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 This renders the first two graphs and table out-of-date.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).
We have a week and a half to send in our votes for local body elections and then a few days later we’ll have a dramatically changed city council. Quite an exciting time, but the main barrier to informed voting seems to be that most candidates are doing their utmost to portray themselves as being non-party-affiliated and sometimes even ‘non-political.’
I guess candidates want to cash in on cynicism about politicians, and appeal to our lazy post-modern ‘post-political’ ‘post-ideological’ political ideology. But it does make it rather hard to tell what they’re actually standing for, when nobody really follows local politics, and then all we get from the candidates is vague billboards and a paragraph of meaningless platitudes.
I’ve been looking into what lies behind these meaningless platitudes. Here’s what I’ve found out – four quick questions I think are worth asking:
1. Who voted for Marryatt’s pay rise?
2. What do the parties mean?
3. Who are the independents?
4. How about the mayoral candidates?
1. Who voted for Marryatt’s pay rise?
The seven right-wing councillors who voted for Tony Marryatt’s $68,000 pay rise won’t hold the balance of power anymore after the election – Bob Parker, Sue Wells and Barry Corbett are stepping down.
But the other four are standing again – Jamie Gough and Claudia Reid are standing for I-Citz in Fendalton-Waimairi, and Ngaire Button and Aaron Keown are standing for City 1st in Shirley-Papanui. There’s been some helpful billboard adjustments to remind us of who they are.
Gough is grovelling and asked to be forgiven, pleading youth and inexperience. $538,529 probably doesn’t sound like too much to a member of the Gough family… I guess he didn’t realise how pissed off everyone would be.
Anyway, hopefully voters haven’t forgotten how pissed off we were. James Dann is predicting two of the four will make it back – hopefully it’s less.
2. What do the parties mean?
I-Citz (Independent Citizens) ≃ National
I-Citz are “in essence, the local body version of the National Party.” Their typo-riddled website boasts of formal independence from national political parties, and National officially don’t dabble in local politics (see John’s comment below). But I-Citz’ candidates are all right-wingers such as the aforementioned Jamie Gough, Helen Broughton (who’s taken a better stance on Marryatt than her I-Citz colleagues) and conservative blogger John Stringer.
The People’s Choice = Labour
People’s Choice (formerly Christchurch 2021) was founded by Labour Party members in 1995. They’re open about their connection to Labour on their website.
The current People’s Choice councillors (Yani Johanson, Jimmy Chen, Glenn Livingstone) seem to have done pretty well from what I’ve heard.
City 1st ≃ National/ACT
A new spin-off of I-Citz and the now-defunct City Vision, City 1st try harder than the other parties to act like they’re not a party. I challenged them about this on their Facebook page and while Ngaire Button responded, she didn’t give me a good explanation of what makes her party not really a party. There were a few more comments today, but before I got a chance to read them, they deleted the whole thread and seem to have disabled all comments on their page. Thankfully I was paranoid enough to expect this and save some screenshots.
Saying the names of these ‘independent’ parties with a Sean Connery accent seems to make them more accurate.
A ‘network of the like-minded’ ≃ ??? Greens ??? Student Volunteer Army ??? Gap Filler ??? A Paradise Built in Hell ??? Well-meaning yuppies ???
I learned today that apparently four other council candidates are standing as a loose alliance – Raf Manji, Vicki Buck, Ali Jones (more on them below) and Erin Jackson.
They’re not using shared branding and they don’t have a group name, but they know each other, agreed to stand in four different wards, and seem to be into the same kind of things: participatory democracy and budgeting, environmental sustainability, community collaboration, ‘e-democracy’ and social entrepreneurship. All four are endorsed by It’s Our City.
They’re arguably just as much of a party as the others, and perhaps a lot of the same criticisms I’m making to City 1st apply to them too. But I think they’re a more genuine alternative to ‘party politics’ than City 1st – they seem to have a quite different view of how to do democracy. They also seem more genuinely bipartisan – they seem keen to work with Dalziel as mayor, and they seem more left than right, but not in really a traditional sense. But they’re enthusiastically endorsed by the right-leaning Sam Johnson, who’s not standing this time but he’s amongst their group.
At least, this is the impression I got from the one not-very-critical article I read. I’m not sure how reliable that article is (Gen Y? Really? Vicki Buck was mayor when Gen Y-ers were born). Seems interesting though.
3. Who are the independents?
The best way to find out about unaffiliated independents seems to be to google them and see what they’ve done before, and check if they have blogs etc. I can only comment on a few…
Fendalton/Waimairi: Raf Manji seems an intelligent guy with his finger in a lot of pies. My impression was that Faimeh Burke is most famous for her husband, Sir Kerry Burke, a former Labour MP and one of the ECan councillors the government dumped in 2010 (but see Jean-Luc’s comment below).
Riccarton/Wigram: Vicki Buck is bringing herself back (yet sadly without taking great pun opportunities). She was a popular (independent) mayor from 1989 to 1998 and since then has worked in clean energy and set up Unlimited and Discovery One schools.
