Labour’s major election platform was the issue of trust, and the party was partly successful in making this a major theme of the campaign period. In choosing this strategy the party was repeating one of its 2005 election techniques whereby it had successfully undermined people’s trust in Don Brash by helping link him with religious extremists and relatively radical economic and social policies. Hoping to repeat that success, Labour launched the election slogan of: ‘This one’s about Trust’, backed up by billboards that pushed this theme and had images of polished white-clad Helen on a white background to emphasize the pureness of Labour.The trust theme was multi-faceted; it related to issues of experience, competence and credibility – all issues on which Labour felt it had the upper hand over National. Being a party that had been in government for three terms meant that Labour could cash in on incumbency to argue in favour of its political management experience over the past nine years. This was particularly suited for the economic climate that descended upon the campaign – something that Labour as the incumbent had been well briefed upon by Treasury. Prior to the campaign, Helen Clark was therefore very keen to make use of the economic uncertainty to play to people's need for a sense of security.
On the campaign trail and in media interviews, Clark constantly repeated her mantra of ‘trust’. At countless public meetings and appearances, Clark asked ‘Who do you trust?’. Likewise, on her final Agenda television interview, Clark talked of Labour's ‘strong, proven leadership’ four times. Another commonly repeated line was that only a fool would ‘change horses midstream’. More than ever before, Labour essentially made leadership the major election issue. This reflected that the issue of leadership had ranked high in the minds of voters. A late-October Herald/Digipoll put fourth in a list of key election issues, after the economy, crime, and tax cuts. Thus, when Labour kicked off its campaign in mid-September with Helen Clark unveiling Labour’s hoardings in her Mt Albert electorate they featured a glamorous new photoshopped imaged of her.
A negative focus on John Key and National
Whilst communicating Labour's positive reputation, the strategy also sought to imply that the National Party and leader John Key could not be trusted. A number of components made up this coordinated negative attack on National. The most successful element was probably the attempt to paint Key and National as ideologically empty and superficial. Numerous times, Clark questioned whether Key possessed any guiding political principles at all. This element of the trust theme was most memorably carried out in a series of humorous television commercials entitled 'The Two John's', which attempted to negatively highlight Key's vacillations on various policies. A later television advertisement featured ‘Mary’ (an actor) feeding her baby and saying, ‘I can't trust you, Mr Key.’
On top of such advertising, Clark repeatedly used the phrases ‘flip flop’ and ‘slippery’ about Key (although she hardly ever mentioned Key or National by name, preferring to speak of her ‘opponents’ or ‘the opposition’). Labour also drew attention to the National Party’s reticence to release detailed policy and its inclination to pragmatically adopt Labour Government initiatives, suggesting that National was hiding a ‘secret agenda’ of asset sales, benefit and other spending cuts.
Much of Labour’s trust strategy involved a relentless focus on Key and his personal background. Minister of Finance Michael Cullen attempted to link the National leader with the crisis in finance capitalism, arguing that because Key was once a currency trader with international banker Merrill Lynch he therefore had the ‘short-term profit maximising mentality’ which had ‘brought Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers and these other businesses to their knees’. He was, therefore, the wrong sort of person to run the economy. Most commentators regarded Cullen’s characterization as either drawing a long bow or rather inept.
Clark attempted to paint Key and the National Party as dangerously hawkish in international affairs, ignoring the fact that in the previous year National had signed up to Labour’s independent foreign policy approach. She claimed that if National had been the government when America invaded Iraq it would have sent troops meaning that National would have had ‘blood on its hands’ and that New Zealand would have lost 60 personnel by now. The characterization largely backfired, as commentators reminded the public that Labour had in fact also contributed troops to the post-invasion occupation, and that even though Australia had also been in Iraq since 2003 it had only lost two personnel (in non-combat duties).
Allegations of corruption and Labour’s dirt digging
The attempt to paint Key as having involvement in corrupt or dishonest financial practices was where Labour’s trust strategy backfired the most. Prior to the official campaign Labour successfully embarrassed John Key over the revelation that he had owned 100,000 Tranz Rail shares in 2002 and 2003, instead of the 30,000 he had previously disclosed. Although it was the most damaging blow inflicted by Labour, the embarrassment only lasted a limited period of time, due to Key’s quick apology.
