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 This renders the first two graphs and table out-of-date.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).
Graph from The Press
A quick recap on the NZ and Christchurch housing affordability crises:
– 80s-present: NZ housing affordability worsens throughout the neo-liberal era (p. 13-14, 68-70).
– 24/1/2011: Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington and Tauranga house prices assessed as “severely unaffordable.”
– 2010-2012: Canterbury earthquakes reduce housing supply and increase rental housing demand.
– 20/3/2012: National and Gerry Brownlee decide to leave the market to sort out the Christchurch housing crisis.
– 18/6/2012: Brownlee suggests rent rises in Christchurch aren’t “astronomical” compared to other cities.
– 29/6/2012: Brownlee and John Key deny there’s a housing crisis in Christchurch.
– 7/7/2012: Brownlee says he can only see positives in Christchurch’s skyrocketing rents.
– 29/10/2012: John Key rules out a capital gains tax like most countries have, simultaneously showing just how out of touch he is.
– 27/8/2013: Housing is now less affordable in Christchurch than Wellington.
– 14/5/2014: Christchurch rents projected to hit Auckland levels in January 2015. Housing Minister Nick Smith suggests “the real problem” is not enough rental accommodation for tourists.
– 15/5/2014: The Budget offers a pittance and cuts for housing, and worse for Chch.
– 19/5/2014: An OECD report finds New Zealand has the most over-valued houses in the developed world. Key, true to form, disagrees with the OECD, and tries to spin the news as a positive as more people are entering the “housing market.”
A consistent theme emerges in the current government’s attitude to these developments: (a) there’s no crisis – if anything it’s a good thing, (b) if there is a crisis, the market will sort it out by itself (because dog-eat-dog individual selfishness systems are great for the vulnerable, eh).
It’s tempting to say they’re simply idiots, but it’s better to ask which groups in society are they representing, and which aren’t they?
For most groups in society, the above information amounts to a housing crisis nationwide, and particularly in Christchurch. But for one group, rapidly rising rent and house prices doesn’t amount to a crisis, but an opportunity for increased profit. This is the group that treats housing as an investment, not somewhere to live: rental property investors.
Gerry Brownlee and many other National MPs are in this group of people. Most of Brownlee’s rental properties are in his own Ilam electorate, where rents in one suburb (Aorangi) rose by 51% in a year. I think this is a pretty important conflict of interest at the best of times, but even more so amid the housing crisis Brownlee and his party are determined to ignore.
I recently wrote to Brownlee, essentially asking him to clarify the question I asked in an earlier blog:
If you’re interested, here’s Brownlee’s response. My attempt to name-drop the Official Information Act backfired – it turns out this info isn’t available under the OIA because it’s not government info. So the public don’t get any more detail than what’s listed on the register of pecuniary interests. I asked if he’d answer my questions anyway, as a goodwill gesture to one of his constituents… I’ll let you know if he replies.
If National win this year’s election, it will be because of personality and PR. If they lose, it will be because of housing. It’s the biggest issue in Brownlee’s electorate and the country. While National are denying, blaming and doing nothing, Labour are making supply-side and demand-side action on the housing crisis the centre of their campaign.