Wednesday 29 January 2014

Income Inequality - Better or Worse?

Last week, I had a look at John Key's claim that "income inequality has been declining" and found it to be, well, technically true over a very small timeframe. Since then, the Opposition parties have been trying to hammer National on this point, and oddly being more specific. Today, they used both the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee (David Parker, Winston Peters) and Question Time (David Cunliffe, David Parker, Jacinda Ardern) to make the claim that:

"Income inequality has worsened under the National-led Government"

(or approximate variants thereof). Let's look at the veracity of this claim using data from a number of sources. Firstly, the "National-led Government" should be defined as 2009-2012 for the purposes of comparing data between these two points. This is due to the fact that for the most part, there is no public data available for 2013 yet.

Statistics New Zealand and the Ministry for Social Development use the P80/20 ratio, comparing the difference between the 80th and 20th percentile of household incomes, where a high ratio would indicate more inequality. This is calculated both before and after housing costs (BHC and AHC). This is an internationally recognised measure, but it is difficult to draw conclusions in the short-term. Looking at the data over our set time period, the BHC ratio decreased from 2.52 to 2.49 and the AHC ratio increased from 2.79 to 2.83. 

Another common measure is the Gini Coefficient, which is a measure of statistical dispersion of income data. A high coefficient indicates more inequality (a coefficient of 0 represents perfect equality). This is reported by the MSD, and shows that there has been a reasonable amount of volatility in recent years. However, overall the coefficient (using the OECD standard) has decreased from 0.331 to 0.317.

The MSD says in the Household Incomes Report that "Income inequality has been very volatile in recent years with the GFC shock impacting on investment returns, employment and wages over the three years from mid 2008 ... The trend-line is flat. There is no evidence of any general rise or fall in income inequality since 2007." 

The Treasury has a report on income inequality based on the Gini Coefficient as well. It predicts that for final income, the coefficient decreases modestly from 0.313 in 2010 to 0.307 in 2060. It also reports that household market income inequality increases 6% and disposable income inequality increases by 1.2%, but somehow this averages out to a decrease of about 2% in final income inequality.

While researching income inequality, I also came across a number of international data sources, including the Standardized World Income Inequality Database, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the Global Peace Index, The Economist's Quality-of-Life Index, and of course that trusty source of information, the CIA World Factbook. Unfortunately none of these sources had data for the time period that we are interested in, but may be of interest to someone else looking for similar data.

Verdict: The claim is false.

Is the relative stability in income inequality something for the National Government to be proud of? This is a very different question. While income inequality has not "worsened" over the 2009-2012 period, it has not significantly improved either. New Zealand remains one of the most unequal countries in the developed world, with a rank of 25 out of 33 countries ranked by the OECD. Interestingly, they also found that income inequality is increasing in most OECD nations based on long-term trends between 1980 to the last 2000s. 

We certainly don't live in an egalitarian utopia, but it doesn't look like we will be moving towards that anytime soon, regardless of who is in power. Inequality is more strongly affected by large-scale macroeconomic events like the Global Financial Crisis and the Canterbury Earthquakes than by (realistic) mild Government policies (an extreme action like giving everyone free money until they're all equal might solve income inequality, but would probably cause something else to go wrong).

Verdict (again): Income Inequality is stable in the long-run. It has not significantly improved or worsened in the long-term, and that is unlikely to change. The National-led Government can't claim a victory here. The Labour-led Opposition can't claim a victory here either. Everyone loses.

Friday 24 January 2014

The (Actual) State of the Nation

Yesterday, Prime Minister John Key gave his "State of the Nation" speech in West Auckland, at a $90/head fundraising event. The media has largely focused on the new educational leadership policies that were announced, introducing "Executive Principal", "Change Principal", "Lead Teachers", and "Expert Teachers" to encourage more collaboration between schools and provide further career development and opportunities for our best teachers. Just over half of his speech (roughly 54%) was about education and the new policies, but I thought it was interesting that the media has glossed over most of everything else he said. Other than the direct political attacks against Labour's policies, a number of claims are made about how the nation is improving in a number of areas, and for the most part we've just taken John Key's word for it. So here is a quick look at some of the claims. Skip to the end if numbers aren't your thing. Click on the links for sources.

