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John Bishops' Communications Line – 21 August

John Bishops' Communications Line – 21 August 2008

Communications Line Issue Number 68 of 21 August 2008

With the general election no more than 12 weeks and two days away (less if you go with any scenario of earlier than 15 November) election campaigns are starting. Party lists are being unveiled, policies are being released; the noisy argy of politics in a democracy is under way. Politics is about positioning, communications, persuasion and getting people to believe and act in certain ways, so in an election year there’s always plenty for communications people to discuss and debate. So in this issue we record the thoughts of some leading academics, offer some comments on the polls, look at the communications methods of some US candidates. And what publication about politics would be complete without Paris Hilton? And there’s stuff about how TV One upset Stephen Price, the Greens’ deadline on the ETS and how ACT is moving to the centre, plus the odd uses of language.

MMP delivers says advocate

The MMP system has delivered on the expectations of its proponents and supporters, leading political scientist Professor Nigel Roberts told a lunchtime audience in Wellington today.

The number of women in Parliament has risen from 21% in 1996 to 32% at present. Maori were now 15% of Parliament, the same as in the population generally.

Disproportionality – a measure of the distortion between the number of votes a party received and the number of seats it secured had fallen by 75%. The number of parties in Parliament had increased from two or three to eight, while after 1999, the number of MPS defected from the party that had elected them had dropped away sharply.

“And it’s worth remembering that in the last ten years (beyond the life of the current government) we have had a minority government, but maintained stability.

He called a 1992 statement from the referendum publicity about changing the electoral system that MMP would means more minor parties were represented, and that coalitions and agreements among parties would be needed to produce a majority government. “Boy, were we right about that.”

Professor Roberts also noted that voters had learned how to vote strategically. Data from the four MMP elections to data showed that up to a third of voters split their support voting for a candidate in their electorate who represented a different party to the one gaining their party vote.

Labour has an attitude problem

They are almost as far behind in the polls as ever. The fear strategy hasn’t worked (or at least not yet). The Nats had a terrible week with the secret taping of conversations. By conventional wisdom, the gap between National and Labour should have closed as some voters took fright and fled.

National looks like teflon and Key keeps smiling, while Helen Clark talks up how National is like Muldoon: Muldoon’s mokopuna, she said of Key’s plan to borrow more to spend on infrastructure.

By harking back to Muldoon, she ages and dates herself. Her beliefs and values are reflecting her political upbringing. It’s not that the charge is right or wrong economically. It is that half the electorate don’t recall Muldoon with any clarity, so the charge become irrelevant. She could be Gladstone and Key Disraeli for all the resonance that would have with the electorate. I remember the events that shaped Helen Clark because we are of a similar age, but most voters are younger than us.

Other commentators have sought to explain National’s lead and Labour’s vain attempt to close it in a variety of ways. To my simple mind, the electorate has adopted an attitude. It’s an attitude that says we have had enough of this government, and it’s time for them to go.

It is an attitude as opposed to a rational judgment. Rationally people will concede the government has done some good things (although they may struggle to name more than two or three). But emotionally they want it gone. What looked like masterful political control, firmness and responsiveness to New Zealand values has deteriorated into social engineering, meddling, overly prescriptive bossiness, and poll driven sycophancy.

The problem with an attitude is that it is hard to shift, and hard to shift by rational argument alone. An attitude is not an opinion or a belief. It’s a cast of mind; slow to form but hard to change.

National’s Labour Plus

National has articulated a set of policies very much like Labour’s but without the Labour people running the ship. That can look like an acceptable alternative: a different set of hands running much the same ship heading in much the same direction.

If that is so, then Bill English’s articulation of the group of voters he called Labour Plus is the real revelation of the National Party Conference, not the secret taping or the indiscreet remarks about KiwiBank, John Key’s understanding of Working for Families or Lockwood Smith’s willingness to swallow dead fish. (He meant rats.)

English was referring to a group of voters who would accept all that Labour had done, but would also take the extras (tax cuts mainly) that National was offering as well – thank you very much. They are the Labour Plus crowd, and the challenge for Labour to pull them back is how to convince them that less (Labour’s offering) is more, and to convince them that what National is offering they won’t get, or will get only at a price they won’t want to pay.

