The two faces of National’s hitherto successful PR strategy
UPDATE (19 Aug, evening): Literally in the last few hours, National have unveiled some policy on their website. This renders the first two graphs and table out-of-date. But the second half is still relevant, and I reckon it’s worth leaving the first half online as a time capsule of what National’s campaign looked like until WhaleGate. Coincidence? What do you think?
Original blog (19 Aug, afternoon):
“the left have given up on the policy argument. They don’t think they can beat the National Government on the issues … so what they’ve decided is they’ll play the man, not the ball … but we’re going to keep talking about the ball.”
This is similar to his quip when Laila Harré announced she was running against Key in his local seat:
“we won’t be having much of a debate about policy – the only policy the Internet Party has is to make sure Dotcom isn’t extradited.”
In fact, I’ve been following and compiling the various parties’ policies, and the Internet Party have far more policy on their website than National do – even though the IP have only had a few months to formulate theirs. In fact, National have less policy on their (single) policy page than any other party – significantly less than most of them. On word count, they only provide literally 2.4% as much as Labour or 1.1% as much as NZ First:
It is true that some parties (notably Labour, the Greens and the Internet Party) provide fuller versions of their policies or additional documents, linked from their main policy pages. This is the main difference between National’s and the IP’s policy websites.
If we’re generous, we can include a couple of documents from January about their 2014 priorities in this category… the speech is largely not policy, but they do link to these documents at the bottom of their policy page. This time National manage to claw their way up to 2nd-to-last, because ACT only expand upon two of their policies – but they’re still left in the dust by the left-of-NZ-First parties he accuses of giving up on policy:
It’s also worth noting that Labour and the IP both state that even more policy is forthcoming, and the Greens are frequently updating theirs. I wonder if National’s are on the way, too? [update: I guess so! National also now say there’s more on the way]
Here’s the full data, if you’re interested:
While I spent an embarrassingly long time on this [update: now-obsolete! grrr…] number-crunching, we actually didn’t need these numbers to know that National try to run policy-free campaigns and policy-free politics wherever possible. They don’t engage with public questions like this, this or this. They don’t engage (openly) with blogs; certainly not opposition ones, and certainly not on policy questions.They don’t really put policy on their billboards – some people had to do it for them last election. Their flagship policies are generally pretty unpopular. They [update: still] have [basically] no policy about some of the biggest issues facing NZ (climate change, child poverty, inequality and the housing crisis) – in fact, they often deny that they’re issues.
Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics has provided some alarming insight into what kind of politics they do instead of policy politics. I haven’t read it, but Danyl McLaughlin helpfully summarises the basic thesis thus:
John Key’s National government uses a ‘two tier’ communications strategy; positive communications, which are focused around John Key, who is presented as ‘relaxed’ and decent, and negative/attack communications, which are conducted covertly by senior staffers in Key’s office and fed to the media mostly – but not exclusively – through Cameron Slater’s WhaleOil blog.
Obviously, the emphasis of the book is on the negative ‘tier’; the positive ‘tier’ was already quite obvious… but in fact both strategies involve “playing the man, not the ball” … positively, they focus on “the man” of John Key, his smiling face [update: which emblazons 12/18 of these and 4/4 of these plus a bonus] and perhaps some content-free feel-good generalities coming out of it. Negatively – well, you can read the book or the excerpts or the leaks or the blogs yourself.
Playing the man in these two ways has been a winning strategy so far, and has kept National riding high since Key took over (they’re currently polling well over double their 2002 election result). Will Dirty Politics and Whaledump change that? I hope so, but I can’t say with confidence.
What I can say with confidence, though, is that Key’s latest accusation is the most brazen hypocrisy I’ve witnessed since I’ve been following NZ politics.
Post-script (21 August):
Here’s the updated first graph now that National finally have some policy (5965 words of it, to be precise):
They’ve also deleted the two documents they previously linked to, but they’ve added a whole lot of links on each of their policy pages (mostly past news stories about what they’ve done while in government, which is kind of cheating… but also some fuller policy statements). I can’t be bothered counting that up at this stage. My guess is it’s still much less than Labour and probably less than the Greens and Internet Party too (definitely if we only include policy announcements proper).
