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The Stadium: bribe or miscalculation?

The Stadium: bribe or miscalculation?

I freely confess to not understanding all the politics of the Auckland Stadium, but the way the matter has unfolded neatly illustrates some of the techniques and challenges of politics in a democracy.

First, set the agenda. The government defined the options: there are only two; the waterfront or Eden Park – the message was, Auckland, you choose. TV One’s News on Monday night reflected that choice by examining the pros and cons of the two venues and by giving the proponents of each venue 30 seconds to make their case.

Secondly, move quickly. The government gave Auckland councils two weeks to make up their minds. Did anyone mention Roger Douglas and his technique of keeping change happening so that people were overwhelmed and gave up and went along with what he wanted because it was too exhausting to fight every battle? Pardon me for remembering.

Thirdly, defining the choices subsumes the debate about why we need a stadium at all. The Rugby Union promised the International Rugby Board that we will have a 60 000 seat stadium for the final of the world cup, and the PM was part of that bid. The need for the stadium is largely ignored, so we don’t debate the reason for the choice, just the choice itself.

Fourthly, when in doubt, wrap it in the flag. It’s going to be called Stadium New Zealand, and is said to be an asset to the nation – a place for all New Zealanders. Well perhaps, but if we say that often enough, perhaps the rest of us will forget that it will be in Auckland, and that the rest of us are paying for it. (Don’t mention Te Papa)

Fifthly, we don’t talk about where the money is coming from. A good deal of it will be taxpayers’ money, but as the taxpayer is going to fund either option, keeping as quiet as possible about the source of the funds means taxpayers are encouraged to focus on the choice of venue not on the tickling of their pockets.

It also helps to talk the language of vision, opportunity, revitalization and partnership and to have your friends and allies do the same, as Dick Hubbard, Alex Swney and others have done. It takes attention away from the detail, like can either stadium be built in time, what will be done with it after the World Cup Final, and why do we need it anyway? It’s only a couple of games after all – important though they may be. Worth $500 million? Well, maybe.

Finally, it could be seen as a massive election bribe, but no one in Auckland really wants to say that, in case the government realizes it’s not a good bribe. The essence of a bribe in a political sense is that it gives people something they really, really want and will value and therefore feel grateful and reward the bribing party by voting for that party. Labour seems to believe that the stadium fits the bill, but the evidence is less convincing.

When Jenny Shipley was PM, she thought hosting the APEC meeting in Auckland in 1995 would do wonders for her image. The event was a success, but it didn’t rub off. Later she pushed through the decision to spend $500 million on the upgrading of Auckland Hospital. It didn’t work, because voters thought the government ought to do it anyway. Voters valued it, but didn’t feel grateful. The political question about the stadium – location, cost, aesthetics and all other considerations aside – is whether it’s an electoral plus for Labour. If they think it is, they’ll push it through. If the evidence is that’s it’s going to be a liability, then watch for an alternative plan. Was it just co-incidence that Jade Stadium started to be talked up again after the write in polls in the NZ Herald showed a lot of opposition to the waterfront option? On Saturday Jade was saying they were out, by Tuesday, Jade was the government’s fallback.

A final thought: building (or rebuilding) a stadium takes big money, and there are always alternative claims on public money. Asking Auckland to make a forced choice quickly brought out the “alternatives spenders” pretty quickly too. Again TV One News on Monday night features those who would spend money on delinquent teenagers; doubtless a good cause. Having lots of other groups push their cases for a greater chuck of public money may be a distraction to government but it is part of the risk of launching a high profile project like a stadium.

Gatekeepers

Working journalists often complain about PR lackies who block their access to the leaders and senior managers of an organisation. So the journos try to ignore the PR hacks or to work around them. At the same time news editors complain about organisations wanting to use the news columns of their papers, or their prime airtime to peddle products and polish their reputations. So they make rules about commercial images appearing in pictures and about good news stories and puff pieces. In house PR people complain about journalists who want only to sensationalize incidents or to write negative stories and who ignore the “good and positive” work an organisation does. So they insist the journos deal with them to ensure “accuracy’ and “balance” Nothing new, just a normal day in the journo/PR battle. Right?

Largely yes, but here’s the link. Both the PR people and the news editors (chief reporters) are acting as gatekeepers to keep the barbarians out (or at least in check). And “gatekeeper” is the language that each group uses to describe their work. At recent presentations to PR groups, representatives of the NZ Herald and the DomPost talked in just those terms. And in a recent journalistic encounter of my own the PR person I was dealing with conveyed that her role was a gatekeeper one. I was not to have contact with the principals of the organisation: it was her role to get the info I requested, so the important people could get on with their work, unbothered by media. (I should note that this encounter worked quite satisfactorily for me).

