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Communications Line Number 71 of 28 October 2008

Communications Line Number 71 of 28 October 2008

It’s all about politics and brands this week. Contact Energy’s reputation fell. The Lions rugby team destroyed the faith of their supporters, and the politicians tried to burnish their own brands while not destroying the brands of those they might have to deal with later. The news media did the voters no favours by focusing on coalitions, bottom lines and kingmakers. And where’s the grand vision and the route back to prosperity, the forgotten word in the campaign so far?

Beginning of the end

This weekend the New Zealand election finally got interesting. After a week where supporters of the centre right were showing signs of panic and despair and were starting to worry that Labour would get close enough to stitch up a deal even from a minority position, the impetus seems now back with National.

There are several reasons for this. One was the Monday TVNZ poll which said that a majority of New Zealanders want the party with the largest number of seats to lead the government. That attacks Labour’s legitimacy as the incumbent having first crack even if it is second in seats. Secondly on the minor party leaders’ debate Tariana Tura seemed open to a deal with National, or perhaps to no deal with anyone. Thirdly Fitzsimons wasn’t too keen on being around the same campfire as Winston under a Labour led government “We’d find that difficult,” she said.

Fourthly Key dominated the news agenda over the weekend; announcing a deal with United Future; declaring he would take Tourism as a Cabinet portfolio, and with his promise of a cash and loans package for people affected by the global economic crisis. Promising it now and announcing details late this week helps set the agenda and puts the other side on the back foot. It also gives National two bites at the publicity cherry. He also put in good performances on Agenda and Election 08 on Sunday.

There were several recurrent themes this week. One was a media focus on coalitions and bottom lines – on what policies would the parties find impossible it to compromise. Both these ideas are false constructs – concepts that the media find convenient to use as tools to organise their reportage.

It doesn’t have to be a coalition

Labour plus Jim Anderton is a coalition, but it doesn’t deliver a majority. So Labour has supply and confidence agreements with United Future and NZ First. In earlier Parliaments Labour had a coalition with the Alliance and had supply and confidence agreements variously with the Greens and United Future.

National and Peter Dunne would probably be a coalition, but National and ACT would not necessarily coalesce. (There’s a problem with having Roger Douglas in Cabinet although last night Hide was talking only about having Roger in Parliament). The media’s obsession with coalitions is really about the Maori Party, and their third false construct – king maker. Previewing the debate, host Mark Sainsbury referred in one cross over from the news to the minor party leaders as – kingmakers, that’s the way they see themselves. Wrong. That’s the way simplistic minded media see them and they use the label accordingly. But the leaders themselves don’t use the term.

It may well be that National is too toxic for the supporters of the Maori Party to handle a coalition deal. It may also be that the enmity with Labour is too deep for the leaders of the Maori Party to accept a coalition easily. Perhaps the Maori Party will not coalesce with either. Perhaps a supply and confidence agreement (with consultation on policy, a couple of seats outside Cabinet, some dedicated funding and some other commitments) might be enough for them and for their partner. Remember that if the abolition or entrenchment of the Maori seats presents a problem for National, what sort of barrier is repeal of the foreshore and seabed legislation for Labour?

What’s a majority?

Anderton could be an overhang. Dunne perhaps so as well. If the Maori Party get six or even all seven of the Maori seats, three of four of those may be overhangs as well. (That’s when a party wins more electorate seats than their percentage of the party vote entitles them to. The size of Parliament increases, the logic being that a party should not be deprived of an electorate seat, nor the residents deprived of representation).

A Parliament of 125 seats is not implausible. At either 124 or 125 seats a majority is 63, and this week the commentators argument was that National would be hard pressed to get either a majority on its own or to put together a centre right coalition (with ACT and now with United Future as well). Hence some of the fascination with coalitions and numbers in the polls.

Labour had done well to get the story about National not having enough friends to form a government up and into the media and it was being taken seriously with a narrowing gap in the polls – the TVNZ one in particular didn’t deliver National a clear majority nor did the centre right clearly dominate (the size of parliament mattered here).

MMP forces parties to advocate principles and policies to get votes but then to trade them to form governments. You have to compromise to be in government in order to deliver at least some of what you promised. Alternatively you can be in opposition and deliver nothing at all. The system actively fosters the perception of dishonesty and penalises those who cannot make the need to do a deal sound other than worthy.

Vote tactically: you know it makes sense.

The final two weeks of a campaign concentrate the parties’ minds wonderfully and it is no surprise to see the question of tactical voting being raised. Political scientists Nigel Roberts and Barry Gustafson say (Sunday StarTimes) that Labour voters in Tauranga should vote for Peters to get New Zealand First back, as this would boost the centre left bloc by the full extent of the NZF vote across the country.

The Tauranga logic also applies to Labour voters in Ohariu, Epsom and perhaps Rimutaka where NZF’s Ron Mark is making a strong play. Delivering Ohariu and Epsom to National wouldn’t increase the total centre right bloc and would take out ACT altogether (unless National retaliated by winding down their own campaigns and backing Dunne and Hide respectively.)