"The economy is growing"
Conventionally, economic growth is measured through real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. According to the latest data from the Treasury we are sitting at around 2% annual growth. Looking at data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), their October 2013 report gives a more optimistic 2.5%, which is still positive. From a selection of 37 "advanced economies", we are tied with Australia for 5th place (with Israel, Singapore, Hong Kong, and (South) Korea beating us), so we seem to be in a good position.

"More jobs are being created"
This is a surprisingly difficult statement to actually verify. Most of the time, people simply look at the unemployment rate and call it a day. However, this doesn't take into account population changes, industry changes, skills shortages, and many other factors that create a difference between the actual number of jobs in the market and the number of people who don't have jobs. Statistics New Zealand uses a combination of tax data and actual business data to measure job creation and job destruction to get a net figure. The latest Quarterly Employment Survey shows that over the last year the number of filled jobs has increased by 1.9%, which was made up of a 3.2% increase in full-time jobs but a 0.8% decrease in part-time jobs.

"Family incomes are rising"
Again, "family income" is slightly more difficult to measure than individual income. Statistics New Zealand provides the relevant numbers; over the last year, average weekly income has risen by $51, around 3.2%. However, we should adjust for inflation to find the real change in family incomes. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand reports an inflation rate of 1.6% (a number I find hard to believe, but that's not really relevant here). This means that real family incomes actually rose at a rate of 1.6% in 2013. It is still the highest post-recession rate, although it pales in comparison to 6.2% in 2002 and 5.9% in 2007, but is still obviously preferable to the -3.4% in 2009.

"Crime is falling"
The December 2013 data is not yet (publicly) available, but we have data from June 2012 to June 2013 available from the New Zealand Police. They report a 7% decrease in crime over that period, which is an appreciable decrease. Unfortunately, this is averaged across the entire country, and masks the 7% increase in crime in Canterbury (which at the same time has the greatest trust and confidence in the Police). However, overall this is a pretty good statistic for the Police.

"More elective surgery is being done in public hospitals"
In the same speech, John Key claims that 40,000 more New Zealanders will get elective surgery than in 2008. The target that has been set is for the volume of elective surgery to be increased by 4,000 discharges per year, so at face value district health boards are (on average) meeting twice their target. The Ministry of Health reported in December that they exceeded their 2013/14 Q1 target by 5% (although 5 DHBs fell short).

"Long-term welfare dependency is falling"
The Ministry of Social Development outlines quite an extensive plan govt aims to reduce long-term welfare dependency over the next three years. It is primarily measured by "the number of people who have been on a working age benefit for more than 12 months". Confusingly, they changed the way benefit counts are defined in July 2013 (which is fair enough since they were bringing them in line with international standards). While the published fact sheets do not differentiate between short-term and long-term, there has been a significant decrease in welfare/benefits between 2012 and 2013 of around 5%.

"More people than ever are getting tertiary qualifications"
The Ministry of Education data compares enrollments between April 2012 and April 2013, and shows that overall there has been a 2% decrease at universities, a 3.6% decrease at polytechnics, a 0.7% decrease at Wananga, and a 1.3% increase at private training establishments (primarily on the back of international students), for an overall decrease of 1.8%. This translates to a real decrease of 5,526 enrollments. However, strictly speaking, the number of enrollments is different to the number of people actually getting the qualifications. Unfortunately the latest data (publicly) available only goes up to 2011, but on that basis the real number has been increasing each year.

"We're making progress in the big task of cleaning up waterways, and protecting and improving water quality right across New Zealand"
There is a lot of old data floating around, and it took awhile to find something recent. The Ministry for the Environment reports that river conditions are either stable or improving at roughly 90% of monitored sites around the country. The vast majority are stable however, with only around 20% improving. To make things a bit more confusing, this is across five different metrics so it is difficult to say if a particular waterway is improving or declining since it may be improving in only one or two metrics. The Parliamentary Commission for the Environment released an excellent report in 2012 about understanding water quality and the science behind it if you are interested. However, overall it seems difficult to believe that water quality has improved "right across New Zealand".

