Jon explores the gambles underpinning John Key and Helen Clark's electoral strategies and says it's no good blaming the roulette wheel if we place all our money on only one number.

I’ve long had a theory about my own vices. I call it the ‘pillow theory'. If you punch a pillow in one spot it tends to balloon out somewhere else. So too with vices. Give up smoking and, hey presto, another vice quickly fills the void. The trick, I’ve learned, is to keep one’s vices in some sort of equilibrium. Easier said than done of course, and as someone who has just fallen off the non-smoking wagon I can hardly elevate myself as a role model for balance.

My plea for mitigation from my wife’s wrath is that I’m a casualty of politics. I’ve also gilded the lily by saying that at least I haven’t descended into other forms of moral turpitude, making the basic case that smoking is the lesser of several worse evils my weak soul could succumb to. The Chief Justice of the Johansson Supreme Court has reserved her judgement until after election night.

One of these more pernicious vices I might have gravitated to is gambling. Luckily I’ve never been attracted to it, or it to me. On my yearly excursion to the races, my sophisticated system is to gamble on the horse with the most political-sounding name. I don’t recommend this system to others as their path to economic liberation.

At a casino I only play one game, roulette. Like Fitz, the tortured psychologist in Cracker, I find an exquisite freedom in throwing it all on a number and, for the time it takes for the ball to settle, enjoying the utter randomness of fate.

Roulette has another virtue. It is a release from the tedium of sameness and patterns that make our lives too orderly, too predictable. The Danish existentialist Kierkegaard understood this well, for as he once wrote:

"The gods were bored so they created man. Adam was bored so they created Eve. Adam and Eve were bored together, and then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille. The peoples of the world grew in number and they were bored en masse. Then the nations of the world were scattered over the earth and they continued to be bored."

That vortex of flux, as the roulette ball flirts with its ultimate destination, is precisely where our election is situated with the business-end of the campaign about to begin.

John Key has, like me, gambled all his chips on the one number, which is the party vote share National needs to, if not govern alone, then to get very close to it. Helen Clark, in contrast, has covered her electoral bets. She has spread them among several numbers, believing she has a better chance of winning with this strategy.

Key has, moreover, tried to frame his opponent’s strategy as monstrous. In this he has some giddy roulette folklore to back him up. Roulette wheels are numbered 1 to 36 and if you add them up they equal 666, the number of the beast. Graphics of the multi-headed Labour-led hydra that are popping up all over the blogosphere are, therefore, faithfully replicating an ancient tradition.

They conjure up an image from the Book of Revelations:

‘And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.’

The nation’s editorial writers have lamely followed variations to this theme; that somehow it’s blasphemous for National to have the election stolen from its grasp if it out-polls Labour but can’t form a government.

Key’s gamble has so far been underpinned by his syndicate of voters trusting his gambling instincts. Ruling out Douglas and ruling out Winston seemed a luxury he could afford while bloated poll support continued month after month.

But now that polls begin to narrow the roulette ball in our metaphor can be likened to this unfolding economic calamity that is running counter-cyclical to the fundamental change gravity that preceded it. Our campaign is in flux.

If National continues to slide in those opinion polls that are capable of recording movement, then the gambler’s luck will run out and we will not be facing one hydra but, instead, will have one on either side of the political divide. Meanwhile, Clark continues to play the table. She’s been at it for years and has previously banked tidy profits by expertly spreading her risk by anticipating and accommodating the strategies of her rivals.

This leads me to a classic piece of game theory, the Nash equilibrium. In Hollywood’s version of it, Russell Crowe’s star-turn in A Beautiful Mind, Nash is sitting in a bar with three of his peers. Four women of varying beauty enter the bar and while each man is drawn to the best looking woman a light bulb goes off in Nash’s mind.

He figures that even in games of love and war his group of mates can maximize their overall chances of happiness by modifying their amorous ambitions so that all might achieve blissful relations. Think of the reverse: they attack each other and only the last man standing has a chance, maybe.

This is not a bad way of understanding our politics under MMP. Labour and its various coalition and support partners have over the course of three terms modified their policy ambitions so that each party can advance its most important ones, while having cognizance of the strategies of its allies.

National, in contrast, has preferred its own company and strived to govern alone so that it can dominate in its desperately sought relationship with power. It says, I’m the best looking and I want it all.

Which approach will succeed? If during the end-game of this campaign we see ever-narrowing polls then Clark’s strategy will prove the superior one. Only under the conditions of National maintaining a huge poll lead can it hope to win. If the election delivers a close result, irrespective or which of National or Labour wins the head-to-head contest, Clark will have proved the shrewder gambler.

And if the unthinkable happens it’s no use blaming MMP; that’d be very shallow analysis. The rules of our electoral system are given and known before the game begins. MMP is not responsible for the strategies various players’ choose to employ. And if National somehow contrives to lose this unlosable election, we can only hope that the Herald’s and other editorial writers will at least address the skill of our political gamblers, or singular lack thereof, instead of railing against the roulette wheel.

As for me, if I’m still smoking by the Monday after we vote, I’ll be one of the first casualties in this year’s gambler’s election, irrespective of the result. And in which case I might just call up John Key and take him down to the Sky City casino to play some roulette. We’ll both have nothing else to do.