4. How about the mayoral candidates?
Lianne Dalziel = Labour
I almost forgot to the mention the mayoral race, because it seems to be in the bag for Lianne Dalziel (but please nobody mention seismic shifts). Dalziel is running as an independent but she’s been a Labour party MP since 1990 (she’s stepping down to run for mayor). Since the earthquake she seems to have battled for the people of Christchurch better than most local MPs, particularly for her Christchurch East electorate. It’s a shame she won’t get a chance to take Gerry Brownlee’s job when the next Labour government gets in. But I think she’ll make a pretty good mayor, particularly if she follows through on social housing promises.
A fun fact about Dalziel that you won’t read elsewhere: as an idealistic teenager just returned from Cambodia, I e-mailed every MP and asked them to sponsor me for the 40 Hour Famine. Lianne Dalziel was the only one who did – she sponsored me $40.
Paul Lonsdale ≃ National/Business
Dalziel’s main competition, Paul Lonsdale, is best-known as manager of the Central City Business Association, which meant driving the youths away from the Hack circle before the earthquake, and managing the Re-Start container mall after it. He thinks political organisations should be run like businesses rather than political organisations (so he’s moving in the opposite direction to the ‘post-corporate’ democratic ideas of Manji et al).
Following a familiar theme, Lonsdale claims to be “completely apolitical,” but all his friends seem to be National Party/I-Citz members, and he thinks we need to work alongside Brownlee et al rather than challenging them. He also thinks dumping ECan democracy and selling council assets makes sense.
This blog is intended to be read whilst listening to the below song. The above picture made sense in my head, if nowhere else.
Generally speaking, I think it’s a pretty good idea to internalise externalities, by taxing activities and products that impose a social or environmental cost on the rest of the world, and subsidising those that deliver a social or environmental benefit. So I support petrol taxes, mostly as a way to off-set the environmental damages of burning oil (particularly if the tax income is used for that purpose), and as a way of bringing the price of petrol as close as possible to the real cost (personal, social, environmental; past, present, future). This will hopefully reduce the use of petrol, as people who have to pay for the full consequences of their transport choices will be more likely to use public transport, cycle, carpool, etc.
So the latest petrol tax increase may have some accidental environmental benefits. Emphasis on ‘accidental’, because Gerry Brownlee doesn’t mention it in his announcement. He openly admits what Julie Anne Genter from the Greens exposed last month; that this tax rise is primarily about covering the $1.7 billion short-fall for the so-called “Roads of National Significance” plan. This is why the Greens oppose this tax increase; it’s not about reducing petrol use, but encouraging petrol use by sinking $14 billion dollars into un-needed, uneconomical highways.
Brownlee probably knows better than to spin this as an environmental measure, because it would illustrate a stark double standard: it would be the opposite of their stance towards business and agriculture. For these other major polluters (and National’s main backers), they’ve shown compassion in these tough economic times, and given them longer before they have to start paying for the social and environmental costs of their emissions. The taxpayer can pick up the tab for a bit longer.
There’s another double-standard whereby this government, who “want to cut taxes, not raise taxes” according to the John Key quote in the above Home Brew song, are relatively trigger-happy when it comes to increasing GST and other sales taxes. Some of these do off-set (or over-compensate for) external costs of harmful substances. But if they’re just income-gathering measures like in this case, it’s worrying that they’d rather earn income this way than by putting income tax back up, or by introducing capital gains or financial transactions taxes. Sales taxes tend to be regressive; disproportionately hitting the poor, while the latter are progressive; disproportionately hitting those with disproportionately high incomes and wealth.
IrishBill at The Standard points out another double standard, particularly pertinent to Brownlee; they’re happy to levy the ordinary motorist to pay for their idiotic motorway plans, but they’re not willing to implement a temporary, progressive levy for the Christchurch rebuild (because of the fragile economic climate, of course… not because of their priorities, choices and philosophies).
Actually, all of these double standards reveal a lot about the political philosophy underlying this government… Ordinary people are able to tighten their belts, while the rich need financial assistance. We all have to make sacrifices, apparently, but on a religious level, these are sacrifices to the gods of the neo-liberal market capitalism, and on a material level, they’re sacrifices to the rich. “Socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor” indeed.
‘Nats soften emissions blow for businesses’ (03/07/2012, Fairfax)
Mr Key confirmed taxpayers would have to pick up the $80 million tab as a result of the reprieve for business and farmers announced yesterday, but insisted the measures would minimise the impact of the ETS on “households, exporters and employers”.
He said the transition measures initially introduced by National had halved the impact of the ETS on households and exporters compared with what Labour originally planned.
The Cabinet had now agreed that those transition measures needed to run for longer “given the fragile international economic environment and the minimal progress made by other countries to develop similar climate change tools”.
In its infinite wisdom, the government has decided that the economic environment is far too fragile to be worrying about the real environment.
Recognising its integral role in economic growth, the government will continue to subsidise pollution until further notice.
Obviously the other taxpayers (workers, consumers, smokers, children) and tax recipients are in a far better position to be able to pay for rich polluters’ pollution than the rich polluters themselves.
And I thought this government didn’t believe in compassion during a recession.