"...income inequality has been declining"
In his speech John Key explicitly says that this is "despite what our political opponents try to claim". Statistics New Zealand has data up to 2012 comparing the 20th and 80th percentile of disposable household income (before and after housing costs). It shows that income inequality has decreased since 2011, but is still higher than 2009 levels. Interestingly, income inequality generally increased between 1982 and 2004. New Zealand ranks 25th out of 33 for income inequality in the OECD (meaning that we have comparatively quite bad inequality).

"We are a steady, centre-right government with the interests of all New Zealanders at heart."
No objective independent data was available to verify this claim.

Most of the claims made by John Key were true, with a couple of caveats. No doubt he has more up-to-date and possibly accurate data than was easily available to me (it would have been nice if he cited his sources). Perhaps some of the more important questions are:
- "Are these significant improvements?"
- "Are these improvements sustainable in the long-term?"
- "Would these improvements have happened anyway under a different government?"
This is unfortunately less objective, and ultimately why we have politics. If there was one correct solution that could be applied to create the maximum "improvement", then every government in the world would employ it. What works and what doesn't ends up being a matter of opinion because we simply don't have enough data to make conclusive decisions, and people are forced to use conjecture.

In more light-hearted news, Jacinda Ardern is still the coolest MP and does a better job of engaging and representing youth than her National and Green Party counterparts. More evidence to add to the pile: DJ Ardern is playing a set at Auckland's Laneway Festival on Monday.

Thursday 16 January 2014

We like to party (party)

We like to party, hey, hey, hey! hey! hey! hey!
(We like to party!)
We like to party, hey, hey, hey! hey! hey! hey!
(We like to party!)

In the aptly named "Party" by Beyonce, OutKast's Andre 3000 raps "Man, we just in the food court, eating our gyros." Similarly, the 2014 election has attracted all sorts of party nonsense as new entrants try to stake a position for themselves early in the year. Brendan Horan, Ben Uffindell, and Kim Dotcom have all indicated their intentions thus far.

In one corner, we have Brendon Horan back from the threat of legal action to announce his "New Zealand Independent Coalition", a party of... independents. As oxymoronic as this may seem, the mechanism seems like a pretty good idea. Essentially, the party might enter a supply and confidence agreement with the government for governance purposes but not be forced to vote on any "party lines" on legislation. Party members in the electorate of each MP would be polled on each vote using "mobile digital technology", and those MPs would be forced to represent those views.

It sounds nice in theory; representative democracy and allowing "New Zealanders to have a voice throughout the parliamentary term" are good things. But there are three big problems. Firstly, it appears that only party members will have a vote, blocking out the rest of the electorate and likely biasing this particular sample towards one side of the political spectrum. Secondly, this system only works if the votes are informed; the majority of legislation pushed through Parliament does not interest the public, so votes will suffer from self-selection bias. How many people in an average electorate are going to be interested in the "Kaipara District Council (Validation of Rates and Other Matters) Bill", or have enough of an understanding of the "Financial Markets Conduct Bill" to vote intelligently (ignoring that this rhetorical question should probably be applied to our current MPs as well)? Thirdly, it's fronted by Brendan Horan, who even though has been cleared of any misconduct regarding his mother's money, has been given a reputation that may be hard to shake off. As much as he tries, any attempt to implement this mechanism will inevitably draw attention to his past and clutter the news with "... Horan was a MP for New Zealand First until he was expelled over allegations of inappropriate use of his mother's bank cards as she was dying." Ouch.

Secondly, with abated breath we await the arrival of The Civilian Party, who help fill the void left by the imprisonment of one half of the Bill and Ben Party. There are only three requirements to become a member of the party: you have to be 18, you have to be either a citizen of a permanent resident of NZ (and have lived here continuously for at least a year), and "want ice cream or want others to have ice cream". Their website is to be launched later this week (so... tomorrow), and presents a difficult dilemna for the young voters who don't want to take things seriously: do they vote for Kim Dotcom's party because he's not a suit like the rest of them and does cool things like partying at Rhythm and Vines and putting on fireworks shows, or do they cast their precious vote on the party that aims to "give [Peter Dunne] some encouragement, and let him know that getting 500 members to form a political party isn't actually that hard when you really put your mind to it." Back in 2008, the Bill and Ben party secured 13,016 votes (0.56%), a ridiculously large number for a satirical party whose campaign strategy was "it's just as easy to tick our box as any others." If The Civilian Party is successful, the biggest victims won't be National or Labour; it will be other minor parties who are already struggling to get the votes they need to cross the 5% party vote threshold (because they have no shot of winning any electorates). At least it might boost our voter participation numbers.