The challenge for National is to keep these self interested voters in the camp, by showing that National can deliver the extra goods without undue harm in other areas. Right now they seem to be achieving that, which suggest to me that it’s time for Labour to try something else.

ACT is a centre party

Rodney Hide is wandering around in a "look at me, look at me” yellow jacket that makes him look like a shaven raisin atop a moving custard, but ACT needs attention if it is to get traction. They did well mediawise with Sir Roger Douglas putting his hand up for the cause again, and in the past few weeks Rodney’s had plenty of coverage in his favourite sport of Peters baiting.

However the media coverage to date has missed a vital shift in ACT strategy. ACT isn’t competing on the fringe any more. It’s trying to be a centre party. A radical centre party with some novel ideas but a centre party nonetheless.

At the party’s annual conference in March deputy leader Heather Roy MP made a presentation which effectively repositioned ACT away from its Friedman-Thatcherite associations. Less government was good government, she said, but education and training, health and social services and the provision of superannuation were now among the “core roles” of the state for ACT.

According to Roy the other roles for the state were: national security, infrastructure, justice and the maintenance of law and order, being smart green and fiscal responsibility – running a tight ship on economic matters.
The minimalist view that the state should be confined to the defence of the realm and enforcement of contracts was implicitly rejected.

“We have to build the strength and relevance of ACT as a classical liberal party that is new and true again,” Mrs Roy said. This was in contrast to the “false and old’, policies of the other parties, who had failed to make New Zealand prosperous or safe.

Ad man John Ansell followed this up with a pamphlet setting out Sir Roger Douglas’ 20 point plan to restore New Zealand’s prosperity. The policies include cutting and flattening taxes, introducing night courts and a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, increasing migration, more land for housing, reforming the RMA, and making education and health more competitive, a referendum on MMP and finding mentors to teach families parenting and life skills.

Ansell’s brochure copy said “if anyone says these policies are ‘hard right’ note how many of them have been adopted by left wing governments from Sweden to the UK to Bill Clinton’s America. In the UK privately run prisons are now the norm under a Labour government. In Sweden the only party that doesn’t support a voucher system enabling parents to choose the best school for their children is the former Communist party.

He told me: “ACT needs to occupy a position in the centre of the political spectrum, straddling the 50% line where the majority of voters are. All the ideas (in the Douglas plan) are less state, more private, so it’s still ideological, but they are also world best practice.”

Business group fingers monetary policy

In an Election Manifesto being released today, the country’s thirty chambers of commerce finger the failure of monetary policy to work to control inflation and promote growth.

They argue that many current policies are counteracting the Reserve Bank’s efforts to curb inflation, and they want the incoming government to adopt policies that will work with rather than against monetary policy.

The manifesto identifies the main policies causing damage as: increases in government expenditure and taxes; the expansion of local government; labour market regulation; and cost increases arising from the Resource Management Act and other regulations.

“High interest rates and an overvalued exchange rate reveal more about the failure of other policy settings than problems with the monetary policy framework.” The manifesto then lists a raft of pro-business polices which they say are necessary for growth. For the full document go to

Electoral litigation more likely?

Taking a case under the Electoral Finance Act may well be worth the effort if it makes the difference to being in parliament or to who forms the next government says Kensington Swan electoral law expert Hayden Wilson. He’s thinks litigation about the results is more likely than in previous elections See http://www.johnbishop.co.nz/writer/articles/150808-2.shtml

Electoral petitions have to be filled within 28 days of election day, but the deadline for returns from candidates and parties is 70 days, “so candidates pursuing an electoral petition will have to go to court before the returns are in.” Mr Wilson said it could be a busy Christmas/New Year period for the three High Court judges who would comprise the Electoral Court.

Greens set drop dead date on ETS

The government has under a week to do a deal with the Greens and New Zealand First to get the numbers to pass its controversial emissions trading scheme into law.

Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons says agreement in principle is needed by the time Parliament resumes on Tuesday 26 August to allow time for the drafting of final amendments and the passage of the Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill through its remaining stages.

The Finance and Expenditure Select Committee has reported the bill back with about a thousand amendments, most of a technical nature. The Bill is now set down for a second reading debate, although this will be held only if there are the numbers to support it.

