2005 followed by North American with 13 percent. More specifically, 24 percent of residents in Micronesia were migrants in 2005, followed by 20 percent of residents in Australia and New Zealand.*

Despite movements toward closer economic relations through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, bilateral trade deals, and easier travel and access for business people around the Asia-Pacific, migration policies are yet to be coordinated in a way mirroring the Schengen Zone in Europe. Rather, countries prefer to create a global supply chain that links labor within their own countries, enabling them to better control the workforce and allowing the more powerful economies to dictate what industries are affected by ‘free trade’. In 2007 ASEAN states signed the Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, but the agreement is not legally binding.

The UN Human Development Research Paper “Migration in the Asia-Pacific Region: Trends, Factors, Impacts”, by Phillip Martin, contains key points about migration in the region:

• “Most Asian nations receiving migrants have policies that aim to prevent migrants from settling, most do not consider migration essential for economic growth, and most do not want immigrants to change their culture and identity.

• Migration policies in the major Asian receiving countries can be framed by a triangle, with countries such as Singapore welcoming foreign professionals to settle and rotating less-skilled foreign workers in and out of the country, Japan allowing the employment of foreign professionals but remaining largely closed to less-skilled foreign workers, and the Gulf countries dependent on migrants to fill most private sector jobs.

• With migration restricted and considered temporary, there are few institutions developing data and long-term migration options or promoting regional dialogues to improve migration management.” (15)

The report points to factors motivating out-migration as well as the migration policies of the major labor-sending countries of the Asia-Pacific region:

• “Many Asian nations want to send more workers abroad to reduce joblessness, generate remittances, and accelerate development. Many governments have created agencies to―market their workers to foreign employers.

• Migrant-sending governments are also concerned about the rights of migrants, and many have agencies to regulate recruiters, prepare workers for overseas jobs, and look after migrants while they are abroad.

• Most governments measure the benefits of migration by the number of migrants going abroad and the amount of remittances received. These measures may not reflect progress in human or economic development that will make migration unnecessary in the future.” (34)

“Most international labor migration in Asia involves workers moving from one Asian nation to another for temporary employment” and “a culture of migration reportedly prompts many children to plan to follow their parents abroad to work”.* Moreover, remittances are an essential part of some states’ economies and provide uneven social and economic benefits. In the same way that business travel has been critical to creating avenues for state relationships and closer economic ties, real labor mobility will become critical to citizens’ ability to be lifted out of poverty, to experience unique opportunities or to create a new life for their families.

If businesses can readily have access to new markets and laborers, there should be reciprocal opportunities for laborers at different levels to have less constrained access to new employers and industries. International labor migration has accumulated a lot of baggage over the years despite its typically short-term or short-distance travel (primarily due to guest worker programs). A new generation of workers believes they are entitled to greater mobility given the ability of multinational corporations to create a base for influencing the economic and political structure of their countries. The APEC Business Travel Card scheme and others incorporated into the Business Mobility Initiatives demonstrate forward-thinking programs that move in the right direction; however for real progress to be made corresponding steps should be taken to make mobility more equitable.

Digital Diplomacy: Using Social Media to Understand, Engage, Inform, and Influence

“Public diplomacy is a vital instrument of national policy, and should be funded as such.” – US Ambassador Thomas A. Shannon, Jr.

While traditional methods of public diplomacy utilizing television and print media are still essential to reaching a mass audience, in today’s globalized world an effective social media is critical to governments’ abilities to understand, engage, inform and influence the next generation of leaders in communities all around the world.

Recently I attended a forum held at The George Washington University entitled “The Last Three Feet: New Media, New Approaches and New Challenges for American Public Diplomacy”. Panelists (primarily Foreign Service officers) discussed the contemporary communications environment and how public diplomats overseas cope with it. Content from this post is representative of what was discussed.

Public diplomacy is not just a public relations campaign, but the promotion of diplomacy between societies. As societies connect, the social connection becomes more important. Local campaigns become connected into global campaigns, such as the fight against poverty, social exclusion, etc. People want a way to achieve their personal destiny, and find encouragement in others. Governments have to show people that they can help them to achieve their goals with democracy, open society, and economic opportunities.

In order to be successful, public diplomacy must be relevant to people and their happiness. Using a default ideology will no longer work, as people understand that the issues they face are complex and require multiple solutions. Governments need to show how they empower people for good health, security, and education; working through civil society is also important because of its different and useful connections to communities on the ground.

Diplomacy is an act of accommodation and empathy, finding places where we agree and we have the ability to connect. Who gains value in the digital diplomacy exchange? Importantly, who should Embassies and Consulates prefer as their target audience? Is an Embassy’s Facebook and Twitter for locals or expatriates? These are important questions that public diplomacy officers should consider when starting and maintaining social media as digital diplomacy. The answers may vary by country and foreign representation location, and are not always easy to answer. I provide pertinent examples afforded by Aaron Snipe of the US Department of State from his time serving at the US Embassy in Iraq.