And last but not least, we have Kim Dotcom and the Internet Party. No shortage of controversy here; on the same day that the party logo was revealed, the bastion of investigative journalism that is Cameron Slater/WhaleOil revealed an early campaign strategy document compiled by Martyn "Bomber" Bradbury, a well known left-wing activist with previous ties to the Mana Party described by Listener Magazine in 2005 as "the most opinionated man in New Zealand". With an impressive production of hatred and vitriol at The Daily Blog (a left-wing blog interestingly almost entirely funded by unions), the revelation of this association immediately cooled off the hype surrounding the Internet Party. Additionally, Scoop's Parliamentary Press Gallery journalist and editor Alastair Thompson was forced to resign from his job when it turned out that he was deeply involved with the Internet Party, including registering their domain under his own name. Not that we ever believed that the news media were completely independent and unbiased, but to get caught with your hand in the cookie jar (or in this case, real name on the internet) seems a bit too amateur hour.

On top of this, Kim Dotcom's "The Party Party" (a free event to celebrate his birthday and album launch and have absolutely nothing to do with his political party in any way shape or form) attracted 25,000 registrations within a day, had to be moved to a larger venue, and was then promptly cancelled when the Electoral Commission kindly proactively informed Doctom that this could be interpreted as treating. Not knowing what treating was myself, it turns out that you can't give people free "food, drink, or entertainment" to get people to vote for you. So there's a good portion of Dotcom's "throw money at it" strategy down the toilet, making it quite a bit harder for him to appeal to his target demographic of young voters. We still don't know very much about what policies the Internet Party will have, and there are plenty of suspicions as to the real intentions behind the formation of the party. The revelation of Bomber Bradbury's involvement has instantly created a large amount of distrust, although it is unlikely that this will affect the disenfranchised young voter bloc that Dotcom is going for anyway. Whether the party will be able to move past these initial snafus remains to be seen.

Honourable Mention: John Boscawen announcing that he is seeking the Act Party's nomination to stand in Epsom and seeking to become the party leader. At this stage, Act might as well be a new minor party given that their only MP, John Banks, has pretty much left the scene amid his electoral fraud trials. Immediately throwing away any opportunity for new blood to reinvigorate the party, this attempt at appealing to the party faithful should all but seal their demise.

And to round it all off, here's a video of a typical New Zealand party/protest (courtesy of @PorridgeFish):

Friday 10 January 2014

Why the "Asian" MPs don't represent me

Sometimes I am heard saying that there aren't any MPs that represent my demographic. People are quick to say "What about Dr. Jian Yang or Raymond Huo?" Some who foresee a youth generation issue might say "What about Melissa Lee?" because she's slightly younger. I usually reply "They're East Asian like me, but they don't represent me."

Why? When people ask me how long I've been in New Zealand for, the reply is "I was born here." I grew up in New Zealand, with heavy influences from both Kiwi culture at school and Asian culture at home. My ethnicity is Taiwanese-New Zealand, but truth be told it's more New Zealand than Taiwan. There are thousands like me; if they weren't born here, they immigrated at a very young age. English is sometimes our first language, and many of us can't even speak our "mother tongue" fluently. We are more familiar with the cultural symbols, idioms, and celebrities of New Zealand than those of our "homelands". These young people have a mishmash of values and ideals, and there is no one in Parliament like us. Demography is much more than just ethnicity. Worringly, and I'm sure it's similar for other young ethnic minorities, when someone sees us as a political demographic they see race before age. They say things like "the proportion of Asian MPs in Parliament is roughly equal to the proportion of Asians in the New Zealand population" (even though this is not true; roughly 5% of Parliament is Asian while 10% of the population is Asian). This misrepresentation leads to continued disenfranchisement and apathy. I see two main reasons for why these MPs don't represent me.