New Zealanders do split their votes – 29% did so in 2005 and the average has been higher in previous elections. However a willingness to split one’s vote is not the same as being prepared to vote tactically. That requires a voter to vote for someone than the voter’s first choice trusting that this will produce a better outcome than would otherwise be the case by voting for their real preference.

In 1996, the then Prime Minister Jim Bolger successfully urged National voters to support ACT’s Richard Prebble in Wellington Central in 1996 over National’s own candidate to stop the centre right’s votes being split and thereby delivering the seat to Labour. And Epsom voters did it last time to get Rodney Hide into Parliament. Rumours also swirl that some Labour candidates will wind down their electorate campaigns and urge their supporters to give their party vote to Labour but to vote tactically in the electorate. It is something to watch for in the next two weeks.

Politics the way we want it?

My mythical ordinary bloke would be unimpressed and unmoved by the vision, the rhetoric and the passion for their causes that the politicians have demonstrated so far.

If there was ever a time for some good old fashioned barn storming type evening meetings in town halls across the land, I would have thought it would be now. Why can’t John Key be seen on stage ripping into the performance of Labour. It’s not as though there’s a shortage of material. Health expenditure has doubled, but operations are up only a fraction of that. The outflow of Kiwis to Australia is at record levels. Where’s the plan to lift NZ back to the top half of the OECD? Why are carbon emissions increasing not reducing under current policies? When will Labour focus on the issues of prosperity and improved state spending and not on the nanny state stuff about how we want to raise our children or the capacity of our showerheads. Good grief it can’t be that hard to write and deliver a rambunctious mock and scorn stump speech, which would have the crowd whistling and stomping.

It’s also true the other way round. Unleash Helen the attack dog. Let her get stuck into National’s tired young men recycled from the failures of the 1990s. Attack them for copying Labour’s policies but without the genuine commitment and compassion for ‘the little people”. Scorn Key as a Johnny come back home dilettante without experience; New Zealand’s version of Obama without the smarts or the charm. Skewer them over their promises on Kiwisaver, ACC and asset sales. Dissect and denigrate their comments that Asian have smaller hands, and their twists and turns over toll roads. Is it that hard? No it’s not. The very mild attack ads on the “two Johns” may indicate that Labour is heading in that territory in the last two weeks of the campaign.

How do we talk about race?

Lockwood Smith reported some comments purportedly made to him by various grape and fruit growers about workers from Asia and the Pacific. Whether the comments were right or wrong doesn’t matter here. He was promptly accused of racism for repeating the views of others. It was assumed that by repeating those comments he was endorsing them. It also happened with the Massey University academic Greg Clydesdale and his research about the contribution of pacific people to New Zealand. He was accused of peddling racism and fostering division because he claimed there was evidence that (to quote his news release) “Polynesians are becoming an under-class in New Zealand society, and ….as an ethnic group, Polynesians display significant and enduring under-achievement. They are the highest unemployed in every age group. They also earn disproportionately lower incomes.’

Again it was assumed that his findings were his views. (It got more complicated by a debate about the quality of his research). But it was the transference interested me. And in both cases the weight of the anti-racism brigade crushed debate about the significance of the Clydesdale’s findings and the validity (or otherwise) of the comments by the growers.

If we cannot discuss the differences in attitudes, education, skills and social behaviour of various ethnic or social groups without invoking taunts of racism, how are we to develop policies that will address the issues of discrepancy between the groups? The current solution seems to be to turn our collective heads away from the problem and to shun or revile anyone who wants to bring some evidence to the table. I don’t know whether workers from the Pacific Islands need to be shown how to use toilets, but I know that there are not western style sewerage systems in every village. So not being familiar with modern plumbing may not be surprising.

I don’t know how to pick grapes myself, but I can readily accept that there is a need not to bruise the fruit, and that rough handling will affect quality. Therefore all people working in a vineyard need to be taught how to do it properly. Otherwise there is no point in employing those people whatever their background and ethnicity. Those points seem to have got lost in the tirade against Lockwood for raising the subject at all, and in National’s rush to shut down further coverage.

Usage means endorsement

Our family often talk about politics over dinner – a strange habit I agree. We were talking about Maori voting behaviour, and I referred to discussion I’d recently had with a Maori activist. This person had noted the existence of a group of Maori leaders (in the 1950s through the 1970s and later) who supported National and said they were known as the “Tory Horis”, a term I had heard before but not recently. In those days there were just four Maori seats and National’s votes in each seat were counted in the hundreds. The party often struggled to find candidates, so solid was Labour’s grip on the seats. My family quickly said I was not to use that term in public. I asked why. Because people will think it’s your term and you share the assumptions of the term by using it, was the response. But what if I make it clear that I am quoting someone else, I asked? Doesn’t make any difference; usage means endorsement.

That’s a valuable insight, but I still think it is a constraint on rational debate. If we cannot use the language of others neutrally, how can we ever understand what those terms meant in the context they were used, and hence to identify the differences in historical and contemporary usage? If we stop using the term ‘nigger’ because we don’t like or don’t accept its connotations today, don’t we also deny or disguise its meaning in the past? And to the extent that that is so, the effect is to distort the reality of history.