“There are about three or four weeks of sitting days before the election and we need about three or four days to put the Bill through its remaining stages,” Ms Fitzsimons told me: “We have time if we can get agreement by the time Parliament resumes.”

Labour needs both the Greens and NZF to form a majority, but the very things that Greens want changed – progress on the inclusion of agriculture and reversing the delay in bringing transport into the scheme – are the very things that NZF wants to keep in their present form. There does seem to be agreement on compensating lower income households for the increased price of electricity that will come when carbon charges kick in.

Ms Fitzsimons said the position of the two minor parties were “not incompatible”, and that agreement was possible.

Understanding Kyoto

I now finally understand the implications of the Kyoto agreement on climate change and why the government is so keen to get an emission trading scheme in place. I have a lawyer to thank for it and it was free too. (Intelligent, incisive, relevant and cheap – what a combination in any professional services person.)

The financial liability for Kyoto falls on sovereign governments. Our liability is estimated to reach more than $4.5 billion by 2025 according to the NZIER in April 2008. As Kensington Swan’s energy partner Bryan Gundersen put it, no wonder the government is keen to shift the liability.

There are two commonly used ways to shift the liability. One is a carbon tax, a simple, blunt instrument but effective in collecting revenue like any tax which is gathered when the good or service is purchased. The other is an emission trading scheme. It may be fairer because it goes to some trouble to ensure that the user of carbon or the emitter of the greenhouse gas pays for the right, and it incentivizes those parties to change their behaviour.

There are plenty of arguments for and against each approach, and that’s where my head had been. Mr Gundersen cut through all that for me. It’s about shifting costs. Shifting them from the government to the rest of us; simple really. And I thought it was about saving the planet. What a silly idea. It’s about money – just like most things in life.

Incidentally the NZIER report also calculated that the ETS was going to cost four times as much as the government paying the cost directly on our behalf. “Paying directly for emission reductions will also make a greater contribution to a reduction in global emissions than could be achieved as a result of an ETS forcing a reduction in New Zealand emissions,’ the report said.

Did I say what you wanted?

A common complaint from corporate PR people is that journos ring asking for a comment on a story where the angle has been predetermined. They just need a quote to show they sought balance. Experts and commentators appearing frequently in the media make similar criticisms: they are approached not for their expertise but because it’s felt that their known views will “fit” the angle of the story and thereby give it credibility.

Media law expert Stephen Price documents in his blog how that went wrong for him when he appeared on TV One News in an item about the secret taping of the conversations at the cocktail party at the National Party conference.
On his blog Price writes” Might there have been a crime? Here’s the quote One News used from me, suggesting that I told them that the recording “may have broken the law”.

“If you’re eavesdropping on somebody else’s conversation that you’re not part of, then you might be breaking the law if it’s clear that those people intend it to be private.”

He continues, “Well, true. But I went on to point out that there’s no crime if the people talking could reasonably expect to be overheard - which would probably be the case at a cocktail party. But TVNZ didn’t broadcast or mention that bit. Jessica Mutch, who conducted the interview, said she’d read my blog entries too, so she can’t have been in any doubt about my views. (which to quote his blog are, “If the person who recorded it was one of the people English was speaking to, no offence has been committed.”)

Price adds: “But I guess that didn’t fit with the story they wanted to tell.”

Recession in Wellington – hardly

Reports about the economy being in recession have been greatly exaggerated to rephrase the famous American author, Mark Twain who was told on one occasion that he was reported to be dead.

Seasonally adjusted retail sales (excluding sales of vehicles and fuel) fell 0.7% or $35 million compared with a rise of 0.3% in the previous quarter, according to Statistics Department figures released last Friday.

We are cutting back and there’s no doubt that household budgets are under pressure but I can’t see that this as a disaster, well not yet anyway. Sure, it’s not a good time to be in the white wear or car sales business, but these sectors are always vulnerable to any drop in purchasing power, or to any rise in interest rates or unemployment. It’s part of their business risk.

Sure, the volume of sales has fallen for the second quarter in a row – the first time this had happened since the recession of 1991, leading doomsayers to talk of the winter of retail discontent. Westpac headlined their commentary on the figures, “You pay more, you buy less” - a play on the Mitre Ten Mega store advertisement. The bank commented that while retail spending had remained very weak, it was not quite as bad as the market had expected.