Importantly, I consider Dr. Rajen Prasad and Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi to also be Asian MPs, even though generally people assume that only the East Asian MPs can represent me. Something in common that all five of the Asian MPs have in common? They're all list MPs; supposedly beholden to the electorate of New Zealand rather than a small geographic region of it. The parties place them high enough on the list to attract votes from the right groups of people, but with the (arguable) exception of Pansy Wong, never really give them much power. Cynically, they're there to make the party (and Parliament) look a bit more multicultural, or alternatively because people who want to befriend the government have tossed the party enough money to effectively "buy" influence. Part of this representation problem is that these MPs get to choose who they represent, and usually it's not Asian youth. Dr. Sapna Samant writes about the Asian representation problem as a whole very well when she questions the motivations behind the conscience votes of each of these MPs for the Marriage Equality Bill. People make an assumption about who these MPs represent based on their race, but it doesn't match the reality.

The other part of the representation problem is generational; none of the Asian MPs grew up in New Zealand, and none of them faced the issues and problems we face growing up here. I am more likely to have my views represented accurately by someone like Gareth Hughes, Jaime-Lee Ross, or Jacinda Ardern. The fact that they're younger gives them a better shot of understanding the issues that face youth today, and they can better relate to us (just like we can better relate to them). But there's still a difference between those who have grown up in Kiwi households and those of us with completely different home cultures. Sometimes we are lumped in the general "youth" demographic first, but at some point you have to acknowledge that young Asians don't always agree with the "youth" demographic (although the notion that there is a cohesive "youth" demographic is laughable in itself). The views of my parents are very different to mine, many of which are directly attributable to a difference in education, upbringing, and culture. Similarly, the Asian MPs espouse views very different to mine, and it can be frustrating to have someone think "these are the views of all Asians." I'm sure a similar plight afflicts other ethnic minorities; after all, that's a pretty big part of why the Mana Party grew out of the Maori Party.

To me, it's not so much about having the right person in Parliament who represents the exact combination of my views, because let's face it - that singular person probably doesn't exist. But I do have an issue with the perception that I should be represented by an Asian MP, simply because I'm Asian. Unfortunately, perception is at the root of this all, and perceptions can be tricky to change. @manmadepowers pointed out that similar situations apply to all minority groups, whether they be Maori, Pasifika, women, GSRM, or other. I fully agree with that, and wish I could write more eloquently and persuasively on the broader problem, but ultimately I can't speak about their situations with experience or authority, so I won't.

In my 21 years I've witnessed a good part of NZ becoming more multicultural; twenty-one years ago there weren't any Asian MPs at all. I'm grateful that New Zealand (for the most part) is accepting enough of other cultures for these individuals to become MPs, because there are certainly other electorates that treat ethnic minorities very differently. These Asian MPs definitely have a place in Parliament; they represent a large number of migrants who are just trying to live the dream in an unfamiliar country. But they don't represent me, so please stop assuming that they do.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Political Predictions for 2014

I am very bad at predictions. After the debacle of predicting that Grant Robertson would win the Labour leadership contest last year, my confidence in my abilities is very low. Nevertheless, I will give it another go for this year since there's an election, and then we'll see how close I get. Later analysis throughout the year will likely change my opinion on some of these. I've already read the predictions from Fairfax, Sunday Star Times, and David Farrar, so they likely subconsciously affected my opinions.

