New Zealand doesn’t have a tradition of celebrity involvement in parliamentary politics, but this is changing. Perhaps surprisingly, the party at the forefront of this ‘Americanisation of New Zealand politics’ is the Greens. Recently the party has made an effort to sell itself on the basis of celebrity endorsements, by including cultural and sports stars on its billboards, using an actor to launch its 2008 election campaign, and even having an actor running for Parliament. Such a shift, according to some political scientists, is part of ‘a despicable trend that epitomizes the banal and the mindless in public life, empowering image over substance and producing pseudo-charismatic leadership’. [Read more below]
Recently the Green Party launched its election campaign without revealing a single policy. Instead the party put their faith in the newsworthiness of using the popular actor Robyn Malcolm as their MC. Malcolm plays Sheryl the Westie from TV3’s Outrageous Fortune. Her enduring contribution to the launch was her (typically-Green) admission that while she owned a hybrid car she still fretted about not being adequate because she had bought plastic Chinese-made toys for her children.
A more novel endorsement of the Greens is performed by Whale Rider star Rawiri Paratene who is campaigning for the party as an electorate candidate. He’s been upfront in admitting that he doesn’t actually want to win the seat of Maungakiekie, definitely doesn’t want to be on the party list, and that his candidacy is purely a campaigning gimmick rather than a serious attempt to get elected. Paratene has been a member of the party for six years, and featured in the Greens’ newspaper ads and closing TV address in 2005.
This certainly isn’t the first time that ‘the celebrity as candidate’ technique has been used in New Zealand. It was done rather famously by New Zealand First in the Selwyn by-election of 1994, when the party selected Tim Shadbolt – whom until that point was not even a member of the party. Other celebrity candidates have included talkback host Pam Corkery for the Alliance, feature journalist Debra Coddington for Act, ex-All Black Graeme Thorne for National, ex-All Black Tu Wyllie for NZ First, and athlete Dick Quax for Act. (Of course, political parties have also constant sought certain celebrities to stand for them in elections, such as sporting heros like Michael Jones, Peter Blake and Edmund Hillary).
Rob Hamill and Miranda Harcourt
Early in 2008 the Greens launched pre-election 'Proud to be Green' billboards that were a sign of things to come. Gone were the wordiness, policy-orientation and slogans, and in their place was a new dumbed-down approach that made use of celebrities instead of ideas. Two 'Proud to be Green' billboards separately featured trans-Atlantic rower Rob Hamill together with co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimmons, and actress Miranda Harcourt alongside co-leader Russel Norman.
Rob Hamill has since announced that he’ll stand for the party in the Taranaki-King Country electorate. Like Paratene, Hamill is undertaking the campaign on the basis of trying to boost the party vote rather than get elected.
Such celebrity endorsements have not previously played a large part in New Zealand elections. Exceptions in recent general elections include Murray Ball, who agreed to use his artistic and satirist skills to draw cartoons for the Alliance campaign, soccer-star Wynton Rufer, who endorsed the Christian Heritage Party, and Michael Jones who backed Future New Zealand. In more recent times, parties have used some popular musicians to open their conferences – or in the case of Labour, had Chris Knox write a terrible campaign song.
International celebrity politics
The Green Party’s embrace of celebrity culture merely reflects a phenomenon occurring throughout the world. It’s a well observed trend that in modern politics, rock stars and actors rub shoulders with presidents and bankers. The usual suspects include Angelina Jolie, Bob Geldof, Bono, George Clooney, Richard Gere, Madonna, Sinead O'Connor. Some of them even become politicians, like Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and Peter Garrett.
This trend shows that there’s ‘an institutionalised blurring of the boundaries between politics and sports, showbiz and the arts’.
