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 This renders the first two graphs and table out-of-date.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).
Men haven’t been very good to women in NZ lately.
The list of men who have used and abused Bevan Chuang in the course of the Brown-Chuang-Wewege-Cook-Slater-Palino affair is long and getting longer. Some were apparently motivated by mid-life crises and delusions of grandeur, others by attempts at pharisaical political smear campaigns… but they’ve all used a person’s life for their own ends (and apparently they’ve all lied about it). I don’t think I trust any of these men with high political office or media profile. Chuang herself doesn’t seem to have acted particularly well, but nobody deserves what she’s been through.
Meanwhile, Labour’s decision to phase in a rule ensuring 50% female MPs was met with the predictable panic that men are losing some of their privilege. This was typified by Patrick Gower, TV3’s gutter-journalist political editor who feigned alarm about demotions of male MPs (note this excellent critique he pretty much ignored). His numbers actually only show that IF Labour’s party vote is as low in 2017 as it was in 2008, and IF no male MPs other than Ross Robertson retire before then, TWO male MPs may have to leave Parliament so Labour can achieve gender equality (if any male MPs would object to that, good riddance).
Worse than Gower’s shoddy maths is his implication that political parties are male-dominated because of ‘merit’ rather than structural injustice. And his suggestion that 50% women in Labour is a problem but 75% men in National presumably isn’t. And his leaping to the defence of poor, persecuted privileged male MPs instead of highlighting the systemic gender inequity Labour’s quotas are designed to address.
But the worst, of course, is the Roast Busters rape club.
The existence of such a group is abhorrent. As is their ability to publicly boast about it.
As is police traumatising, blaming and ultimately ignoring complainants. As is their inaction after 2 years, 4 complaints, and ample opportunities for evidence. (Compare this to their shoot-first-sort-out-legality-later approach to shutting down people criticising them). As is the way they lied and blamed their inaction on victims not being “brave enough” to lodge proper complaints. As is the fact that their only accountability is an “independent” group of ex-cops who inevitably understand and sympathise with police. As is the fact that we’ve known for years the police have a rape problem and they’ve repeatedly failed to address it.
As is their school’s inaction.
Worst of all is our ubiquitous rape culture that allows all this to happen. It’s part of the same patriarchy that leads to Len Brown and Cameron Slater et al using Bevan Chuang, and Patrick Gower complaining that men are losing their privilege. We can’t just blame the direct protagonists. All of us, especially middle-class educated white Western heterosexual cisgender Christian men like me, have to accept responsibility for the ways we’ve contributed to a kyriarchal culture that dominates, discriminates, dehumanises and, ultimately, rapes.
The only positive to come out of all of this is are the small signs of hope that rape culture may be starting to change. This could be a vital tipping point in awareness that we have a problem. But the work of addressing it is just beginning.