And it went on to say “New Zealand is not going through a typical slowdown. Like the rest of the world we are facing a major cost shock. Rising prices have left consumers with a severe reduction in purchasing power.”

And even if the rest of the country is suffering, Wellington seems to be holding its own. Guest accommodation and retail sales data show the Wellington economy is performing better than the rest of the country.

The Wellington Regional Chamber of Commerce noted that seasonally adjusted retail sales for the June quarter were up 0.7% in Wellington compared with a 0.3% fall across the country. And Wellington was also the only region to record an increase in guest nights, up 2,000 or 1% compared with the same time last year.

Luck in Politics

Was the death of the PM’s mountain guide and her own heroic (and stoic) role in trying to revive him the sort of stuff the public like to love about their leaders? Perhaps, although (crassly) it might have been better for her if the guide had survived. The importance of luck, happenstance and the unexpected event from left field in politics ought never to be ignored, although it is hard to predict the event or to order one up as required. (There’s no dial a lucky event number in the Yellow Pages just yet).

But consider another example, what would have happened if John Edwards’ affair had been known earlier? “Senator Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic presidential nominee if John Edwards had been caught in his lie about an extramarital affair and forced out of the race last year,” insists a top Clinton campaign aide, making a charge that could exacerbate previously existing tensions between the camps of Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama. Former Clinton Communications Director Howard Wolfson said (reported in Levine Breaking News), “I believe we would have won Iowa, and Clinton today would therefore have been the nominee.”

McCain takes lead

In a sharp turnaround, Republican John McCain has opened a 5-point lead on Democrat Barack Obama in the U.S. presidential race and is seen as a stronger manager of the economy, according to a Reuters/Zogby poll released on Wednesday. McCain leads Obama among likely U.S. voters by 46 percent to 41 percent, wiping out Obama's solid 7-point advantage in July and taking his first lead in the monthly Reuters/Zogby poll.

You can bet on it

Prediction markets are showing a win to Obama says Matt Burgess of Ipredict, a company seeking to introduce prediction markets into New Zealand.

He says that prediction markets – which operate similarly to foreign exchange and commodities markets overseas – outperform every other alternative in the accuracy of their predictions. “Partly it’s the wisdom of crowds, and partly because being truthful is rewarded,” he says. See www.ipredict.co.nz

Advertisements and self promotion

International education has recovered as an industry, and as a foreign exchange earner, even though student numbers are still down from their previous peaks. The new development is that more income is being earned off shore. See http://www.johnbishop.co.nz/writer/articles/080808.shtml

At www.wotzon.com there are several columnists including me whose contributions add variety and interest to the site which is mainly about events and locations in Wellington. There’s a free weekly email to subscribers.

Managers of stakeholder relationships and consultation programmes may be interested in a two day workshop I am running on Consultation, Stakeholder and Engagement. It’s being offered through Conferenz. There’s a session in Auckland on 14/15 October and in Wellington on 29/30 October. You can get the brochure from my website www.johnbishop.co.nz or by going to Conferenz http://www.conferenz.co.nz/consultation-engagement-stakeholder-management.html

Australia is the way

Critics of the government’s handling of the ETS are pointing to Australia for an example about how to do it better. See http://www.johnbishop.co.nz/writer/articles/150808.shtml

Talking of language

This is from a boy racer’s Mitsubishi. The number plate utilises the ability to put words above and below the registration letters and numbers to give …Just DOOOOOO it.

And on Auckland’s Hobson Street a church has a sign written in the same style as the Ipod lettering… Igod

A colleague in the website business won a contract to build a site and the client enthused thus….“ that’s a full paradigm leap as a conversation engager”.
At the end of a discussion on a particular topic at a committee meeting I attended recently, one member said to another about the need for further information, “no doubt you’ll keep us bulletinised.”

For those that haven’t seen Paris Hilton running for President, here’s the video clip http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/08/05/paris-hilton-responds-to_n_117137.html

Finally…..from the world is bizarre desk I found this story …..a cell phone ringtone that chants "condom, condom!" has been launched in India to promote safe sex and tackle the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. The "condom a cappella" has been designed to break down Indians' reluctance to discuss condom use and to make wearing a condom more acceptable.

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