More damaging for Labour was its failed attempt to link Key with a major fraud case of 20 years previously, known as the H-fee scheme, which led to the jailing of a prominent businessman. Labour had apparently worked on this element of the trust campaign for months, utilizing its government research unit, and most controversially, sending party president Mike Williams to Melbourne in the lead up to election day to trawl through court records that might ruin the credibility of Key. No explosive material ever emerged, despite Williams passing on photocopies of many court records to journalists. At that point the media began presenting the story as not being about Key's previous behaviour but about Labour's negative campaign methods. Significantly, Helen Clark immediately reacted by declaring that ‘This is not a story I am handling at all’, preferring to label it as ‘Mike’s crusade’. From this point Labour abandoned its trust strategy, and Clark then took a very different approach in the last televised leaders’ debate, which might be seen as a reflection of the failure of Labour’s attack strategy to gain traction.
Problems with Labour’s negative trust strategy
There were always a number of problems with Labour’s trust strategy. First, an attempt to sell any party as being trustworthy was out of synch with the anti-political mood of the electorate that already had a very entrenched suspicion of all politicians and parties. More damaging, it potentially opened voters’ eyes up to the memories of Labour’s own violations of trust, particularly with the perception that a number of unpopular pieces of legislation associated with Labour Party had been pushed these through without an electoral mandate – such as civil unions, Electoral Finance Act, legalisation of prostitution and the anti-smacking legislation.
Furthermore, the trust approach did not work because Labour tried to sell two contradictory messages about National and Key. On the one hand Labour tried to portray their opposition as being pragmatic, populist and middling. In the ‘Two Johns’ advertisement and other Labour campaigning Key was derided as confused and a klutz. Yet on the other hand National was portrayed as being potential extremists with a secret agenda. These messages were intrinsically contradictory and potentially cancelled each other out.
More generally, Labour’s negative approach probably alienated many voters. Clark’s aggressive and personal attacks on National and Key featured almost daily. Highlights included her claim that National’s economic package was ‘a dog’, her accusation that National was planning on ‘wreaking’ KiwiSaver, labeling National’s policies as ‘sinister’, and then when Key campaigned in South Auckland she was particularly scathing, telling One News that this represented ‘a tribute to his power of self-delusion’, adding in 3 News that ‘I suspect he was a bit like a tourist there. He should have stuck to what he really believes and gone to the Northern Club’. At other times she commenting on National’s strategy, saying things like ‘I'm watching that other campaign - it's all behind closed doors. Sometimes they get brave enough to walk through a shopping mall’ (quoted in Watkins, Dominion Post, 18 October 2008). Clark’s sourness possibly only helped accentuate her opponent’s breezy and friendly image. And observations that Labour was heading down a path of attack advertising common in United States, was reinforced by the CTU’s ‘South Park-style internet animation showing a zombie Roger Douglas trying to eat Bill English's brains, moaning "sell everything." (National Business Review, 24 October 2008).
Labour’s New Zealand First problem
Labour’s second backfiring campaign strategy involved its orientation to its potential support parties. Although Labour had proved apt at coalition building under MMP, in 2008 the party mishandled its coalition possibilities. The biggest difficulty was determining an orientation to New Zealand First, which was damaged by ongoing political finance scandals throughout the year. Labour had to carefully decide how to deal with its governing coalition partner in a way that would maximize Labour’s chances of being re-elected to government.
The New Zealand First leader Winston Peters was widely seen as having acted inappropriately in regard to political donations. As Prime Minister, Helen Clark therefore had to decide how severely to punish him for his misdemeanors and how much to distance Labour from New Zealand First. She also had to decide whether to implicitly endorse or discredit New Zealand First as a legitimate vote in the election. In this whole affair Labour took a middling position, essentially prevaricating in a way that produced the worst possible outcomes as well as making Labour look opportunistic.
