National succeeded in defining itself as ‘the party of change’ in the campaign. Its use of change rhetoric was in tune with the restlessness towards the incumbent government. Key frequently injected words such as ‘fresh’ and ‘change’ into his speeches and debates to enhance this perception. In the first television leaders’ debate Key used the word ‘fresh’ four times, and in his party’s opening television address, nine times. In line with this, National's strategy has been to suggest that Labour had become out of touch, arrogant and too interfering in people's lives.
National never put great effort into setting the policy agenda, because such an attempt would be futile, as the party strategists believed in the classic Downesian concept that it is the public that chooses the policy agenda and the political parties are forced to simply follow this. Detecting that the three main policy themes that the public was interested in were the economy, education, and law and order – National attempted to associate its campaign with these, using the overarching theme of change to cohere these ideas.
A shift towards the centre
In general, National attempted to run a relatively policy-free campaign. Little detail was given for what a National government would do in terms of the economy, health, education, the environment, industrial relations, and infrastructure development. In particular, very few economic policies were detailed and commentators noted that despite the unfolding economic crisis there was a lack of a coherent economic vision from Key and his finance spokesperson Bill English. What little economic policy that was actually presented was criticized from both the left and right as being neither visionary nor a comprehensive enough response to the global economic crisis that was widely predicted to impact strongly on New Zealand. Although a month before the election National launched an ‘economic management plan’ for the crisis, this appeared to be simply a re-packaging of the same collection of policies the party has been promoting for some time.
Rather than stating what the party would actually do in power, National spent the campaign distancing the party from its past by clarifying all the things that it would not do if elected. National pledged not to reverse the nuclear-free policy, privatise state assets, alter health spending, or significantly alter the Employment Relations Act. National’s adoption of a whole range of Labour’s policies included embracing Kiwibank, Working for Families, the Superannuation Fund, the 66 per cent universal superannuation policy, and income-related state housing rents. Therefore, in most significant – and previously controversial – areas National had fallen into line with Labour.
Another important reason that National did not focus on policy was, therefore, that there was little to differentiate itself from Labour. National had deliberately closed the ideological gap between the two parties, producing a large common ground of policy. It was obvious that National was anxious to avoid being painted by Labour as a neoliberal party of the right. Key even labeled himself in one television appearance as ‘a money man with a heart’.
This strategic lesson did not just apply to keeping National from being too ideologically extreme, but also from being too bold. To present itself as too much of a party of conviction and principle would have been too reminiscent of National under Brash. Therefore a certain degree of blandness was actually deliberate. Advertising and billboards were therefore subtle rather than strong (Ansell, 2008).
As National was riding so high in the opinion polls, the party took the politically strategic approach of presenting as small a target as possible, instead almost banking on the incumbent government losing the election by default. In being reticent in releasing policy detail, National was able to more easily be ‘all things to all people’ and upset as few voters as possible.
Differentiation with Labour
Even National’s main point of difference at the previous 2005 election – tax cuts – was relatively invisible in National’s strategy. Although during the campaign National launched a scaled-down $16 billion package of personal tax cuts, this was not significantly different to the $10.6 billion package that Labour had actually implemented five weeks out from election day. Tax was thus a relatively neutralized policy issue, in stark contrast to the previous election when National promised larger tax cuts and Labour was opposed to any at all.
One surprise policy that the National used to out-Labour Labour, and to mop up New Zealand First voters, was its adoption of the blatantly nationalistic policy to direct the government Superannuation Fund to invest at least 40 per cent of its investments within New Zealand. And then National outflanked Labour by announcing an employment package for the coming economic downturn that was targeted at the traditional Labour territory of lower-income households. Other bewildering inversions of policy continued with National’s promise to axe Labour’s research and development tax breaks to business, then a criticism of Labour for under-resourcing schools, and a pledge to build and fund 21 additional hospital operating theatres, including a new Auckland hospital, at the cost of $36 million.