How to destroy a brand?

Just ask Contact Energy. Announcing a price increase the day tax cuts came into effect on 1 October was dumb. Seeking a big rise in directors’ fees at the same time was even dumber. Presumably the directors were told that. If they ignored the advice, the destruction of value is their responsibility. And it goes beyond brand value and corporate reputation, which the directors might argue are intangible. Reports over the weekend had Contact customers are actively shopping around. That’s real commercial value walking away from a company, because at least some of the customers don’t like the way it behaves any more. A report that the directors were noshing up large at Auckland’s Soul restaurant ($77 ph for a set menu) after a hard day’s strategy session didn’t help.

That’s why directors and management weren’t around to deal with the media storm that erupted the day before the annual meeting. That was worse that dumb. It encouraged the perception that the directors didn’t care, wouldn’t listen and had no regard for public, customer and shareholder opinion.

Although Contact is a public company and arguably the directors’ fees are only the shareholders’ business, politicians in election mode can easily find an angry crowd and agree with it. The directors’ actions are openly inviting more regulation of their business. If the directors understand nothing else surely they understand that!

Is there anything else happening?

Well, yes, there’s been a lot of sport, which means there have been results that have not pleased everyone. Good on the Silver Ferns, oh dear the Lions and the Kiwis, and perhaps we were best spared the Black Caps. I have labeled the Wellington Lions ‘heartbreakers’ for trifling with the affections of their supporters once too often. See

Take voters seriously

In the US, one of the things that drives mainstream conservatives mad is the way they see the so called liberal media mocking and scorning their heroes - like Sarah Palin - as if ignorance were somehow a virtue in itself. However sometimes they have a point. This is a (short) extract from a piece in the New York Times, one the conservatives' favourite hate papers. Edmund Morris, a distinguished historian of Theodore Roosevelt, an iconoclastic Republican President (1901-09), pretends to interview Teddy Roosevelt about the current Presidential campaign. All the responses are genuine quotes from TR. For example:

Q. Talking of foreign policy, what do you think of Mr. McCain’s choice of a female running mate?
A. Times have changed (sigh). It is entirely inexcusable, however, to try to combine the unready hand with the unbridled tongue.
Q. How will you feel if Sarah Palin is elected?
A. I shall feel exactly the way a very small frog looks when it swallows a beetle the size of itself, with extremely stiff legs.

Clever and erudite; amusing and learned, but voters like Joe the Plumber feel excluded from this kind of humour and they feel insulted at the same time. Attacking ‘liberal” east and west coast media goes down well in the heartland and the south of the USA just as it does in New Zealand.

The lesson is that communicators should also take their audiences seriously, whether they agree with their concerns, values and views or not.

Look at this video example from Obama. He is respectful, right on message, looks like a winner and sounds like he can deliver. WATCH: Full Obama ad here.

The two-minute ad, "Defining Moment," started airing in key states on Sunday, and asks 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' We all know the answer to that," Obama narrates. "The real question is, 'Will our country be better off four years from now?' How will we lift our economy and restore America's place in the world?" Obama then gives his answers on how to do that.

Would that we had someone able to deliver a plan to lift New Zealanders’ living standards, to stop the flow of people to Australia, a flow now at a record level, to tackle climate change and the impact of the Kyoto derived carbon charges?

Where is the plan to make welfare work better, to make the streets safer, to tackle the issues of the underclass, and produce a health system that functions in the interest of patients and not for the factional interests that run it? No doubt the parties will all say that they have their plans but somehow they don’t seem big enough to do the job, or inspiring enough to get the commitment of New Zealanders.

Sarah Palin: TV Host

Sarah Palin has a future after the expected loss on 4 November. And it’s in media according to US media guru Michael Levene. Here’s his commentary from today’s Levene Breaking News.

That Sarah Palin has star quality has become apparent over the last few weeks to anyone who knows anything about show business. As a former beauty queen, she’s got poise, confidence and looks. She knows what its like to be in the spotlight and she clearly likes it. As a former TV sportscaster, she’s genuinely experienced and comfortable in front of the camera. She’s more than comfortable. She knows how to work it, as was evidenced during her debate with Senator Joe Biden. In fact, she’s worked it so well that producers in Hollywood are talking about her and wondering whether or not they can somehow cash in on her tsunami of charisma. Is she the next Oprah? Could she host a news show on FOX? If McCain and Palin win on November 4th, all this speculation will be for naught. The buzz at that point will be 2012 because the GOP already has invested a great deal of public support for this maverick. But if the Republican ticket is trounced on election night, the Palin Effect may be considerably more than just a wink in the history of politics. Governor Palin will probably find herself deluged with offers for high profile media jobs once her gubernatorial duties end in Alaska. Right now, the (election) is too close to call because the bottom-bottom line is that every new poll gets analyzed according to each party’s political bias and daily messaging. But if Sarah Palin is not elected Vice President this time around and wants to remain in the political spotlight, I would advise her to carefully consider her brand as a pure politician and tread carefully through the avalanche of media exposure and financial opportunity that may come her way. The snow always looks brightest right after it falls, but oh how quickly it turns to slush.


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