And yesterday, Mickysavage from The Standard responded to the latest idiot millionaire (good at making money, not so good at fact-checking National spin) to whom the corporate media has given uncritical voice to trumpet this propaganda. He says it better than I can:
Rod Drury: “What I’d like to see is the Government have another term because they’ve had two terms where they got the debt sorted …”
Mickysavage: “Such economic illiteracy coming from such a senior businessman is a worry. It obviously needs to be repeated that in June 2008 Labour had paid off
allcrown debt and the crowns accounts showed a slight surplus. By September 2013 net Crown debt had reached $60 billion and increases in debt are predicted for years to come.
Of course many will then trot out Key’s mantra that Labour had left the country with a decade of deficits but this statement is essentially a lie. The Global Financial Crisis was the cause of the sudden change in the country’s finances but instead of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen being blamed I can suggest many other names of those who should take responsibility. Names such as Wall Street, Morgan Stanley, Bear Stern and my personal favourite Merryl Lynch. Because it was a bunch of robber merchant bankers that brought the world’s economy to its knees.”
Here’s a couple more graphs and a couple more quotes, to help illustrate the various impacts of the GFC (for which Key was partly responsible), the 2010 tax changes (which made tax regressive for the majority of incomes), and the Canterbury earthquakes.
However, please note that the main point of this blog was never to say National have been irresponsible with their deficits and debt (I tend to think they have been, but it’s a complicated question). The main point was to show that the right-wing suggestion that Labour are irresponsible with deficits and debt is completely unfounded.
“The estimated cost of the Canterbury rebuild has been increased … Mr Key said the budget would also show the estimated net cost of the earthquakes to the Crown would rise from about $13 billion to about $15 billion.”
“Tax as a proportion of GDP is slightly below OECD averages and has declined markedly over the last few years … New Zealand has, like other countries, faced a cyclical decline in tax revenue as a result of the global financial crisis but there were also important policy steps which reduced tax revenue between 2004–05 and 2009–10.”
I’ve written a sequel blog on the equally pernicious lie that National are better for employment than Labour, because (it’s assumed) beating up beneficiaries and keeping wages low are good for unemployment.
The earth turns, the grass grows, the Press publishes articles with zero analysis or respect for human dignity.
Capitalist society marginalises young people, complains about marginalised young people interfering with the smooth running of capitalist consumption, and thinks the solution is to scapegoat them and hide them away.
Let’s drive away the intimidating, anti-social, miscreant capitalist system from our city centre/world.
Grant writes off Max Rashbooke’s book, and indeed all concern about inequality, as “the zero-sum fallacy; the idea that there is a set amount of cash in the economy.”
This is one of the worst straw man attacks I’ve seen in a while.
In fact, Rashbrooke et al understand better than our government that money is a relative measure, only meaningful insofar as it represents access to wealth/resources. It doesn’t matter how much total cash there is in the economy… what matters is:
a) how much resources/wealth there are in the economy, because that’s what determines how big the pie is.
b) how much cash you have in relation to others, because that’s what determines how big or small your slice of the pie is.
Total cash doesn’t affect the pie at all (if it did, Zimbabwe would be the richest country in the world).
Total cash and total resources are not ‘zero-sum’ phenomena. But percentage of access to cash and resources is (that’s the whole point of a percentage – it always sums to 100).
Rashbrooke (and, like, actual evidence and stuff) are concerned with inequality because when one person’s percentage of cash goes up, someone else’s ability to access available resources necessarily decreases. And when that’s too unequal (even when the pie’s huge) it causes numerous health and social problems across the whole society.
Grant is the one guilty of a fallacy: the idea that money is an absolute, not just a relative measure; so if there’s more total money in an economy, that automatically means there’s more wealth/resources available to people. This is more than just a fallacy, it’s a properly religious phenomenon – idolisation of money.
Post-script – extra responses to a few of Grant’s stupidest comments
“There’s no evidence that rising social and health problems are a result of income disparities.”
I’m actually astonished to see this much wilful blindness, even in corporate media. Huge amounts of research – very widely available – offer compelling evidence that inequality causes many social/health problems – from murder to community breakdown to high teen pregnancy rates. A journalist doing their job would acknowledge this evidence even if they disagree with its analysis. Grant doesn’t indicate whether he disagrees, whether he’s ignoring it, or whether he doesn’t know it exists … he simply says there’s “no evidence.”