The gatekeeper role is sometimes self-imposed – often needlessly. Sometimes it’s part of the culture of the organisation or the media body. Either way, a gatekeeper attitude is often negative. It is based on fear, and often on past personal experience, usually of the bad kind. “We (that is, I the PR person, or we, the organisation) were exploited, ripped off, not given a fair go, misrepresented, or misreported, or a variety of other sins were committed. So now we are more careful.”

But what happens when a different attitude is taken. Suppose the PR person says my job is to help the reporters do theirs, to facilitate access not to block, to enable manager and journalist to have a good conversation about a matter they both want to discuss, to build some understanding of the nature of the issue so that readers, viewers and listeners can make intelligent and informed judgments.

Suppose the reporter says this organisation has a legitimate role in society, that the people in it are decent and well intentioned, which is not to say that they are never slack, inefficient, badly organized or never make mistakes, but also that there is not a world wide conspiracy to hide the truth and maybe, just maybe there are some success stories which are worthy of my attention.

The PR/journalist divide might even be bridged and the two professions, and even the broader community, might benefit as a result.

Keeping it at 18l

One of the interesting sidelights of the campaign by the youth wings of the four political parties to keep the age at 18 was the way in which the youth representatives used the opportunity to push a partisan perspective. Labour’s Sonny Thomas, aged 19, said that he and his mates wanted to be able to have a drink to celebrate the successful return of the Labour government for a fourth term in 2008. The Green’s Zach Domer pushed Sue Kedgeley’s bill restricting alcohol advertising and ACT’s Helen Simpson had a little rant about the bill being an attack on personal freedom. Only the Nats man, Matthew Patterson, kept to the rules that the group had agreed on: that this was a cross party occasion. He got the least coverage.

It was a clever idea to get the youth wings together – a move orchestrated by the clever David Farrar, and he got my son Christopher, aged 23, to front as the group’s spokesman. The group was formed on Thursday 2 November; the media started reporting it on Friday and over the weekend. A news conference launched the Keep it at 18 campaign on Monday morning. The group went visiting MPs on Tuesday and Wednesday and by 10pm on Wednesday evening, the Bill was history. Support for the Bill reversed from 71 -48 in favour on the first reading to 72-49 against on the second reading. The carrot of a review of liquor legislation was clearly a decisive factor, as it gave wavering MPs a plausible reason not to proceed with the Bill – this time. But it also shows that well organised coalitions striking at an appropriate time can have an immediate and effective impact.

In the US elections – no bottle in Iraq

Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld took the blame for the Iraq policy and resigned (or was resigned, to be more accurate if less grammatical). Speaking about this President Bush warned “Do not confuse the workings of our democracy with a lack of will.”

But it is precisely the workings of the democracy that contributes to the lack of will in American foreign policy, and has done so for decades now. They just don’t have the bottle to stay the course. Not even three thousand dead in Iraq, and they are scrambling to find ways to get out with some decency and not to leave a total shambles in their wake. I’ve never understood what they were doing there in the first place (a piece of neo-conservative adventurism is my characterization of it). But if the strategic goals are so big and so important as Bush and co have proclaimed, then surely the body count is a small price. But no, with public disaffection with his handling of the war at a high level, Bush is getting ready to change direction.

In the US elections – no bottle not new

And it’s happened before. Public opinion turned against the war in Vietnam when the boys started coming home in body bags. It happened in the Balkans and in Eritrea when the boys got shot up a bit, and now it’s happening with Iraq. Remember the picture of flag draped coffins aboard a military plane about to be unloaded. There was a huge fuss about it because it dramatically personalized the price of war. Similarly when the casualties reached the 2 000 level, there was much lamentation and mass soul searching about what the US was doing in Iraq.

This is not a comment on the war aims or on the legality or propriety of the Bush policy. It is to say – as Ho Chi Minh once observed - that if the enemies of the US can raise the price of victory, the Americans will quickly lose heart, and then they cut and run. American public opinion has no stomach for lengthy wars, or for bloody sacrifice. The rhetoric is always strong but their political will is a fickle beast, which makes them makes them unreliable allies at best, and to appear as hypocrites at worst; one reason why the Europeans, particularly the French despise them so much.

In the US elections - Pennsylvania

In the October 5 issue of Communications Line I drew attention to the TV ads in the US election and particularly to those in the race for the Senate in Pennsylvania where the incumbent Republican and Bush ally, Rick Santorum, was in trouble against his Democratic challenger, Bob Casey. Santorum ran an ad with actors playing Casey’s campaign team. They were depicted as holding a meeting in a jail cell, because several of the real Casey team were under investigation for various alleged misdeeds.

