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 This renders the first two graphs and table out-of-date.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).
Finance Minister Bill English conceded that the Government would like to have had more New Zealand investors than the 62,000 and a higher share price than $1.50.
But he blamed in no small part Labour and Greens’ energy policy, accusing them of scaring off mum and dad investors from Mighty River Power and Meridian because of their policy to control wholesale power prices.
“They set out to sabotage lower income New Zealanders doing it. Unfortunately they’ve had some effect.”
So Bill English (yes, that’s the deputy prime minister, not your ignorant workmate) thinks poor NZers can afford to buy shares, and the only reason they aren’t buying shares in what we used to own together is that Labour and the Greens “sabotaged” their investment plans by “scaring them off.”
The most obvious explanation is that he’s trying to contort the embarrassing failure of the asset sales into being somehow the opposition’s fault.
A more worrying possibility is that he actually believes what he’s saying. This is, after all, the man who wrote off child poverty as merely “relative.”
70% of National supporters don’t know anyone who’s unemployed, so what are the odds the National deputy leader knows any “low income New Zealanders”?
As Robert McAfee Brown put it: “who we listen to determines what we hear; where we stand determines what we see.”
(Re. the title: I’m happy to be corrected)
NZ’s political parties
at the 2011 election now updated for the 2014 election, according to PoliticalCompass.org
“It’s actually a very clear decision for New Zealanders. It’s sort of centre-right versus the far left.” – John Key today
Coming from the most right-wing prime minister in NZ’s history, this is the height of dishonesty and hypocrisy.
More likely, the next Labour government will be centrist or centre-left… still considerably to the right of traditional Labour values yet hopefully a genuine alternative to the neo-liberal inequality consensus of the last four Labour/National governments. Cunliffe has gone on record acknowledging that this neo-liberal inequality experiment has failed our economies and our people.
Meanwhile, Key, a long-time architect of this failure, is still drinking the neo-liberal Kool-Aid… dogmatically pushing National’s far-right, anti-democratic, economically idiotic, ultra-capitalist inequality ideology as far as we let him get away with.
Key, with his loyal servants in the corporate media, will attempt to claim the ‘centrist high ground’ and whip up McCarthy-esque hysteria about Cunliffe. For the second time in Cut Your Hair history, I’m advising: set your bullshit detectors to maximum.
Even Christian Right radio have reported this.
So why are Stuff ignoring it?
Instead they’ve only reported their own poll the next day. The results showed a more modest leftward shift (National down 1.1%, Labour down 0.3%, Greens up 1.1%, NZ First down 0.4%). But the reporting emphasises Labour’s failure to increase its support, and National’s resilience to maintain its support! They also speculate about future woes for Labour, heap praise on the Conservative party and don’t mention the Greens’ rise.
Why does poll reporting matter? In 2011 we had the lowest election turn-out since the 1880s after the media told us constantly for 3 years that John Key was wildly popular and the election was a no-contest.
It’s been obvious for a while that Stuff loves John Key as much as Cut Your Hair
hates fundamentally disagrees with him. But you could have attributed that to an uncritical, stupid, lowest-common-denominator corporate ‘political’ media caring more for cults of personality than politics.
(PS: Even with their bias, Stuff seem quite critical of the GCSB bill, and their poll shows three-quarters of us are worried about it.
PPS: With one-seat majorities for such important legislation, the election definitely wasn’t a no-contest.)
I’ve been noticing an unusual phenomenon over the past few weeks – National MPs drawing attention to the plight of the poor, the greed of corporates and the illusory nature of private property. Are we living in an upside down world?
It all started when I found myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Paula Bennett on the plight of poor beneficiaries.
Bennett drew attention to “absolutely sub-standard” yet “well over priced” housing, and landlords taking advantage of vulnerable people who couldn’t find housing elsewhere. She asked such landlords to “have a good look at themselves”, provide housing they’d live in themselves, and show a good Kiwi “element of fairness”. She even said she was looking at ways of “helping people towards home ownership”.
The funniest part about the whole thing is that she was responding to comments by Annette King on the accommodation supplement… so we have Labour criticising the welfare state and National pointing the finger at the propertied elite.
Of course, Bennett’s rhetoric falls flat when we remember that her party is entirely sold out to an economic system and worldview where the propertied are the good guys, individual self-interest is the universal incentive, and any fairness or concern for others is an optional extra.
So in criticising a few ‘bad apples’ among landlords, she’s actually endorsing the ideal of a ‘good landlord’, charging fair rates to their poor tenants even while getting filthy rich off them.
And any vague attempts to “help people towards home ownership” will be upstream rowing at best so long as they rule out ever taxing the proceeds of owning other people’s homes.
A similar phenomenon happened the other day with Gerry Brownlee pointing the finger at private insurance companies for avoiding and delaying pay-outs in quake-hit Christchurch. Although risk management/status quo protection is something that “the private sector claims it can do so particularly well”, Brownlee points out that it’s failing to do so – in fact, EQC, of all Kafkaesque government bureaucracies, is doing far better.
But is he really doubting the National party line that everything is better when owned and operated by private profit-maximisers?
When we look at another instance where the private sector is failing Christchurch, housing, his response was considerably different: Let the market sort it out.
So what’s the difference? Well, firstly, as the minister in charge of EQC, Brownlee has a horse in the race. But it’s also interesting that in an insurance crisis, it’s the property owners that suffer, and he’s taking umbrage. But in the housing crisis, only the poor and ordinary people suffer, while the rental property owners prosper – and Brownlee can only see positives there.
The worst example of this phenomenon, of course, has been John Key’s recent refrain that “nobody owns water”.
Key’s arrogance has reached new heights in this casual dismissal of traditional, Treaty-enshrined Māori rights. Like a dog to its vomit, the Māori Party have returned to the fold after an assurance that National won’t legislate against Māori rights or claims – but you don’t need to legislate against something if you’re just going to use your legal prerogative to ignore it.
But Key’s use of the phrase “nobody owns water” to misrepresent Māori water claims is just as bad.
He’s portraying Māori as money-grabbing “opportunists” trying to take a vital natural resource away from ordinary New Zealanders, by referencing what we all instinctively know – that it’s wrong to be selfish and greedy, that nobody can really ‘own’ what belongs to everyone/nature/God, that property is ultimately theft because the world is everybody’s and nobody’s, etc etc.
But once again the reality belies the rhetoric when we see that he is using this line of thinking to dismiss Māori stewardship of public waterways, so that he can smoothly transfer hydro-electricity generation into the private hands of rich investors.
The fact is, the selfish opportunists are the very people National holds up as our role models, and the very people to whom they want to sell our power companies. Key affecting an opposition to private property is a joke. His party thinks everything should be private property – including water when it suits.
As Tim Selwyn put it, “Interesting how the Nats suddenly start espousing anarcho-socialism when Māori property rights are involved!”
In reality, as Tapu Misa eloquently explains, Māori rights surrounding water are far more in keeping with these anarcho-socialist ideals than the Pākehā/capitalist concept of private property. Māori “ownership” means caretaking and free public use of everything that National wants to carve up, commodify and sell to the highest bidder.
The consistent thread in all these stories is the way that National are co-opting quasi-socialist rhetoric to further their capitalist causes.
It’s hilarious, as well as worrying, that while the Labour leadership are still scared of sounding too much like a Labour party, even National can see the populist appeal in leftist language and the universals of fairness and co-operation it touches upon.
To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, the only proper reply to such shrewd ideological manipulation is: “if you really believe in social justice and sharing the world, then why are you doing what you are doing?”