Key Points in creating and maintaining an effective digital diplomacy strategy:

1) Understand. In utilizing social media, government officials must begin by listening. Examine how the Embassy used social media up until that point. Take a close look at the number and type of ‘fans’. Are there too many from your own country or those with direct linkages to the Embassy? The primary goal of an Embassy’s social media strategy should be to communicate with the locals and provide a platform for grassroots engagement. Before beginning engagement, however, government officials must understand what is at the heart of the local culture, social life, and political discussion.

In Iraq over the last year the US Embassy experienced significant improvements in their communications with locals because alongside all English text, they added Arabic text; this opened up a much larger space for readers who could not understand English, or did not feel comfortable communicating in English. Adding the local language showed a sign of respect for the local culture and a desire to effectively engage locals. However, some Americans did not agree with this move and have complained that the Embassy’s Facebook should be to communicate with local Americans about urgent issues and safety information.

2) Engage (part 1). Generate content relevant to locals. While a Facebook page can be a mouthpiece for a government, it should not simply be a place solely for launching press releases and policies. If users do not connect with the content then it hampers the tool of digital diplomacy from serving its purpose.

While the State Department generates and provides a surplus of content, it was not always what Iraqis were talking about; therefore the Embassy could not always use the reports, releases and policy briefs and so forth. The Embassy team focused on finding out what was important to Iraqis and attempted to connect with the culture; they created a “question of the day” which ranged in questions from “What is your favorite kabob shop in Baghdad” to “What do you think about the new law in France prohibiting face-covering veils”.

3) Engage (part 2). Ensure engagement is organic, about things that people are actually interested in, and contains a human element. People do not want to interact with ‘government administrators’. They want to know who you are in the Embassy. People will then get used to talking to ‘us’ in the Embassy, and will connect more effectively knowing their comments reach real ‘people’.

For example, in Iraq Embassy officials created a “Window into the Embassy” on YouTube. Programs feature Foreign Service officers talking about the Strategic Framework Agreement in Arabic. It was then linked to Facebook to spur discussion.

4) Inform. The ability to speak in a less formal way should not be overlooked. While it can be challenging to offer government words in a friendlier manner which coheres with policy, social media provides a channel in which a government can say thing more empathetically than traditional media and more formal statements.

5) Influence. Governments can receive and use productive feedback from comments on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. Not all comments are constructive; sometimes participants praise you and ‘like’ everything you do without any explanation (or in some cases offer condemnations without justification). However, social media provides a place for real local engagement and direct reflection of a government’s policies. In the same way that a government can have a sincere influence on locals’ opinions, the locals gain unmatched access to government officials’ ears; this influence (or belief of influence) is invaluable for both participating sides.

While this post argues that local populations should be the primary target for a foreign Embassy’s social media tools, the keyword is ‘primary’. An Embassy website, Facebook, or Twitter can be a useful place for nationals to learn about their country’s policies, influence or events happening in a particular country. They can even provide a space for disagreements or praises about actions where the national may otherwise have no place for engagement. However, digital diplomacy as public diplomacy, when used as an effective tool to promote a state’s foreign policy interests is meant to focus on persuading the peoples (and hence the leaders) of other states that they seek positive engagement and to improve their overall wellbeing.

Whether locals prefer or need economic, social or political assistance depends on their particular situation. Sometimes in a small country, one-to-one dialogue can be more cohesive than a broader Facebook campaign. Nonetheless, a strong and coherent digital diplomacy strategy exemplifies empathy and compassion for a globalized community which is similarly reaching out to understand, engage, inform and influence foreign governments.

The All Blacks won their hearts, now who will win their votes?

With the 2011 Rugby World Cup over and won, New Zealanders are taking more notice in the upcoming national election set for November 26. In the shadows of the Rugby World Cup, negative events occurred which do not seem to have damaged the National Party’s standing: the Rena oil spill off the coast of Tauranga, a national credit downgrade, and claims that Prime Minister John Key deceived the House when he said “Standard and Poor’s had said another credit downgrade would be more likely if Labour became the Government”. Thus as the National Party is set to remain in power, this election and the simultaneous referendum on MMP are likely to have a stronger impact on minor parties and their ability to influence Government rather than simply which party will lead. Minor parties will more than ever fight for survival in a critical economic time for New Zealand, trying to link up with international campaigns and media spectacles; as an export and tourism-driven economy New Zealand has not been immune to the effects of the global recession.