The mix of celebrity and politics is especially present in environmentalism. This is where the vanguard of celebrity activism is taking place. Witness, for example, the Live Earth concerts – which was the biggest, most mass-marketed show of celebrity activism in history. As I wrote elsewhere on this blog (Is 'Live Earth' a global disaster? Or just a harmless 24-hour smugfest?):
It's the new pattern of 'New Politics': don't bother with politics, political parties, programmes and elections etc - just organise a big media feel-good gig and get celebrity endorsements for your cause. So despite the conspicous failures of past smugfests like Make Poverty History and Live 8, Al Gore wants to lecture us all by getting pop stars to perform environment concerts on seven continues over 24 hours.
Celebrity as political capital in an anti-political age
Public intellectuals such as Daniel Boorstin and Neil Postman have argued that although the use of celebrities in politics is distasteful it’s also just the inevitable next step in the commercialisation of politics. As the packaging of politicians and policies is increasingly done in a way that is ‘staged and scripted, to create illusions that often had no relationship to any underlying reality’, the use of ‘counterfeit people - celebrities - whose identities were being staged and scripted, to create illusions that often had no relationship to any underlying reality’.
Australian political scientists Paul ‘t Hart and Karen Tindall have also tried to make sense of this emergent western phenomenon in an April 2008 conference paper entitled Leadership by the famous: Celebrity as political capital (PDF).
‘t Hart and Tindall suggest that the worlds of celebrity and politics merge to produce forms of celebrity political leadership because of our anti-political political culture, in which political parties and politicians are neither trusted or respected. Quite simply, in democracies where the voting public don’t trust politics, politicians turn to famous people to help sell politics. It also occurs most where, in Neil Postman’s words, we are ‘amusing ourselves to death’ because ‘our society is shaped more by entertainment than by politics and is more enamored with celebrities than moved by leaders’.
‘t Hart and Tindall argue that, ‘the more endemic public disaffection with ‘politics as usual’, the bigger the political space for celebrity politics to take hold. Hence, in the US ‘they have great respect for and confidence in celebrities who enter the world of politics’, and ‘In the Philippines, Mexico and many other developing nations numerous showbiz figures have likewise made it into politics’. They also point out that, ‘Perhaps it is no coincidence that the case of the first ever porn star to be elected into parliament occurred in Italy, where trust in politics is persistently low’.
The use of celebrities is thus an attempt by party leaders to ‘play the safe, non-political card’ and incorporate the spirit of no-party politics into their appeal. ‘t Hart has predicted that this trend will only escalate: ‘I think we'll see much more of that as political parties get desperate to appeal to people who have turned off from politics. If you can bring stars, people may notice more than if you bring in a trade unionist or real estate developer.'’
Conclusion: a sign of weakness
When the Greens (and other parties) attempt to trade on the names and star power of celebrities, or even when they have celebrities run for office, the party is essentially advertising its weakness. It’s run out of ideas and is instead looking for more emotional and superficial ways to sell itself. So the use of political lightweights such as Malcolm, Hamill, Harcourt, and Paratene indicate the Greens’ lack of confidence in their own political programme and ideology.
Of course there’s also a strong dose of political opportunism involved. Political leaders want to take short cuts to gaining popularity, and selling their message, so they think, ‘When a celebrity talks, people listen’. With the Greens struggling in opinion polls in 2008, and struggling over their loss of ideological cohesion, it’s likely that they’ve seen celebrity endorsements as a quick fix. ‘t Hart says that ‘When a party is lying on its back, it starts looking around for potential saviours to pull it out of oblivion. In these circumstances, criteria such as ideological purity, appropriate gravitas and grass roots experience quickly lose relevance’.
Just as the TV networks that fill their channels with tabloid and reality shows because ‘celebrity sells’, parties like the Greens are showing themselves to be more ratings-oriented than ever before. Policy and winning the ideological souls of the public takes a second place to quick headlines and pretty faces.
Of course if you actually prefer to have your political options in election packaged and marketed like packets of soap powder endorsed by celebrities, then of course there’s nothing wrong with all of this. But there’s an argument that politics is too important to be handed over to Hollywood-style tabloid coverage and celebrities are treated as political actors, and that the corrupting influences of advertising and public relations needs to be keep in check to make public debate and democracy more about the cerebral than the celebrity.