The one area that National successfully differentiated itself – more by rhetoric than substance – was on the very amorphous issue of ‘nanny-state bossiness’. Here, National cultivated the perception that the incumbent Labour Government had been overly interventionist in individuals’ lives. National carefully distanced itself from socially-liberal and environmental policies such as the anti-smacking legislation, civil unions, prostitution reform, bans on smoking, and most famously during the campaign – the apparent directive from the Department of Building and Housing to impose regulations on showerhead water flow capacity of some newly built houses. Of course in some of these areas the difference was more an illusion than real, with National actually agreeing with some of the rule changes, or a significant number of National MPs committing their conscience votes in favour of them.
A further indication of National’s ideological flexibility was provided during the campaign period when Key was forced to reveal that he had privately indicated to National’s potential coalition partner, the Maori Party, that he had no problem with backtracking on National’s plans to abolish the Maori seats, and that in fact the entrenchment of the Maori seats was a possibility.
National’s centrist approach was clearly an outcome of the party’s market-orientation. Its highly-fluid policy positions represented the party’s strong adherence to the messages being provided by market research, and in particular from National’s regular focus groups.
Under Bill English, policy formation had been severely softened. In fact, this approach was summed up well when a secret recording of English was broadcast during the campaign in which he said ‘nothing beats winning in politics, despite all our highly principled statements ... Do what we need to: win’. This unguarded admission of pragmatism accurately summed up National’s strategy. Yet even on the right of the party there was a relatively commitment to pragmatic compromise. Lockwood Smith, for example, was also infamously caught on tape saying that to get into power ‘you have to swallow dead fish’ and ‘you have to gain the confidence of people’ if you want to change things.
A presidentialised campaign
Without a focus on policy, National’s leadership was always going to be the stress of the party’s campaign (and within this strategy, it was John Key, rather than the overall team, that was emphasized). In line with the attempt at being positive and optimistic, the campaign portrayed Key as an ordinary friendly guy rather than attempting to associate him with gravitas and strength. National’s campaign strategists made a very strong effort to portray John Key as being in touch with New Zealanders, something that was achieved primarily through constant images of the leader engaging with ordinary people in its advertising. Such engagement included Key interacting with and listening to voters in public places.
An element of this engagement theme was to represent a diverse public engaging with Key, hence there were images of Key in the opening campaign address with different ethnicities, and then Key was shown in a number of settings talking to a variety of groups and individuals to emphasize Key and National’s inclusiveness. The fact that Key sometimes stumbled with diction and syntax – in stark comparison to Helen Clark – was not even a great concern to the National campaign, as it actually worked in with the desired portrayal. Key’s frequent ‘ahs’ and ‘you knows’ were viewed as an endearment factor rather than a handicap.
The fact that the National campaign could focus on Key as ‘a man of the people’ rather than as a highly competent manager or leader reflected National’s reading of the electorate and their desire to see a leader ‘in touch’ with voters. Furthermore, such an approach could only be taken because Key’s story of his state house, solo parent upbringing to multimillionaire high achiever had already been freshly told.
A professionalised and centralised campaign
The employment of advertising agencies is one of the most obvious examples of the professionalisation of the parties’ campaign activities. National employed the services of Australian company Crosby Textor for the 2008 campaign. Key was reported as employing the firm upon becoming leader in 2006 to run monthly focus groups about which political messages and leadership styles were popular with the public. It is not the first time that foreign strategy and communications firms have intervened in New Zealand politics. The most interesting would be when the American company Hanna-Barbera allegedly produced the notorious ‘Dancing Cossacks’ advertisements cartoons ‘at cost’ in 1975 for National, as an experiment in political commercials.