For most of the time leading up the election, Labour took a tolerant line on Peters and effectively endorsed the re-election of the party. This was a calculated and pragmatic stance as Labour felt it did not have the luxury of condemning Peters or ruling out working with New Zealand First, as John Key had. Labour had essentially calculated that it would be much harder to argue that it could put together a workable government without New Zealand First. Furthermore, Labour identified the elderly vote as crucial to its reelection, and did not wish to risk alienating those potential elderly Labour voters sympathetic to Winston Peters.
Labour’s strategic orientation to New Zealand First always allowed for the likelihood of providing a decisive message during the last week of the campaign for those considering voting for New Zealand First. Labour had the option of, on the one hand, throwing its rival a lifeline with an endorsement, or alternatively sending a signal that a vote for New Zealand First would be a wasted vote. Labour’s decision depended on opinion poll support for Peters’ party, as Labour either needed New Zealand First to achieve a high enough vote to breach the five percent threshold, or else a very low vote so that few wasted ‘left bloc’ votes were cast. Labour’s final message during the last week of the campaign was still not clear enough to propel the vote one way or another. New Zealand First eventually won a vote of 4.1 per cent – exactly the scenario that Labour was trying to avoid.
The first Labour-aligned political force to send the message was the Progressive's Jim Anderton, who bluntly told elderly voters that their votes would be wasted if they gave them to New Zealand First. The Greens then entered the debate to say that they would not work in a Cabinet that involved Winston Peters unless his party was properly cleared over political donation scandals.
Clark finally joined the ‘left bloc’ consensus on the Sunday before the election, telling a Sky TV News debate that it was going to be extremely difficult for New Zealand First to reach the five per cent threshold and that Peters was very unlikely to win his Tauranga seat. She thus intimating that a vote for New Zealand First would be a wasted one. The following day she Clark continued the new line, repeating several times to journalists that New Zealand First may not be back in Parliament. She announced that instead, the Greens were her preferred partner, and ‘their time has come’.
Overall, Labour and Clark were badly damaged by their involvement with Winston Peters and his party. It exacerbating the damage to Clark, especially because of her campaign message of trustworthiness conflicted with her siding with Peters.
Labour’s inept coalition campaigning
Labour’s strategic mistake in terms of New Zealand First was it’s basic hands-off approach to coordinating the campaigns of their allied parties. Once the campaign begun Clark announced that that in an election campaign each party must ‘paddle their own waka’ (quoted in Trevett, NZH, Oct 17, 2008). This had been Labour’s approach in previous campaigns, whereby ally parties were treated as rivals and little cooperation occurred. The Alliance, for example, was aggrieved at its treatment in the 1999 and 2002 campaigns when Labour was thought to aggressively target their voter base. Then in 2008 the Greens were displeased when Labour took the credit for the Greens’ insulation retrofitting schemes. Likewise, New Zealand First was aggrieved that Clark and her ministers often gave little or no acknowledgement to his party’s role in producing some of the policies that Labour was campaigning strongly on. For example, Labour strongly promoted the free off-peak public transport for SuperGold cardholders without mentioning that it had been a New Zealand First initiative. If Labour had truly wanted to give New Zealand First a chance of winning more than four percent of the vote it might have allowed its confidence-and-supply partner to claim a greater policy territory in order to chase the senior citizen vote.
Essentially Labour was repeating National’s 2005 mistake where it ran an election campaign with no coordination with, or regard towards the interests of, potential coalition partners. As Therese Arseneau wrote following National’s 2005 loss, ‘The key to winning an election under MMP is to maximize the vote of a bloc. To do this National and Labour, as the parties likely to lead a coalition government, needed to consider and safeguard the smaller parties within their bloc’ (Arseneau, 2007: p.426). Thus, in light of the experience of all minor parties in coalition governments under MMP, where they have been damaged playing a cooperative role, there has been an obvious need for the major parties to allow the minor parties to remain ‘distinct with their own identity and policies’ (Arseneau, 2007: p.437). Furthermore, ‘The need to “cuddle” small parties is not simply because they are potential coalition partners; it is also because taking votes from smaller parties does not grow the vote of a bloc: it merely reconfigures the seats within a bloc’ (Arseneau, 2007: p.426). Therefore, just as National’s vote gain in 2005 was at the expense of ally parties New Zealand First, United Future, and Act, Labour in 2008 certainly won a number of votes at the expense of the Greens and New Zealand First.