With the Prime Minister’s national approval rating around 70%, and the National Party polling around 54%, one would think John Key’s party had released widely popular policies in the lead up to the election. However, the two latest policies affecting welfare and state-owned assets (SOEs) caused significant public stir.

Parties call out policies with impact during tough financial times

In a supposed effort to invest in improvements in current assets and the education sector, the National Party seeks to sell portions of SOEs to create a mixed ownership model; this policy would likely affect the banking, power and transport sectors. Moreover, the Australian arm of an international investment firm was selected to advise and assist the Government in potential sales of SOEs.

The Green Party, Maori Party, Labour Party, Mana Party and United Future have all strongly opposed to the sale of SOEs and appointment of an international advisory firm. The potential for SOEs to fall under international hands is worrisome to them, and instead they prefer the SOEs to either stay as profit producers for the government or in the hands of “Kiwi Mum and Dad investors”. As Minister of Revenue for successive governments, United Future’s Peter Dunne said there had been no real debate or discussion about the sale of SOEs and called for privatization limits; while some assets could be sold off, Dunne believes Kiwibank, Radio NZ and water are non-negotiable. While some countries welcome foreign direct investment, each has a right to investigate the potential impacts of foreign ownership. The Green Party’s plan to create 100,000 new green jobs, in contrast, seeks direct government investment in home insulation projects, incentives for public-private partnerships in renewable energy solutions and government support for small to medium enterprise.

National’s plan for welfare reform is another controversial policy, and aims to move beneficiaries into the workplace and off assistance. The new plan is based on a recommendation from the Welfare Working Group and renames the beneficiary categories to Job Seeker Support Benefit, Sole Parent Support, and Supported Living Payment. The plan targets single parents as culprits. Once her first child reaches the age of 14, a single mother must “look for work” or be penalized. If a mother has a second child while still a single parent, she must look for work once the child turns 1. As John Key once accused, women on the benefit are “breeding for business”.

The 1,000 people that stood in line to apply for 140 jobs at a supermarket in Hamilton illustrated the dire job shortage; opponents claim the lack of jobs is the problem rather than the people on the benefit. Minor parties and editorials are calling for the National Party to create job opportunities instead of simply renaming benefits and making threats to those who cannot even secure part-time work due to the lack of opportunities available.

Tax policy is a third election topic about which Kiwis and Americans alike are keen to hear alternatives. Several minor parties have taken strong stands against businesses in an attempt to ride the ‘occupy’ movement wave. In a challenge to National’s plan to sell SOEs to obtain funds for education, the Mana Party wants to restructure the tax system so that investment in education “is never considered a special extra and is always part of core Government responsibility”. Winston Peters and his party New Zealand First called out CEOs and ultra-wealthy in New Zealand at the recent campaign launch. New Zealand First aims to improve lives of the 90% by changing the tax structure; Peters called for less personal tax, removing tax on savings, less company tax, lowering GST to 12.5%, and removing GST on rates.

Voting Reform – will NZ and the US swap styles?

In addition to the party policies set to affecting social and economic conditions, debate over the voting system for political representation in New Zealand is heating up in the lead up to a referendum. Electors will be asked two questions: whether or not they want to keep Mixed Members of Parliament (MMP), and if NZ changes its voting system, which of four alternative styles would they prefer? The listed alternatives to MMP are the following: First Past the Post (FPP), Preferential Voting (PV), Single Transferable Vote (STV), and Supplementary Member (SM). You can read about each form of voting on the Election website. MMP and SM are more amiable toward a mixed government; FPP and PV make it more difficult for minor parties to get into Government and exert influence. A Supplementary Member group has used New Zealand First leader Winston Peters to illustrate the negative effects of minor parties’ influence on Government. Critics of minor parties feel National or Labour fulfill their needs and see no room for alternative opinions or rabble-rousers such as Peters. The pressure to move away from MMP is strong enough to cause a media spectacle but not enough to maintain a diverse nationwide campaign.

In the US, a movement is gaining hold to oppose the primarily two-party system for the presidential election. Americans Elect seeks a nonpartisan presidential candidate to be on the ballot in all 50 states. An internet-based election will elect the final candidate in June 2012. To ensure the candidate’s ideology is not too far to one side, the VP running mate (chosen by the candidate) must be from a different party. About 60% of Americans like the idea of a third, independent candidate running for president against Democratic and Republic candidates. Already on the ballot of 7 states, Americans Elect is definitely a cause to watch, as it has the potential to produce voting reform in this country, albeit in a different way to New Zealand. The idea of having multiple parties in Government is inconvenient for lobbyists and firms who sway lawmakers in the US; however it would be interesting to see if New Zealand moved toward a system which favors two parties while the US moved toward one which favors diversity. And next, if Kiwis could start watching football, Americans may switch to rugby.