National’s committee involved leader John Key, his chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, his senior press secretary, Kevin Taylor, MPs Bill English, Gerry Brownlee, Simon Power, Nick Smith, Tony Ryall, Murray McCully, campaign manager Steven Joyce, and party president Judy Kirk. Steven Joyce had strong authority within the team, having already run the 2005 campaign that had increased National’s vote from 21 per cent (in 2002) to 45 per cent. A former radio business empire owner, Joyce was also responsible for centralizing the National Party organization structure following National’s 2002 nadir. Joyce restructured the formerly three-tiered organization, which had been dominated by the party's regions, into a highly-centralised organization with a new proclivity for uniformity and coordination. According to Joyce,
You don't now go to, say, Christchurch and find them running a very different campaign to what is going on in Auckland. Consistency of brand and message is vital in the electronic campaigns we are all in now…. Everyone is plugged in from one end of the country to the other, so people expect consistency (quoted in John Roughan, NZH, Oct 16, 2008).
This degree of centralization meant that individual National candidates in 2008 were prohibited with dealing with the national media, and had instructions to pass any media requests onto the head office. One candidate let slip during the campaign that he found this ‘bloody frustrating’ (Sandra Dickson, 7 Nov, 2008).
National’s interactive campaign
The National leader spent considerable time interacting with voters out on the campaign trail. This was in great contrast to his predecessor, Don Brash who was visibly uncomfortable on the hustings. Key was said by journalists following his campaign to enjoy the one-on-one interaction with the public, with one report suggesting he was ‘genial, relaxed, chatty, and warm’ and usually received a warm reception (Colin Espiner, The Press, 3 November 2008).
Despite claims by Clark during the campaign that Key's campaign was ‘hermetically sealed’ and he was staying out of reach of the public, while she and Labour were ‘out there taking the risks’, media reports suggested otherwise. The New Zealand Herald calculated after two weeks of the official campaign that Key and Clark had a similar level of public engagement:
The results show Mr Key has increased his number of genuine public meetings since that first week. But his schedule in the first week was no less public than hers in terms of "risking" running into unfriendly voters. Mr Key is also outstripping the PM on public walkabouts and has tended to enter enemy territory more than Helen Clark (Trevett, NZ Herald, 25 Oct 2008).
The Herald’s calculation of public campaigning in the first two weeks said that in terms of walkabouts, Key was ahead of Clark 11 to 3, for large advertised meetings they both had 2, Key beat Clark 5 to 4 in holding smaller community meetings, both leaders had staged 3 photo opportunities, but in terms of workplace type visits, Clark led Key, 10 to 7 (Trevett, NZ Herald, 25 Oct 2008).
When it was reported that Key was attracting large numbers of the public to meetings - 450 people at the Invercargill Working Men’s Club; 750 people attend a public meeting in Pukekohe – Clark also dismissed such events as being ‘stacked with National Party supporters’ (quoted in Trevett, NZ Herald, 25 Oct 2008).
As frequently is the norm in the modern New Zealand campaign, John Key travelled to public events in a campaign bus. In 2008 a big blue campaign bus with Key’s face on the back and the sides was utlised, sometimes ‘packed with National Party supporters wearing blue hats and carrying blue pom poms’ (Colin Espiner, The Press, 20 October 2008). In the last two days of the campaign the National campaign hired a plane to give leader John Key a final presidential-style blitzkrieg tour of the country. Controversially, the media subsidised National’s charter by contributing $1200 for each of the 12 journalists joining the party leader on the journey.
Chasing the middle-of-the-road voter
Perhaps for the first time, National showed an aptness towards working the MMP electoral system. The party realized that in order to be electable the party needed to display the ideological centrism that might attract a broad constituency of support nearing the 50 per cent mark, whereas for most of the party’s history its vote fell between 35 and 45 per cent. While this had often been enough to win elections under the old First-Past-the-Post electoral system it is not usually enough under proportional representation. A wider catchment was thus required.
