A number of past and present MPs are engaging in social media – blogs, and Twitter in particular. In this guest blog post, Geoffrey Miller starts to outline what politicians are communicating online and where. He evaluates their efforts, and he reports on the latest rightwing ex-politician to enter the comments section of a leftwing blog. [Read more below]
MPs past and present in the blogosphere
This post was inspired by an innocuous-looking reader comment by "Wayne" at leftwing blog The Standard on the blogpost, Cunliffe declares war on National and the TPPA.
Here's the comments:
I should add I used to teach International Trade Law at Auckland University Law School 20 years ago. I actually used to get Jane to teach 25% of the course (which was my course), since I thought it was essential that students got the full spectrum of views, if they were to develop critical thinking on trade issues.
So I have actually thought a lot about these issues.
It will be no surprise to you that it is axiomatic for the Right (and the Centre Left) that expanding international trade increases net economic gain.There is a vast amount of economic literature on this point. Now I appreciate that expanding trade opportunities does lead to change as protected sectors open up, but it is beyond doubt that the net gain is positive.
For instance the China FTA has had major benefits for NZ, and helped us through the GFC. It was done by Labour with National votes in Parliament. Without the Nat support, it could not have got through Parliament, since the Greens and NZF were opposed.And this could also be the case with TPP.
Free trade was one of my main interests when I was in Parliament. And it is the one subject that I always comment on in this blog.
Although the person commenting does not identify himself by his full name, the implication by referring to his previous career and his time in Parliament is clearly that the commenter is none other than former National Cabinet minister Wayne Mapp, who retired at the 2011 election. Mapp now sits on the New Zealand Law Commission.
The comment chain between Mapp, academic Jane Kelsey (responding to Mapp's reference in the first paragraph) and other non-identifiable commenters continued over several hours at The Standard and offers a fascinating and unfiltered insight into the views of a high-profile, recent former government minister.
Later, Mapp responds to a question by another commenter about what he considers "middle New Zealand" to be:
A fair question. What is my understanding of “middle New Zealand.”
Well, essentially they are people who are the middle 40% of the political spectrum. A fair number of them switch between Labour and National depending on the mood of the nation. And occasionally NZF or Green. Typically aged 30 + with a family.
Tend not to be overly focused on politics, but do follow the debate on the main issues. Don’t really buy into conspiracy theories. Think that John Key is essentially reasonable and will look after their interests. Thought Helen Clark was OK, at least until 2005 to 2008. Will give David Cunliffe a good look to see what he can do, and that he isn’t too risky.
Usually middle income. In Auckland, family income that would be $100,000 to $150,000 (a principal income earner and a secondary income earner). As an example this would cover a teacher with a PR, and the other partner with part time work (relief teaching?).
Expect to get ahead in life, but have some concerns about fairness and opportunity. But not keen on people who spend all their time on welfare (unless disability is the reason). By the way this probably explains David Shearers comment on the roof painter.
Expect that criminals will pay the price, but not overly punitive (but often more so than the Left would like).
Expect to have good schools and healthcare, and willing to pay reasonable taxes for that.
And every politician from the two main parties will meet heaps of people in these circumstances. I can imagine that quite a few Green politicians do not.
MPs turned bloggers
Given that MPs are the perhaps ultimate "political animals", it is perhaps unsurprising that even once they leave parliament many maintain a very strong interest in commenting on day-to-day politics. A number of former MPs even have their own blogs, such as Muriel Newman and Stephen Franks, both former Act MPs. Former Act and National leader Don Brash is a regular contributor to Muriel Newman's New Zealand Centre for Political Research site.
Aaron Gilmore, the National Party MP who resigned after a minor scandal earlier in 2013, set up a blog shortly after leaving Parliament, although the blog has recently been replaced by a page with details of a new business being run by Gilmore.
On the left, former Green MP Sue Bradford writes blog posts at The Daily Blog and Pundit; former Alliance MPs Laila Harre and Matt Robson contribute to The Daily Blog; while former Labour MP and chief or staff Stuart Nash used to contribute to Recess Monkey and now also writes at The Daily Blog, which seems to be becoming a home for left wing commentators writing under their own names (as opposed to pseudonyms).
Other former MPs have commented publicly as readers on blogs, particularly on The Standard and Kiwiblog. Former Act MP David Garrett is a regular commenter on Kiwiblog for example. Stephen Franks and Rodney Hide have also often commented at Kiwiblog under their own names.
Note that the above are merely examples that immediately come to mind - I would appreciate any other examples of former MPs blogging that readers are aware of.
Other ways to comment - or stay out completely
Of course, there are other outlets for former MPs to give their views on current issues - Deborah Coddington, Rodney Hide and Matt McCarten all have or have had Sunday newspaper columns, for example.
Other former MPs choose to stay out of the public eye or rarely comment on current issues. The recent endorsement by Michael Cullen of Grant Robertson in his Labour leadership bid was the exception that proved his apparently self-imposed rule of not taking part in current political debate, for example.
For some former MPs, there may be very good reasons to stay out of current politics, such as wanting to avoid a conflict of interest with new business or other roles.
Current MPs who blog
In contrast to former MPs, current MPs are likely to feel much less able or willing to contribute to political debate online. A major reason for this is probably be that they have a whole apparatus of press releases, direct media contact and other ways to speak to voters, as well as the pressure to stay "on message" and avoid spontaneous comments in writing.
Other current MPs may see blogs as irrelevant or beneath them - former Labour leader David Shearer famously said that he didn't read blogs, a view endorsed by fellow Labour MP Andrew Little.
However, Labour leader David Cunliffe posted occasional comments on The Standard before becoming leader, as have Labour MPs Darien Fenton and Annette King. On the right, Don Brash commented on Kiwiblog in 2006 while he was Opposition leader.
Is Twitter taking over?
Twitter has perhaps become the easier way for MPs to comment directly. For National, Steven Joyce and Judith Collins clearly write their own tweets, while Trevor Mallard and Clare Curran are prolific tweeters on the Labour side, a fact underlined by Curran's tweeting controversy in the recent Labour leadership election.
While Twitter allows for immediate reaction and one-liners, its brevity precludes the expansive style of argumentation and interaction that blogs facilitate particularly well. It is difficult to imagine Wayne Mapp expanding on his view of middle New Zealand in 140 characters.
I would be interested to find out if any parties have formal (or informal) social media policies which preclude unsanctioned commenting. My impression is that National runs a fairly tight ship, with only senior MPs commenting more openly.
Official political party blogs
One attempt to engage using blogs was the establishment of Red Alert by Labour MPs in 2009, shortly after entering opposition. Initially, relatively regular and punchy posts appeared, notably from Trevor Mallard, but also other MPs such as Clare Curran. However, this rawer, more authentic style of post began to dwindle after several posts caused controversy in the wider media. Today, the site seems to host only the odd announcement or semi-press release, with little direct interaction from MPs.
It seems reasonable to suspect that Labour's own communications staff (i.e. the spin doctors) also did not appreciate MPs circumventing their control over the party's message. it remains unclear whether a formal directive was made to stop unfiltered posts on Red Alert, but the number of posts clearly decreased under David Shearer's leadership in particular.
Other parties also have blogs with MPs posting, notably the Green Party with Frogblog and the National Party's site. Both of these blogs appear to be run in close co-ordination with press secretaries, particularly in the case of National, which makes heavy use of video updates from MPs.
If readers are aware of other MPs, past or present, who comment on blogs or otherwise contribute to political debate online, please do let me know through the comments function below, or via e-mail to me directly or via Bryce Edwards. The privacy of MPs who choose to comment anonymously, or pseudonymously, will be respected.