Labour’s lack of policy differentiation
Another problem for Labour was its lack of policy differentiation from National. After nine years the government could still not stake out a significant policy area that separated it from National. The Working for Families package, interest free student loans, and KiwiSaver were all significant initiatives but those which benefited middle income earners the most. It was not difficult for a party of the right to sign up to these initiatives, and hence Labour’s ability to differentiate itself was limited.
Labour therefore had to fight on valence issues, whereby it could only promote the idea that Labour had better policy rather than wholly different policies. This was in contrast to 2005 whereby litmus test issues such as tax cuts pointed to real differences between the parties. Labour itself had closed down this policy difference itself by implementing $10.6 billion personal tax cut package, timed to take effect soon before the election. Commentators saw Labour’s tax cut initiative as a strategic move to neutralise the advantage National had enjoyed over it in 2005.
Labour attempted to repeat its 2005 success by offering an attractive promise to tertiary students. In that election the promise of interest free loans while in New Zealand was seen as successful become it had trans-generational appeal – it appealed not just to students, but to their parents and grandparents as well. But in 2008 Labour’s newly announced extension of student allowances failed to get traction – especially because it appeared to be incongruent to Labour’s strong message that the Government could not afford much additional spending.
Other policies that might have allowed more differentiation were apparently shelved during the campaign. Labour had considered announcing a further extension to the paid parental leave scheme and greater funding for primary health to make doctors’ visits cheaper.
Another policy theme that Labour had previously been developing – sustainability issues - was also abandoned. In 2007 Clark had tried to take ownership of the issue of environmental sustainability, and to broaden the concept to include fiscal and social policy initiatives. This had been meant to signal a fresh direction for Labour, but the cloudy concept of sustainability did not resonate and was abandoned during 2008. Partly this was another campaign victim of the recession – Labour realized that in the difficult economic circumstances the implications of sustainability were negative for those struggling. Instead the Emissions Trading Scheme was strongly pushed through Parliament in the dying days of Labour’s term in an attempt to bolster Labour’s environmental standing.
Going into the campaign, Labour was a long way behind National in the opinion polls and therefore needed to take some risks. However, the only real risk it took was to use a negative campaign about trust. No radical risks were taken in policy terms. Yet such an approach was hardly surprising – all of Helen Clark’s previous campaigns appeared to use the operating guideline of ‘don’t frighten the horses’.
Labour’s highly centralized campaign organisation
Clark served as Labour's chief political strategist in this campaign, pushing aside Cabinet Minister Pete Hodgson, who had previously held this position. As usual, Simpson was in charge of policy formation. One media report suggested that amongst senior colleagues there was ‘considerable unease [that] Clark has concentrated so much power at the top’ (O'Sullivan, NZH, Sep 21, 2008). One insider was quoted as asking, ‘Doesn't she trust us?".
In addition to Clark and Simpson, the others making up Labour campaign committee, were MPs Michael Cullen, Annette King, Trevor Mallard, Pete Hodgson, Darren Hughes, general secretary Mike Smith, and party president Mike Williams, who played the role of campaign and fundraising manager.
As a further indication of Clark’s concentration of power in the campaign, she had the campaign committee only meeting weekly at the Beehive, leaving daily decision making ‘in the hands of individuals, who communicate via telephone and text messages’ (Venter, Dominion Post, 20 October 2008). In contrast, the National Party campaign committee met at the party headquarters about 6am, nearly every day.
Labour’s professionalization and celebrity-based politics
In terms of outside campaign professionals, Labour used Wellington ad man Fraser Carson for its advertising, multinational polling company UMR Ltd for its market research, and Washington-based ePolitics experts Blue State Digital. The latter was the Democrat-aligned firm behind the online and social network elements of the Obama presidential campaign, and although it was unclear what Blue State Digital did for Labour, its campaign website was hosted on the Blue State Digital US domain.