As Therese Arseneau has previously argued, ‘The trick is finding the right election strategy and policy mix that will keep intact the vote of your own bloc, while also appealing to marginal and swing voters of the opposing bloc of parties’ (Arseneau, 2007: p.440). According to Arseneau, National failed to do this in 2005 with grave consequence. She argues that although National under Don Brash projected a bold and polarizing party brand that was relatively successful at reviving the party’s right-of-centre support after it’s disastrous 2002 nadir, crucially this was a losing branding strategy because it was never capable of winning enough support from the middle/centrist voters. The strategy involved winning votes off other parties from the rightwing electoral bloc instead of soft Labour Party support. National’s policies on race and tax, in particular, were ‘too right wing and divisive to attract the essential voters from Labour’ (Arseneau, 2007: p.428).
Instead of this bold but futile approach, National under John Key deliberately aimed to carve support out of Labour’s heartland territory. On the campaign trail this manifested itself in Key visiting lower socio-economic areas, factories, decile one schools, and most incongruently, the South Auckland Otara market. A further tactic in this regard was to make use of celebrity endorsements – with former All Blacks Michael Jones and Inga Tuigamala used very effectively in the last week of the campaign to speak to a large crowd of mainly Pacific Island workers in Mangere. It was reported that Jones and Tuigamala ‘didn’t just endorse Key. They called him their friend, and told the factory workers that they could trust him and he would make their lives and their families lives better’ (Colin Espiner, 3 November 2008).
Rather than realistically expecting to win significant numbers of votes in the more extreme socio-economic areas such South Auckland, the campaign trips into these areas was part of a deliberate strategy to present Key to middle New Zealand as ‘a man of the people’ who cared about the problems of the poor and was in touch with all of New Zealand. Therefore the frequent trips deep into Labour territory were designed not so much to win votes in these areas but to project an inclusive image back to ‘middle New Zealand’ via the media coverage of John Key’s walkabouts and public campaigning.
A coalition-building campaign
National also showed an aptness for the first time with the strategic coalition building required under MMP. Not only had Key quietly built up good relationships with most of the minor parties, he then managed to make the election about who the parties could work with – and on this question he was able to appear very credible.
Key's handling of the Maori Party was central to his strategy – he made it clear that even if National could form a government without the Maori Party, he would still be keen to discuss a deal with Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia. Key also made it clear during the campaign that National's policy to abolish the Maori seats was up for reconsideration. And parallel to this friendship extended to the Maori Party, National also attempted to project a message of inclusiveness to Maori, yet did not position itself as a competitor to the Maori Party’s in not standing any candidates in the Maori seats.
In dealing with his right flank, Key was also strategically artful, with National being able to shore up the support of the Act Party for a post-election administration, while also distancing itself from Act’s more radical risk of Roger Douglas by stating categorically that Douglas was not an option for Cabinet. The decision to embrace Act on National’s terms was in contrast to National’s 2005 approach of treating Act simply as a competitive rival. The 2008 embrace also sent a message to voters that Act was a relevant choice rather than a spoiler. But the highly symbolic exclusion of Douglas reassured centrist National-leaning voters that the Act Party would not be allowed to push a National government hard to the right.
The most significant coalition management maneuver during the campaign was Key’s dismissal of New Zealand First as a possibility for any government led by National. This strategy was advantageous to National for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it helped drive down the vote for a party that Key calculated was unlikely to help National form a coalition. Not only did it drain New Zealand First of its raison d’être of being a centrist kingmaker, it sent a message to potential New Zealand First voters – who mostly tended towards National rather than Labour – that a vote for it was essentially a vote for a Labour-led government. It also provided a very clear point of difference between National and Labour: that National was the only party capable of blocking the increasingly unpopular Winston Peters from continuing as a Minister in government, which National hoped would appeal to some potential Labour voters.
Apart from this risky maneuver, National’s campaign was highly risk-averse, which commentators thought was strange, as the party was led by a highly successful ex-currency trader, a role that naturally suits risk-oriented people. Overall, the cautious and moderate strategy inevitably produced a rather visionless, languid and muddled style of campaigning, helping National to achieve its electoral goal but without producing a memorable electoral battle. It also meant that a ‘change election’ had been produced without any real promise of significant policy change. It signaled that an incoming National government would take a managerial approach to governing in the mold of Keith Holyoake’s 1960s National Government.
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