Casey, the Democrat, won the election convincingly with 59% of the vote to 41% for the sitting Senator. The cost of the campaign was high. Casey, the winner, spent over US$11 million. Santorum, the loser, spent nearly US$22 million.

In the US Election – why more is less

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania has provided an interesting perspective about voting behaviour. Writing in the New York Times he cited a study of decision making by another the psychologist Eldar Shafir in 1993.

You are a juror in a child custody case in which each parent wants sole custody. Parent A has an average income, reasonable rapport with child, a relatively stable social life, works average hours and is in average health. Parent B has an above-average income, a close relationship with child, an extremely active social life, lots of work-related travel, and minor health problems. If you have to award custody based solely on those factors, who gets the child? Nearly two thirds – 64% - choose parent B. Change the question to “To which parent would you deny custody of the child?, a majority, 55 percent, choose Parent B. “How can it be that a majority both accept and reject the same parent?, he asks.

“Professor Shafir’s explanation is that when people are asked whom to accept, they look for positive features in the parents — reasons to accept one over the other — and Parent B has them. In contrast, when people are asked whom to reject, they look for negative features — and again, Parent B has them.

The political relevance is that negative campaigns encourage voters to feel that “their task is to reject the worst, not select the best. What that means is that if you want to win an election, you need to find candidates like Parent A, who give us no reason to say no, rather than Parent B, who present a complex set of features, some attractive and some problematic.

He argues that if we were encouraged to be less cynical, we might get candidates with positions and minds. “We might even be willing to risk generating a little enthusiasm at the prospect of being led by them. But unless something is done to quell “gotcha” journalism and relentlessly negative campaigning — and as long as we continue to enter the voting booth looking for reasons to say no — the ciphers will be the winners.”

Mallard backs me

It is rare for the government to agree with me (he said, tongue firmly at right angles to its normal position) but when I wrote a piece (Communications Line 5 October) suggesting a dramatic re-organisation of local government in Auckland so that some binding decisions could be made, I got some unofficial support from some rather senior official circles. It seems that there is some appreciation in Wellington that too many people in Auckland can say no and thereby prevent anything from happening, and that there are not enough people who can say yes and get it to happen. So I was intrigued when Economic Development and World Cup Minister Trevor Mallard said this to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce last week.

Governance changes in Auckland are key to ensuring the Auckland region is ready for the World Cup, but also critical for future planning and strategic vision. Central government will back the changes that the region wishes to pursue and will legislate if necessary to support those changes.
I don’t want to sound like a closet Stalinist, but isn’t it about time someone forcibly reorganized the place?

We like local success stories – until

We do like companies that portray our values and attributes, but we feel betrayed when the Kiwi success stories sell out. See http://www.johnbishop.co.nz/writer/articles/art271006.shtml

Words are political

I learned again recently that words, even normal words, have political content, or carry ideological associations. These words, when used by a speaker, tell the listener the perspective that the speaker holds. They are verbal clues to political opinion. However what I had not known, or appreciated sufficiently, is that in education words like, standards, quality and excellence carried a high level of political content. Even to utter such words is to betray an obsession with ranking people, with pass/fail, with saying that one person is better than another. This, of course is anathema to socialists (who see standards as a tool to suppress the less well off); to post modernists (who deny that there is any objective truth); and to assorted liberals and educationalists who talk of maximizing human potential regardless of economic value or vocational attractiveness. I don’t wish to attack or defend any of these positions here, but I was struck by the strength of the reaction to my use of those terms in a conversation with some educational visionaries recently. Vomiting on the carpet would have been better received. For a take on how secondary education might operate in future, see http://www.johnbishop.co.nz/writer/articles/art271006-2.shtml

A strategy is a wonderful thing

The Wellington Regional Strategy has attracted nearly 400 submissions but not many from businesses who seem to regard the exercise as a bit of a yawn. It isn’t. It’s a well intentioned shot at getting the region moving. Various elements of the plan have attracted criticism, but it deserves to be taken seriously, even if the proponents are shifting their ground on funding See http://www.johnbishop.co.nz/writer/articles/art031106.shtml
, and for how if it’s being used in unrelated battles, see http://www.johnbishop.co.nz/writer/articles/art101106-2.shtml


Where to now Air New Zealand?

Air New Zealand and QANTAS have withdrawn their applications for a code share agreement on flights across the Tasman, but does that necessarily mean that there will be fewer flights, or higher fares as the airlines seek to raise yields. The options before the withdrawal announced overnight are set out here. See http://www.johnbishop.co.nz/writer/articles/art101106.shtml


John Bishop is a speaker, writer, trainer and facilitator. He also practises public relations, writes speeches and works as an MC and as a social and political commentator. See www.johnbishop.co.nz
Email john@johnbishop.co.nz

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