- National will win a third term, but barely (with the support of at least two minor parties).
- Labour will score less than 30%, with the Greens gaining ground and going past 15%.
- ACT won't be back in Parliament in 2015. Peter Dunne will barely win his Ohariu seat again.
- Colin Craig won't win his electorate seat, and the Conservatives won't get enough votes to get into Parliament.
- Another new minor party will capture the interest of the nation in 2014, not including Kim Doctom's party or The Civilian Party. There will be ridiculously huge support for Kim Dotcom's party, particularly among young people, even though Kim Doctom won't be standing himself (he'll just bankroll everything).
- Winston Peters will continue to be alive and kicking... and New Zealand First will continue to be a thorn in the side of the government, whoever it happens to be.
- Voter turnout will be above 75% again on the back of increased youth participation.
- The media will keep stoking the fires of discussion about the National Party leader succession, but John Key will happily stay on for another three years.
- At least two more MPs will be out of Parliament before the general election.
- A rising star in the National Party will get relegated into obscurity for doing/saying something stupid while campaigning.
- More cracks will appear in the Labour caucus as they are led by a guy that most of them don't support.
- A Green Party list reshuffle will lead to some discontent, and cause at least one current MP to be outside the top 15 (and therefore unlikely to return in 2015).
- David Parker will not be the next Finance Minister. He's a nice guy, but no.
- Genesis Energy will be floated and it'll be the last of the asset sales as National prays for the issue to go away before the election.
- Paula Bennett and/or the Ministry of Social Development will be part of another major scandal in 2014.
- Another major TPP leak will bring the issue to the forefront of the public's attention.
- Kim Dotcom will not be extradited to the US (in 2014).
- New Zealand will win a Security Council seat (yay!).

Sunday 5 January 2014

AURA - 3 Years On

One of the organisations that I'm involved in is the Auckland University Robotics Association (AURA), whose 3rd birthday is today. Back in late 2010, after competing in the VEX Robotics Competition in high school, I realised that there was no vehicle for those of us who had moved to university to continue that interest in robotics, and to pass on that interest to others. I put out the feelers and found 20 or so of us who had competed in high school, some of whom had not ended up in Engineering (as you do when you transition from high school to uni), in the same situation. We decided to get the ball rolling and try to create a club; after all, no one else was going to do it and there was nothing for us to lose.

After many e-mails and letters around the University of Auckland, we eventually got a meeting with the Head of Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Two of us went into the meeting with no idea about what we would get out of it. We weren't particularly optimistic, given that the majority of the rest of our enquiries were ignored and we got no traction anywhere else in the university. We made a pitch, explaining what we wanted to do, what we needed, and why it would be a good idea. We came out of the meeting with a space at the back of a computer lab, permission to order several thousands of dollars worth of parts, and the grace to exist in the University. We're still not entirely sure how or why, but without their willingness to take a risk on us, none of the next three years would have happened, and we owe a lot to HoD Prof. Allan Williamson and Technical Manager Rob Champion.

The next three years were very eventful. After founding the club and passing our constitution at our first meeting held at Laserforce, I had the pleasure of leading the club as Chairperson for the first two years, and we maintained a pretty busy schedule. It included two trips to the VEX Robotics World Championships, once in Orlando (Florida) in 2011 and once in Anaheim (California) in 2012. We've collected a whole bunch of trophies, including the Judges Award at the World Champs in 2011, 3rd place in the World Cup in 2011, 2nd in the World Champs (College Division) in 2012, and 1st in Computer-Aided Design competition at the World Champs in 2012. We've sent two teams to the National Instruments Autonomous Robotics Competition in Australia with the support of the University of Auckland, where students have been able to compete as part of their Part IV (Final Year) engineering projects. We've initiated and supported a humanoid robot research project, as well as supported and helped update other robotics-related courses throughout the Faculty of Engineering.

We've mentored high school robotics teams (with a particular emphasis on girls' schools) around Auckland (both VEX and First Lego League (FLL)), and helped run the competitions including monthly scrimmages, National Championships, and the Asia-Pacific Robotics Competition in 2012, the biggest robotics competition ever held in the Southern Hemisphere. We've produced guides for teams around the world to help explain concepts to help them achieve their goals. We've helped promote robotics at public events such as Big Boys Toys and Digital Nationz. We've run workshops for students ranging from primary school to university students, with the aim of encouraging students to get into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects; for me, working with kids experiencing hands-on robotics for the first time has always been the most rewarding. We've been in newspapers and on the radio (Public Address, no less!) to extoll the virtues of competitive robotics and generally publicise it more. We've supported new college teams, particularly at MIT and AUT, and look forward to future competition with them and other teams at Massey Albany and Palmerston North, CPIT, and Weltech. We're now a well established club within the Faculty of Engineering, supporting student life and culture by being a social club, while remaining an open organisation that encourages students from all faculties and backgrounds to join.