Comments (9)

by Will de Cleene on October 27, 2008
Will de Cleene

Wellington needs a casino. No, not a pokie barn like Sky City, but a tables-only set-up somewhere on the waterfront. We were onto it until Philida Bunkle pulled the plug and Casinos Austria lost $9 million worth of provisional investment.

Best way to win at roulette is to play the dozens. Just watch out for that green zero.

by Ian MacKay on October 27, 2008
Ian MacKay

Dr Jon. The anger expressed today by some friends floored me a bit. They were adament that if National had more votes they should govern. I tried to explain that it is up to any grouping to agree and form a coalition of some sort. If the other parties no matter how many votes they had, fell short of a majority they could not go to GG and form a Govt. The majority in coalition would win. No way they said. Unfair and more! After all this time you would think they would understand MMP better! Media? Spin?

by Carolyn on October 28, 2008

I do think the media has failed to differentiate MMP from FPP.  For the last few years they have been reporting on their political polls as if it was a 2 horse race, and that the winner would be the party with the highest numer of votes/seats.

I think TV One is perpetuating this in their story last night, claiming there will be a backlash, and MMP will be in doubt if the party with the most votes doesn't form a government.

I would like to see the questions they put to the voters in their poll, and the context.  The percentages don't make sense IMO.

The polls on party preferences indicate a possible draw between a right and left block, with the Maori Party holding the balance of power.  Most Maori are shown in polls to favour a Labour government.  So I would have thought that it is very likely that those 50% (or more) of people appearing to support left (or left leaning) parties, would be happy with a Labour-led left coalition.  Though it might require them to stop and think about the logic of it, even though Labour is likely to be the party with the 2nd highest number of votes.

But the TV One poll shows 75% of their voters say the party with the highest number of votes should form the government.  Was it pointed out to them that, even if National got the most votes, but were short of a majority, that they may not be able to form a coalition to ensure their government would could win majority votes in parliament?

by Dr Jon Johansson on October 28, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Ian - The question to pose is whether our media have done their job to educate us all about the nature of MMP? Listenening to the analysis after TVNZ's minor party debate last night one is forced to conclude 'No, they haven't.'

We elect the composition of parliament on November 8 and then respective party leaders hammer out a set of governing arrangements with like-minded interests.

If I was framing the election I'd deal with the certainties; Labour/Greens and Anderton represent the known centre-left bloc. National/Act and Peter Dunne represent the known centre-right bloc. The combined seats of these respective blocs is the key number to look to in polls between now and polling day, with uncertainty over NZF and the Maori Party representing the the unknown element.




by Dr Jon Johansson on October 28, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Caroline - Indeed. First, phone in polls are a disgrace and have no place is serious political coverage. The other thing I'd say is that the political coverage on the issue at hand lacks any nuance. If National is prevented from forming a government because a Maori Party overhang, well that is cause for discussion and concern. But if National, on the night, outpolls (say) Labour by 4 points but the combined seats of N/Act/Dunne trails L/G/Anderton by put the centre-left in a better position would people have the same degree of anger?




by Keith Bolland on October 28, 2008
Keith Bolland

When you put it like that it's fascinating to contemplate National's persistent refusal to run an "MMP campaign". Twice now they've chosen to charge after one-party majorities, ignoring or actively trying to destroy their bloc partners. I can appreciate they were a little busy getting annihilated in 2002, but did they really miss Clark's chastening (from which she seems to have learned)? Anyone who tries to go it alone under MMP is going to get bitten in the bum. It seems like the last National leader who really understood this was Bolger.

Sure, all National's potential partners are led by "difficult" people to work with, and if I was John Key (or Stephen Joyce) and thought I could get away without having to deal with them the temptation would be very strong, but even if Key manages to fluke a majority this time, how does he think he's going to get re-elected in three years?

Clark's great talent is the patience and ability to play the long game. Nobody in National seems to have the same insight.

by Dr Jon Johansson on October 29, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Keith - Yeah, there's a real irony about all of this. On the one hand National wants to have the strongest possible hand if it secures power. On the other hand it has signed up to so much of Labour's significant policy inheritance that it will, if it wins, use this power to maintain a basic status quo. Go figure. 



by Waikanae Kid on October 29, 2008
Waikanae Kid

Good analysis Jon and I am amazed, that after snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at the last General Election, National has learnt so little. Or could it possibly be that their strategists of yore are the ones that have learnt so little.

Contemplating the political scene post the 08 Election has confirmed my objective of turning Waikanae into a self governing State. Our first demand, following the electrification of the rail line to the State, will be a full bar car on every train. This will enable my fellow citizens to partake of a panacea that will release them from future reruns of the 3rd rate soap opera known as "Election Campaign."

by Dr Jon Johansson on October 29, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

WK - I encourage you to cecede. If you drink enough you will solve a lot of Waikanae's problems or you'll find they'll take care of themselves.  

There was a story a couple of years back about  some small place, out the back of Wanganui I think, whose citizens declared their independence from the state.

More power them. Last thought, can I suggest a benign dictatorship. That way you won't have to bore yourself with campaigns but rather stay squarely focused on champaign. 




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