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 This renders the first two graphs and table out-of-date.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).
Both couples feed John a meal and talk about their lives and their political involvements – that’s about where the similarities end. Hone has photos on his wall from the Springbok tour protests. John famously can’t remember his stance on that issue, but he vividly remembers when he first wanted to be Prime Minister a few years earlier.
This is a good illustration of the main difference between Key’s and Harawira’s interviews, and indeed their overall political personas: Harawira’s interview is far more about politics and real issues, while Key’s is far more about superficiality, personality and content-free generalities like “making a difference” and “economic management” (Ha!).
Key does talk about “vulnerable people” and kids in poverty after Campbell observes the extreme wealth of their context. But for him these “vulnerable people” are an abstraction – they’re completely absent from his life.
Harawira’s concern for the marginalised is far more real. His biggest achievements are sacrifices he’s made for real live vulnerable people – be it Māori, the poor, South Africans suffering under apartheid, or his grumpy father-in-law. Mana’s policies are primarily motivated by real justice for those who most need it.
Moreover, Key’s claimed concern for kids growing up on welfare belies the fact that his government has kept benefit rates at 1991 levels. 1991, you may recall, was the year National deliberately set benefits to only cover 80% of minimum nutritional needs. This was an attempt to incentivise people into accepting the new low-wage jobs – or at least, those lucky enough to find jobs. They also encouraged a certain level of unemployment to drive wages down and again incentivise these poverty-wage jobs. This shows individual incentivisation may fill low-wage jobs, but it can’t cure unemployment: that requires broader socio-economic changes. These policies were and are sacrifices of the poor to support rich poverty-wage employers.
Two things have changed since then: One, poverty dropped slightly among working families (see p.47 here) since the last Labour government’s third-way policy, Working for Families. Key called WFF “communism by stealth” at the time, but he’s kept it, and praises it in the video for how it subsidises low wages. Two, National’s rhetoric is all anti-unemployment these days.
But three things still speak volumes: One, Key’s more willing to use taxpayer money to subsidise poverty-wage employers than make them pay living wages. Two, he sees no problem with WFF’s exclusion of beneficiary children from assistance, even though he notes they’re the majority of kids in poverty. Three, Key looks no further than individual solutions to the societal issue of unemployment.
Meanwhile, the real-life vulnerable people who miss out on the limited number of subsidised jobs offered by this “economic management” suffer now more than ever. Key thinks leftover Labour policies and welfare scapegoating is enough to help them. Harawira does not. I know which one I’d rather vote for.