Our members have poured thousands of hours, and in some cases thousands of dollars, into our projects and activities. Our most engaged members have benefited greatly from their involvement; the personal and professional development that they experience makes them better equipped employees for a tech-hungry economy and just better people in general. Our three main areas of work, competition, research, and volunteering each expose our members to a different environment, experience, and set of skills, and provides life learning that cannot be replicated in a classroom. However, as the organisation ages and members get busier with uni work and/or eventually graduate (into the real world...), it has become harder and harder to attract new blood and get them interested enough to fully engage with the club. We've always had a pretty casual attitude about commitment based on "whoever is available", but the number of situations where "no one is available" is increasing. I've personally had to take a (many) step(s) back as I've needed to focus on uni studies as well as increasing commitments to other organisations, although I'm still tangentially involved as the treasurer. The team is nothing without its members, but we really need to do something radical to boost membership numbers and morale, and reinvigorate the spirit of the club (a daunting task for any leader).

Our club has influenced the lives of hundreds of young people, whether it is getting young kids their first start into robotics or providing opportunities for university students to pursue their interests and give back to the community, and I would hate for that to fade away. I earmarked "exceeding expectations" as our unofficial motto back in 2011 after we surprised even ourselves at how far we made it at the World Champs; it is my sincere hope that the club will be around to exceed expectations for many years to come.

If you're interested in more information, the website is It hasn't been particularly updated or maintained recently, but it still has a bunch more information about what we've done and what we still do. If you already feel like you've read enough, there are a hundred or so videos at and a thousand or so photos at Apologies for the length of this post - there were a lot of feels involved.

Wednesday 1 January 2014

From the Archives: Asset Sales Referendum December 2013

I happened to not have anything planned for the evening when I saw that the Citizens-Initiated Referendum (CIR) preliminary result had been released. Going straight to the Electoral Commission results page, I found that the "YES" vote was higher than I had expected. I was not particularly for or against the question that was proposed by the CIR, but I was (and still am) anti-referendum given that it would have no real impact on the government's Partial-Privatisation Program and only a political impact of boosting the opposition's clout and keeping the issue in the media for a bit longer. Any perceived benefit simply did not outweigh the massive cost of running the referendum, estimated at $9 million. Hence, the evening was spent using the data from the CIR and making absolutely pointless comparisons. Below is a selection of my Twitter activity from the night.

- In today's edition of pointless political data, Asset Sales vs. Anti-Smacking Referendum by electorate:

- Almost 350,000 more people voted in the anti-smacking referendum than the asset sales referendum.
As observed by , "Yes" average of Maori electorates is 27% lower than general electorates
- In more pointless political data, percentage turnout between Asset Sales and Anti-Smacking Referendum by electorate:
More people voted in the anti-smacking referendum than the referendum in every electorate except for Wellington Central.
- Additionally, the % of informal votes has halved between the anti-smacking and referenda, meaning absolutely nothing.
- Adding all the digits in the number of votes counted in the preliminary result equals 22, indicating a clear mandate to stahp
Coromandel wins the award for highest prime number of votes received in the referendum.
- Two electorates had more Yes votes than No votes in the referendum: Epsom and Tāmaki.
- The largest vote differential was in Dunedin South with 12,985. Unfortunately, it's not a prime number so the votes don't count.
- Wellington Central also had the most Invalid Votes! Clearly a sign that the OCR should be raised.
- Most important statistic of the night: the referendum cost roughly $6.75 per vote collected.
- Actually to be accurate, 29.5% of (eligible to vote) kiwis voted against asset sales. (as opposed to the 67% that was actively being quoted)
- Back to pointless statistics: Xero's stock price has increased 25x inbetween the anti-smacking and
Last one: number of votes collected in the electorate is perfectly divisible by the number of letters in the name of 9 electorates.

