Hard News by Russell Brown

At last, it gets interesting

The lid seems finally to be coming off the Act party's leadership "primary" election, with Stephen Franks use of his Unfranked email newsletter to issue an "urgent appeal for help in defeating the frontrunner, Rodney Hide.

I was forwarded the email yesterday by a reader ("it's impossible to get off an ACT mailing list once you subscribe") and it's remarkable for its tone of alarm:

Regular readers will know this newsletter is for discussion of constitutional and legal issues. Most subscribers are lawyers and many are known to me personally. Rarely have I used it for direct political purposes.

I am involved in a fiercely contested election primary for the leadership of the ACT party. My colleagues Ken Shirley and Muriel Newman are also standing, but most commentators regard Rodney Hide and myself as the two front runners. I believe an ACT party run by Rodney Hide would be quite different from one lead by myself …

I ask for your help. While the primary can only be indicative, with the caucus making the final decision, it is very important. My success in leadership, as well as in this campaign to become leader, depends on making the strongest possible showing in the primary.

If you are a member of ACT, I want you to vote for me as leader with your first preference vote. You may wish to give Ken Shirley your second preference.

More than likely you will not be a member of ACT, but if you join by 5pm tomorrow night (Friday June 4), you can vote.

This appeal is uncharacteristic of me. I have tried to avoid personal promotion in this newsletter, but now I sincerely ask you to consider and act on this request if you feel you can.

The ability of the leader to attract support for the party will be considered by the caucus in choosing the leader. Accordingly your decision to join the party and vote for me, will not only help me to win the primary. It will also demonstrate an ability to grow the party.

Ouch. It appears that even the most obvious snub to Hide from Act's father-figure Roger Douglas isn't enough to derail him. That's because Hide has shown himself to be a strong campaigner - not least through his weblog, where Hide has clearly got the hang of things. He's sufficiently attentive to thank the little guys who give him a mention, and has even had warm notices in offshore blogs.

Franks' urgent appeal was presumably partially prompted by a Herald story yesterday headed Hide hits the front in race for Act's top job, which said that Hide was "way ahead of his fellow MPs in the increasingly divisive contest for the Act leadership, according to a poll asking who would make the best leader". Except - and I don't think I'm being particularly pedantic here - the poll was not conducted amongst the people who will vote for the Act leadership. It's a chunk of a Herald-Digipoll survey of general voters. Certainly, Hide's wider profile ought to serve his cause - but that's not quite the same thing, is it?

There was more statistical abuse in the Herald this week in the form of a stern editorial on the importance of discipline in schools, which quotes "a Maxim Institute study that found three-quarters of parents rated lack of discipline their biggest concern about schools".

No, it didn't. The Maxim study, A Snapshot of what Parents Think of Schooling in New Zealand , found that 78% of the parents interviewed mentioned discipline as a concern in schools. Discipline was mentioned by more parents than any other factor - but that's not the same thing as weighting it as their "biggest concern". Indeed, fewer than half of parents said that discipline was a factor in deciding what school their children should attend - less than the number who cited zoning or the general atmosphere and environment of the school. This doesn't prevent the report's authors from saying in their introduction that "discipline at schools was the biggest concern for parents".

There are other factors in the Maxim report that suggest that it might be risky to pronounce too boldly on its findings: most notably that it involved only 54 parents. This also occurred to Liz Probert, who sent the following letter to the Herald:

I was rather surprised to read in the Herald editorial this morning that 'three-quarters of parents rated lack of discipline their biggest concern in schools', a statement which is actually based on the results of a Maxim Institute study.

Surely this is a misleading statement given that the Maxim Institute study involved only 54 parents representing 137 children. Presumably the writer meant to refer to three-quarters of the parents involved in the Maxim Institute study, around 40 parents, not three-quarters of all parents in New Zealand as the editorial seemed to suggest.

This is not the standard of argument one expects from the editor of the Herald.

The Herald, says Liz, did not publish her letter. But - and do we detect the spectre of Darth George here? - it did hand it on to Maxim, whose communications manager Nicki Taylor rebutted it in a letter in yesterday's paper. Taylor airily declared that Probert - an accomplished educator by any measure - showed "an unfortunate lack of understanding of qualitative research". Taylor continued:

On the advice of the independent researcher, 54 parents were selected by Consumerlink to ensure they were representative of parents throughout New Zealand.

Actually - and you have to read the full report to find this out - the parents were gathered in eight focus groups held in Auckland and Christchurch only. And according to the report itself, they were not a representative sample, but a targeted one: a quarter of those involved were "mainstream education rejectors" - people who, for one reason or another, had already found fault with the state system.

Another quarter were "low socio-economic groups" - who might statistically be expected to encounter more problems with discipline at schools. This would seem to constitute a bit of a skew. Indeed the large majority of a slew of bring-back-the-cane comments relayed by the authors come from individuals in the two such groups in Auckland and Christchurch. This is certainly worthy of discussion in its own right, but the idea that Maxim's study is representative of all New Zealand parents is unsustainable.

There are a number of other interesting wrinkles in the report - boiled down from more than 300 pages of transcript by the two Maxim authors - that I don't have time to go into, but readers should feel free to have a look themselves at the full report, the summary and the Maxim press release and tell me what they think.

I'm sure I'm not the only one delighted to see the government step up and promise to fund the super-fast Advanced Network. Assuming they'll go with the open network model proposed by MORST, it'll be interesting to see what the price of membership is. Hey, y'know, I could do with some of them gigabits …

Meanwhile, more pathetic attention-seeking behaviour from Auckland's mayor, who got himself a front-page story in the Dom Post and a ludicrous interview with Linda Clark this morning on the strength of a speech last night in which he described Wellington as a "little port town" and declared that Auckland should be the national capital. Please, just ignore him. He's an idiot.

There was a lot of email after yesterday's post - most of it to do with the nuclear issue, and far from all of one point of view. I'll churn through it for Monday's post. Just to be clear, for the benefit of one or two anguished correspondents: I'm not in favour of nuclear ship visits, and I'm yet to be convinced about fixed nuclear generation - the waste disposal problem still seems a showstopper to me - but climate change is so deeply serious that it's quite reasonable to think about options.

There was some interesting feedback about the blocking of The Memory Hole website from US troops in Iraq. Sean, an expat in Singapore, noted that it was blocked by the government there too ("count yourself lucky that your site is under the radar") and Bill Burman got in touch to say that he helped set up the Internet filtering system for the US military:

The company I work for provides communications to companies that are involved with the US military, and we were asked to filter adult content. It's nothing sinister, just a web content filter, but in my opinion web content filters are always lacking in the quality of their database, and this seems to be the case here. What is surprising is that we have heard nothing about this site being blocked. I assume complaints inside the military are just not being treated seriously enough to go anywhere.

The Guardian advances the view that the UN envoy Brahimi was shafted in the course of the Iraqi interim leadership appointments.

Wednesday was a busy news day in Iraq, according to the amazingly diligent Today in Iraq blog. Scary shit.

The Independent had The Lying Game - an A-Z of the Iraq war and its aftermath.

Raed's online relationship with his Irani girlfriend Niki continues to flourish.

And that'll do. Feel free to emerge from the covers and listen to Mediawatch on Sunday morning - I've interviewed Sean Plunkett about his interviewing style. Quite good fun.