Parallel to decline of the traditional relationships between New Zealand political parties and so-called ‘third parties’, the parties have actually been developing new relationships. It is apparent that many of the modern groups that are aligned to – or have relationships with – parties are actually elite-type organisations that do not represent significant social forces in society. These groups are established to provide a way around state political financing laws, provide intellectual resources, or simply supply legitimacy. They are an attempt to illustrate to voters that a particular party has links with civil society and therefore has support in the community. [Read more below]
The first example of this are ‘artificial’ affiliated organisations. In lieu of the organic links between New Zealand political parties and societal organisations, the parties are now inclined to manufacture organisations by creating groups from within the party that have the appearance of being external organisations with discernable autonomy. Often quasi-factional organisations that already exist within the party are dressed up as external organisations, therefore providing legitimacy to the party or its leadership, because the party is seen as having some sort of external organisational support.
A classic example of an internally-created support group, was Labour’s creation of the ‘Citizens for Rowling’ group, which included a number of social ‘notables’ who campaigned in support of the Labour Party in the 1975 election campaign. Ostensibly, this group was non-partisan and created to look like it existed outside the party, but in reality was set up and run by Labour Party members (See: Webber, 1978: p.195; and Roberts, 1976). Similarly, according to Widfeldt, some parties set up internal/external groups that channel members into their parties: ‘Most parties have "side organizations" to appeal to particular groups – women and young people, for example (Katz and Mair 1992b).
A more recent type of societal group that political parties have been manufacturing is the American-style political action committee (PAC). As detailed in a number of previous blog posts on political finance, these committees are normally established in reaction to the laws governing both the donation of funds to political parties and election campaign expenditure. PAC’s are not very common in New Zealand, but they appear to be increasing as parties become more adept at dealing with state regulations. One prominent example is the New Zealand Free Enterprise Trust, which has collected substantial donations on behalf of the National Party in recent years.
Think tanks, another modern form of political organisation, normally have a particularly close relationship with political parties, and in other Western countries, a wide variety of think tanks are active in politics, producing advice, books and reports to the media and politicians. Although think tanks have increased in number and significance in New Zealand, they still do not have a strong presence and lack depth and diversity (See Klinkum, 1998: p.424). Trotter has also pointed out, ‘Left-wing think tanks have a long and illustrious history, reaching back to the British Fabian Society, but are almost unheard of in New Zealand’ (Trotter, 1999e: p.17). As will be examined in a future blog post, contemporary think tanks include the Business Roundtable and Maxim Institute on the right, and the Gamma Foundation, Foundation for Policy Initiatives and the Bruce Jesson Foundation on the left.
Of all the modern organisations replacing interest groups’ role in linking political parties to civil society it is probably public relations (PR) consultancy companies that most epitomise the process. The market research arms of PR firms facilitate the politicians in sampling the electorate, targeting the market, and using the media to reach it (Jesson, 1989d). Hence the need for parties to have an organic reach into civil society is reduced. Similarly, PR firms represent business interests directly to the parties (both in government and opposition), and provide business with political advice. According to Jesson, ‘These political consultants have become the new mediators in an age of commercialised politics’ (Jesson, 1992c: p.371).
Such a shift is part of the long-term ‘privatisation’ of parties and their activities that has been occurring over the last four decades. Certainly since the 1960s marketing and public relations techniques have been expanding into New Zealand politics, along with a general professionalisation of politics. According to Jesson, from this time ‘Professionals groomed the contenders – Bob Harvey groomed Norman Kirk in 1972, Michael Wall managed Muldoon’s election advertising in 1975. Public relations, consultancy and polling became increasingly important features of the political process, with a merger occurring between politics, business and the media’ (ibid: pp.370-371). During Robert Muldoon’s leadership the National Party started using the firm Allen Fenwick McCully, which involved Michelle Boag and current MP Murray McCully.
The Fourth Labour Government also employed a number of consultancy companies to organise political campaigns – most notably Strategos, Edwards-Cunningham Consultants, Communicor, and Consultus. These firms generally involved people close to, or in, the Labour Party. Strategos involved ‘Derek Quigley, a former National Cabinet Minister; Rob Campbell, a Labour Party executive member and former union leader; and Alf Kirk, a former research officer for the FOL’ (Jesson, 1992c: p.371). Edwards-Cunningham Consultants, Communicor, and Consultus were, respectively, run by the Labour Party-friendly television interviewers Brian Edwards, Simon Walker and Ian Fraser. Then in the 1990s, the Fourth National Government used the firm Logos (See: Jesson, 1992: p.371; Johns, 25 Nov 1991, and Stephen Harris, 1993d: p.14).