It’s always interesting to see how the rest of the world views New Zealand politics and elections. Sometimes the international media political reports contain gross distortions and various ‘lost in translation’ elements, and other times the media reports and analysis benefits from its distance and its ability to put our politics into a wider context. Therefore it’s fortunate that German journalist and scholar Aljoscha Kertesz has gathered together ‘almost 300 media reports appearing in foreign media’ about the New Zealand general election of 2008 and analysed them, noting some of the examples and trends in his chapter entitled ‘2008: The International media and the election’ in the new post-election book Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008 (edited by Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts). This blog post highlights some of the most interesting points and examples made in this unusual but very welcome chapter. In particular, it highlights the characterisation of the 2008 context as seemingly both ‘lackluster’ and ‘ugly’ [Read more below]
The campaign: ‘lackluster’ and ‘ugly’
Aljoscha Kertesz’s chapter shows that there was an interesting tendency to characterize New Zealand’s election campaign as being either ‘lackluster’ or ‘ugly’ and dirty. For example: ‘a contrast between an account portraying the campaign as “one of the ugliest in the world” (The Canberra Times) and a view of the contest as “lackluster” (The Economist)’ (p.174).
In terms of the lackluster narrative, ‘Germany’s Der Tagesspiegel wrote about a “pale campaign”, informing readers that “neither Clark nor Key enthuse the electorate”. The German NTV news channel put it similarly: “Clark and Key have not evoked a storm of enthusiasm”’ (p.174). This partly related to the perceived low degree of policy conflict and alternatives offered. There seemed to be a strong media consensus – probably helped by global contextualization – that Labour and National were increasingly similar: ‘there was one subject that echoed across the newswires and in the national dailies: the likelihood that there would not be a major change in New Zealand’s policies, firstly in foreign policy and to a lesser extent in New Zealand domestic affairs’ (pp.177-178). Similarly, the Financial Times said, ‘on big policy areas there is little difference between the two main parties’ (p.178); and Reuters reported: ‘whoever wins, few major policy shifts are expected’ (p.179).
The view that the New Zealand campaign was bitter and dirty was pushed by Australian media: ‘Two Australian newspapers, The Canberra Times and The Australian, ran articles on the findings of the US website www.foreignpolicy.com - presented as reliable source attracting 130,000 visitors a month – which described the New Zealand campaign as “ugly by global standards”’ ranking as similar to elections in Nigeria and Russia (p.174). There were also various reports of clashes of party supporters, for example: Radio Australia reported that ‘police were forced to break up scuffles during a rally in the lower North Island city of Palmerston North’ (p.175).
Part of the explanation for the characterization of electoral ugliness related to the political finance scandals. Many reports seemed to cite or emphasis the various political finance scandals, especially relating to New Zealand First’s donations and other allegations of fraud.
The various media reports appear to have used the following types of descriptions of Helen Clark: ‘fiercely intellectual’; ‘strong’; ‘dour’; ‘tired and a bit arrogant’. Bizarrely, ‘A German newspaper, Tageszeitung, described her as the “most southern Stalinist in the world”… and several newspapers reported the capital, Wellington, being referred to as “Helengrad by friends as foe alike”’ (p.171).
John Key was described as: ‘political neophyte’; ‘affable’; ‘intelligent strategist’; has an ‘ordinary guy’ style; ‘an uncharismatic bore’; ‘lacks charisma and repartee’ (pp.171-173). Key’s old ‘smiling assassin’ nickname was stressed by a number of European media outlets – author, Kertesz, says, ‘In French the term reads “l’assasin souriant”; in German it translates into “lachelnder Killer”’ (p.172).
I really hope that Kertesz will carry out the same analysis again for the 2011 election.
Table of contents
Preface - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
Preface - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
Overview of the
Overview of the Election
2008: Key to victory - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
2008: The last baby-boomer election - Colin James
2008: Leadership during transition - Jon Johansson
Political Party Perspectives
National - Steven Joyce
Labour - Grant Robertson
The Greens - Catherine Delahunty
ACT - John Boscawen
The Maori Party - Rahui Katene
The Progressives - John Pagani
United Future - Rob Eaddy
New Zealand First - Damian Edwards
New Zealand’s party system: a multi-party mirage? - Jennifer Curtin and Raymond Miller
2008: Images of political leadership in the campaign - Claire Robinson
2008: Media coverage of the election - Babak Bahador
2008: The international media and the election - Aljoscha Kertesz
2008: The campaign in cyberspace - Nicola Kean
2008: The YouTube campaign - Rob Salmond
2008: Voting behaviour and the keys to victory - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
2008: The impact of the Electoral Finance Act - Bryce Edwards
2008: Opinion polls and prediction markets in New Zealand - Shaun McGirr and Rob Salmond
2008: National’s winning strategy - Therese Arseneau
Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008
Levine, Stephen (ed)
Roberts, Nigel (ed)
Victory is the
story of the New Zealand general election of 2008, in which the experienced and
long-serving prime minister, Helen Clark, was ousted by a political newcomer –
National’s John Key.
Veteran academic commentators Colin James, Jon Johansson, and Therese Arseneau offer perspectives on what New Zealanders were voting for when endorsing John Key and National, and what they were voting against. Several MPs elected for the first time in 2008 provide first-hand accounts of their parties’ campaigns, including Labour’s Grant Robertson; the Greens’ Catherine Delahunty; the Maori Party’s Rahui Katene; ACT’s John Boscawen; and the director of National’s winning campaign, Steven Joyce, appointed to Cabinet following National’s victory. New Zealand First’s doomed campaign is described by its campaign director, Damian Edwards, while party strategists John Pagani and Rob Eaddy provide accounts of the Progressive and United Future campaigns.
Key to Victory also investigates the important issues of the 2008 election, such as the impact of the Electoral Finance Act, and the likely future of New Zealand’s remaining small parties.
During the 2008 campaign political parties started getting to grips with websites, blogs, Facebook and YouTube, and ‘prediction markets’ competed with traditional polls in forecasting the election results. The book describes these developments and provides insights into the use of the media by John Key and Helen Clark in their rival campaigns for leadership. International reaction to the New Zealand campaign and the country’s vote for change is also highlighted.
Key to Victory includes a special DVD with excerpts from key campaign events including the televised leaders’ debates, the leaders’ opening night campaign addresses, parties’ TV ads and campaign billboards.