The professionalization of the Labour Party was also evident in its highly successful public campaign launch in early October. As with Labour’s previous three launches, the organization of the event had been contracted out to a company specializing in staging events (this time to Domain Production in conjunction with Inside Out production).
Labour was not immune from the increasing use of celebrity political endorsements. Partly to answer National’s use of rugby legends, league star Stacey Jones and fellow former Warrior Wairangi Koopu were deployed on the Thursday prior to the election in a staged appearance with Helen Clark in a Manukau shopping mall. More generally in the campaign, Clark had sought to associate herself with other famous people – for instance both her opening television address and her Facebook internet page featured images of her with political elites and icon such as Edmund Hillary, Nelson Mandela and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Labour also cleverly made use of New Zealand musicians in their campaign - Chris Knox's song It's a Better Way with Labour was used during the campaign, and the opening campaign launch featured singer Whirimako Black and actor Oscar Knightley (as MC), pop band Elemenop and hip-hop star King Kapisi.
Labours use of state resources in the campaign
Labour’s use of backdoor parliamentary and ministerial funding was again evident in its campaign. All the parties clearly have access to a whole host of state-funded parliamentary resources that they can employ during their election campaigns. It is also no coincidence that parliamentary budgets are more heavily used in the lead-up to election day. Even the Royal Commission on the Electoral System recognised that the resources of an MP are ultimately used by their parties: ‘While these entitlements are provided to the MPs themselves as aids to the fulfilment of their parliamentary functions, they are available throughout the year and are of considerable value to the political parties for campaigning and other purposes’ (RCES, 1986: p.210).
At the most obvious end of the spectrum, the staff in ministers’ offices are used for campaigning rather than simply for the minsterial functions that they are supposedly employed and paid for by the state to undertake. Labour employed in its parliamentary wing alone 45 former journalists. But the party also made effective use of its incumbency. From the very start of the campaign Helen Clark as prime minister grabbed the chance of her live televised announcement of the election date to make a ten minute speech on why the election would be about trust and how effective her party had been in government – effectively creating a free political advertisement.
Other benefits of being government meant that its initiatives could be trumpeted. Not only were its personal tax cuts designed to kick in just prior to the election, but also on October 1 was the introduction of New Zealand First negotiated $72 million free off-peak public transport for senior citizens scheme. The government funded launch party was effectively turned into a rally for the Labour Party, with a train ride from Britomart to Newmarket station where a function was held involving people such as former Cabinet minister Bob Tizard and Labour Party president Mike Williams. Minister Annette King frankly told reporters of the importance of the senior citizen initiative for labour, saying ‘These people, the older people, don't forget’ (quoted in Dearnaley, NZH, Sep 29, 2008)
Labour wisely decided to drop the use of a pledge card in 2008. This had been an iconic advertising devise in the previous three elections, but due to controversy created by the fact that parliamentary funds had been misused to pay for previous versions - $440,000 in 2005 – Labour sensibly chose not to draw attention to this old scandal. The party did however make smart use of a parliamentary-funded ‘information kit for the over-60s’ which was distributed to Labour-held electorates with each booklet printed with the faces of Labour MPs on the front.
Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008, edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig
Published by Pearson Education, 2009.
More information here.
Table Of Contents
1. Introduction: Mediated Politics - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward, Chris Rudd
2. Party Strategy and the 2008 Election - Bryce Edwards
3. The Election Campaign on Television News - Margie Comrie
4. Leaders’ Debates and News Media Interviews - Geoffrey Craig
5. ‘Vote for me’: Political Advertising - Claire Robinson
6. Newspaper Coverage - Chris Rudd and Janine Hayward
7. The Maori Party and Newspaper Coverage - Ann Sullivan
8. Online Media - Peter John Chen
9. Conclusion: Don’t shoot the messenger? - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward and Chris Rudd