Roy Morgan Voting Intention 2012-2013 with Political Events

Before the 2014 election year gets really started, I thought it would be interesting to look at how the polls have changed over the two years since the last election in 2011. The chart shows polling data from Roy Morgan, who poll around 800-1000 electors roughly every fortnight, and a selection of political events/issues. The event/issue is marked (roughly) at the date when it was first reported in the news, as some issues will stay in the media for several weeks. The issues are also somewhat abbreviated; if I hadn't the word 'scandal' would appear far too often. Obviously it would be impossible to fit every single issue/event on the chart, so it is a selection of those that attracted the most media attention. I am sure that I have missed some important ones. Everyone is welcome to draw their own conclusions from the chart; mine are included below.

My take on this? 
Some issues affect polling and voting intention, some issues don't. The media would have us believe that every issue is the end of the world for either the government or the opposition, but a lot of the time people just aren't bothered or don't care (enough). Note that it is important to look at all the lines, not just the blue and red ones as many people often do.  Of course, the sample size is (in my opinion) rather small and very susceptible to all sorts of sampling errors (Roy Morgan assumes a simple random sample with an error of around 1.5%). Also, it would be fallacious to assume that voting intention is influenced by one political event/issue at a time; however, it is also true that one issue can have a non-negligible impact. The sample size is primarily made up of two groups: those who are ideologically deep-seated with a particular party and are unlikely to change their vote regardless of what the party does, and those who are "undecided" or "swing voters" who are influenced by the issues of the day. Hence, we should see some correlation between media coverage of political issues/events and voting intention as the "undecideds" get influenced.

So what does matter? 
Taking a very very simplistic view/analysis, voting intention is heavily influenced by the public's perception of individual people. I feel that individual people should have a small impact on voting intention in comparison to policy, but that appears to not be the case. The reason that so many individual names appear on the chart above is because whenever an individual falls from grace, is embroiled in some scandal, or is just outright revealed to be a bad person, the media jumps on them. An individual is a much easier target than an entire party, and hence Nick Smith, John Banks, Brendon Horan, Richard Prosser, Aaron Gilmore, Peter Dunne, David Shearer have each had a noticeable impact on the polls. The public needs to have confidence in their elected representatives, and hence those who are generally undecided are likely to move away from whoever they have least confidence in at the moment to the least bad alternative.

But government should be about policy?
That is certainly my belief. The culture of celebrity surrounding our politicians frustrates me. Ideally, the best solutions are selected objectively and executed flawlessly. Unfortunately, humans have to come into the equation somewhere, and therein lies many of our problems. We can't have democratic government without humans, and we can't have humans without their flaws. So every time an MP says something stupid, has a lapse of judgement, or makes a grievous mistake, that problem takes precedence, and the real problems facing the constituents get buried in the avalanche of flashing cameras and fluffy microphones. Sometimes this can be very entertaining, but entertaining doesn't get things done. Ultimately it's still about making sure that the right people are doing the right jobs. After all, without competent humans, you could argue and win a particular policy point, but still end up botching the execution.

So what does this mean?
Political events/issues involving individuals appear to have a disproportionately larger effect on voting intention than policy changes, which usually have a much wider real impact. In an ideal world, policy would be all that mattered. Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world.

I'm sure many will disagree with my analysis. There aren't many obvious, objective relationships appearing from the chart so that is to be expected. Feel free to comment below with your opinions and analyses; just remember to be nice.


This is a revival of an old blog of the same name from 2010, which died a quiet and unseen death in the wake of University, extra-cirricular commitments, and a lack of readership. However, 2014 is an election year in New Zealand, and hence it is a good time to start blogging again! Generally, this will be a place where I post when I have thoughts that don't fit into the 140 character limit of Twitter or the three line attention span of Facebook. Here I will leave mostly posts about NZ politics with a smattering of statistics, technology/engineering, and various other interests. I will avoid filling this blog with just pictures of cats, since I already do that on Twitter and that should be what Tumblr is for. There will also be the occasional humour, since a completely serious blog would be a little too dry for my taste.

Political Background: My views bounce from left to right on a regular basis, but in general are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. I do not have a politics degree, I have never taken any politics papers, and in general am untrained in the world of politics. I am not the member of any political party, although I am apparently on the mailing list for Act on Campus having registered to support a friend back in 2010. I should get round to unsubscribing from that at some point.