The fact that the next sentence peddles an evidence-free stereotype (“Poor people get diabetes because they eat junk food, not because Sir Peter Jackson is rich.”) is the icing on the bullshit cake.
“Key to the inequality fantasy is that New Zealand is a neo-liberal rich-man’s paradise but the facts do not support this. Bill English said… [bla bla bla] Half the population are net beneficiaries.”
He goes on to uncritically parrot Bill English’s dishonest press release that I addressed a couple of blogs ago. If Grant was doing his job as a journalist and applying some critical thinking, he’d realise English’s figures show the opposite of what he claims.
Grant thinks workers should be grateful for being “net beneficiaries” of state assistance… grateful for a situation where their subhuman wages mean they don’t contribute much to the tax coffers, let alone to their own families, and Working for Families subsidises their employers to keep paying these sub-human wages. How much more grateful should the rich be for being “net beneficiaries” of a system that facilitates and supports such grossly unequal wealth?
“Economic growth is driven by innovative entrepreneurs adding to the total economy. They sometimes become rich by retaining some of the extra wealth they created.”
I don’t even know where to start with this statement, except to note that it’s pure ideology. He equates economic growth with ‘wealth,’ ignoring the fact that economic (GDP) growth doesn’t just include productive, wealth-producing activities, but destructive ones like crime, pollution and credit card debt. And he simplistically suggests ‘wealth’ is created by “innovative entrepreneurs,” rather than by the contributions of all workers; those who’re given the opportunity to utilise their creative/innovative skills, and those who aren’t.
The next sentence, where he uses a doctor as his archetypical example of a rich wealth-creating entrepreneur, reveals his ideological assumption that the rich become rich by doing good for the world. A better example of the very highest income earners would be a currency trader who makes much more than a doctor by producing nothing, just manipulating pieces of paper and numbers on computer screens.
Later in the article he again waxes lyrical about how much wealth the rich create, and how grateful we should be for their work. He also mentions how hard-working they are – predictably failing to provide any statistics linking hard work to high income. In fact, income and wealth distributions are way out of proportion to how hard people work… (unless the richest 1% percent work 10-16 times as hard as the average NZer).
“Poverty has many causes, welfare dependency amongst them, but blaming the hard-working for the failings of the indigent is not a solution.”
Grant is doing even worse – blaming the hard-working poor (like people working two jobs cleaning toilets on minimum wage to feed their families) for their own poverty. Despicable.
Well, I didn’t intend two blogs about Bill English in a row, until I saw this press release, where he cynically manipulates statistics to try and show that inequality is equality. English claims the tax system has become “more progressive” since National’s 2010 tax changes, because a higher proportion of income tax revenue is coming from the richest earners.
He’s ignoring one rather important point about income tax: You pay a lot of income tax if you earn a lot of income.
It’s not surprising that the top 12% of households (and 6% of individuals) are paying proportionately more income tax than they were in 2008, because they’re earning proportionally a lot more money. (The above graph shows the top 10%’s incomes rose from about $85,000 to $100,000 from 2008-2011, while the median income stagnated at about $30,000).
Simply put, the rich are contributing a bigger slice of the tax pie because they’re earning a bigger slice of the income cheesecake. This is not something to be happy about, and certainly doesn’t mean taxes are more “progressive.”
Let’s go back to high school for a sec: A progressive tax system partially offsets inequality by taxing higher incomes proportionally more than lower incomes. Income taxes are typically progressive (e.g. Bill English’s $297,400/yr is mostly taxed at 33%, while his toilet cleaner’s $14/hr is mostly taxed at 17.5%). Sales taxes like GST are flat (15% across the board), but in practice regressive, because they take up more of the poor’s incomes than the rich’s.
National’s 2010 tax changes made tax more regressive – the lowest income tax band (under $14,000) dropped 2%, while the top band (over $70,000) dropped 5%. Company and investment tax dropped too, but GST increased. Basically, in a time when tax needs to get more progressive to help combat inequality, National gave tax cuts to the rich instead.