The 2008 campaign was so starved of real political conflict that it made for an relatively meaningless election. It is not surprising therefore that voter turnout (total party votes cast as a proportion of eligible electors) for the 2008 General was down to 75.7 per cent. This figure of only three out of four voting comes in the context of New Zealand traditionally having one of the highest polling turnouts in the world, with about 90 per cent of eligible voters casting a vote in the immediate postwar elections. Even as recently as 1984, 86 per cent participated, after which it fell sharply in 1987 to 78 per cent, and then to a record low of 72 percent in 2002, recovering in 2005 before dropping once more in 2008.
All the political parties – and especially Labour and National – have become extremely pragmatic and have elevated opportunism over principle and market research over popular participation at election time. Thus, clearly the modern parties have a problem projecting a distinct or separate identity from one another and this has made them less appealing to voters. While modern designer politics, with its market-oriented and spin-doctoring might provide the election campaign with colourful personalities and trivialities, at the same time it makes the parties all appear bland. But where no real clash of views occurs and the politicians avoid debate over any sort of principle, few voters are likely to engage in politics themselves. When campaigns are merely a contest between sound-bites rather than alternative ways of organising society then it is not surprising that a certain disdain for the parties exists.
Certainly in 2008, the scramble for the political centre produced an inclination towards trivialization, negativity and ‘dirty campaigning’. After all, the highly-professionalised approach encourages the type of events that are undertaken for television image-making – the scandals, the focus on personality and so on. In this situation, the political parties, like any sellers in a marketplace, have to manipulate into existence some sort of brand differentiation. When parties attempt to trade on the names and endorsements of celebrities, or even when they have celebrities run for office, the party is essentially advertising its weakness. It has run out of ideas and is instead looking for more emotional and superficial ways to sell itself. So the use of various political lightweights in 2008 also indicated the lack of confidence that parties had in their own political programme and ideology.
Apart from a further shift towards the general market-led and personality-focused professionalization approach, there was no significant change in campaign strategies and tactics in 2008. The professionalisation approach continued to demand a greater amount of photo opportunities, stunts, and a general obsession with the media. The party leaders invited journalists like Paul Holmes to their homes for meals (Key cooked pancakes for breakfast; Clark’s husband Peter Davis made curry; Fitzsimmons served soup and an omelette), while others went for a dramatic anti-media approach (Winston Peters’ non-cooperation and allegations against them).
Yet, in the face of such developments, there continued to be a strong focus on public campaigning, with the persistence of some degree of door-to-door canvassing, public meetings and rallies. Such campaigning in public remains highly visible – at least when it gets on television. The campaign launches involved decent numbers of people – Labour, National and Maori parties attracted about 1000 people, New Zealand First, 500, and Act 400 – yet these rallies are still scaled down events compared to past launches – for example, National’s 1987 rally attracted 4000 National supporters. Large election meetings are still a thing of the past. Furthermore, the adoption of these activities is often not out of merit for the method but as a publicity gimmick, an attempt to get positive media coverage of the fact that the party is using the traditional method, or to show politicians ‘in touch’ with the people.
Market-oriented politics clearly produced political stagnation by discouraging policy advancement and risk-taking. By being market-led in their policies rather than preference-setting, parties were not advancing ideas, only throwing the same ones back to the public that they have discovered through focus groups and the like. The New Zealand parties now see their primary function as merely reflecting rather than shaping public opinion. The Labour and National parties, in particular, offered little that is new – preferring instead to repeat back to voters a concern for the issues that their market research has told them were already of general concern. The use of polling has a tendency to increase the pragmatic nature of parties – turning them into market-led organisations, rather than market-leading parties.
The dominance of market-oriented electioneering means that parties are transformed even further into products or consumer commodities to be ‘branded’ and sold like celebrity-endorsed packets of soap powder. This commodification is being done by professional marketers who often do not originate from within the party but who are dedicated to the idea of politics as a marketing enterprise rather than an ideological struggle. Increasingly, this is making leaders and their parties look like a part of a political elite than participants in a proper democracy.
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