Cablegate: Back-to-Back Leaders' Speeches Kick Off Nz Election Year

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1. (SBU) Summary. New Zealand's political season is now underway
in earnest following the first major speeches of the year by Prime
Minister Helen Clark and opposition leader John Key of the National
Party. Breaking with established tradition, the PM changed the date
of her speech and the location to follow Key's speech in Auckland in
hopes of delivering a rhetorical knock-out punch. Instead, Key's
speech received more favorable reviews by political pundits and the
media. Though both leaders addressed similar themes of education
and youth, the press gave Key higher marks on substance and
connecting with public opinion. Polls over the next few weeks will
determine if voters agree. End Summary.

Key Focuses on Youth Crime

2. (SBU) In his first major address of the year, National leader
John Key concentrated on criticizing Labour's stewardship of the
economy and highlighting New Zealand's income disparity. He stated
that a National government would focus more on the quality rather
than quantity of government spending to address the country's
economy and social problems. Key promised National would be more
careful of how the government spends the cash in the public purse
than Labour and would reinvigorate the private sector, which Key
argues Labour has neglected. On education, Key proposed to retain
the high school drop out age at 16, but would offer
vocational/technical training courses or further study to 16 to
17-year olds if they chose to leave school. He added a stick to go
with the carrot: no welfare payments to youth under 18 if they opt
out of his program.

3. (SBU) Key's decision to address youth crime received the
greatest share of media attention. New Zealand is experiencing a
spike in violent youth crime, and the issue is leading current
public opinion polls as the most important topic of concern. In his
speech, Key outlined initiatives that would provide tougher judicial
treatment of juvenile criminals, institute new custodial programs
and strengthen those agencies and programs dedicated to preventing
youth crime and the rehabilitating youth offenders, including
military style boot camps. Key's approach to tackling youth crime
is a mix of strengthening the criminal justice system and addressing
the root causes of youth offending. While Key advocated lowering
the age of criminal culpability and ordering children as young as 12
and 13 into drug or alcohol rehabilitation programs, he also
committed to providing more funding to mentoring and parenting
initiatives, including Maori cultural-based schemes. (Note: New
Zealand's indigenous Maori population is disproportionably
represented in its prison system and many youth crimes are
perpetrated by young Maori. End Note).

Clark's Speech Mirrors Key's, Except on Youth Crime
--------------------------------------------- ------

4. (SBU) The issues addressed in Clark's speech were remarkably
similar to those discussed by Key (such that Labour worried that
someone may have leaked the substance of the PM's speech to
National). Clark talked up her government's economic legacy and
stated that under her watch the New Zealand's economy was robust
enough to withstand current global economic challenges. She also
touted her government's progress in climate change and trade issues.
Like Key, Clark used her opening 2008 salvo to announce new
education policies -- including raising the age of compulsory
schooling from 16 to 18 and expanding the new apprenticeship
training scheme.

5. (SBU) A notable divergence from Key was Clark's lack of
attention to youth crime, a growing hot-button issue with voters.
Other than blaming a previous National Government's budget (1991)
that slashed social spending for producing the current generation of
hardened juvenile offenders, Clark did not provide the sort of
comprehensive policy prescriptions to address the issue as did her
political rival. Moreover, Minister of Justice Annette King
recently made headlines by downplaying the significance of the youth
crime problem, claiming that it is not as important an issue as
National has suggested.

Media: First Blood to Key

6. (SBU) The media gave higher marks to Key's speech both on
substance and fresh thinking. Editorials in New Zealand's two most
prominent newspapers - The New Zealand Herald and the Dominion Post
- both gave the political advantage to Key. The Dominion Post's
editorial applauded the purpose and detail of Key's speech compared
to Clark's speech, which the paper noted was primarily a "recitation
of historical economic data." The Herald's editors noted that Key's
proposals were accompanied by extensive referencing and policy

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research. Clark's speech, they noted, seemed to have been "spiced
at the last minute." The same editors also assessed that Key's
incentive-oriented education polices are more practical than Clark's
compulsion-based initiatives.

Blogoshere Reaction

7. (SBU) As expected, the right-leaning blogs applauded Key's
speech and generally regarded it as a clean victory over Clark.
However, many left-leaning blogs, were not as supportive of Clark.
Most contributors to The Standard, New Zealand's leading left-wing
blog, were dismissive of Clark's effort, labeling her speech dull
and calling it a missed opportunity.

Youth Justice Workers Back Key

8. (SBU) Leading professionals in the youth justice field,
including the Principal Youth Court Judge, Andrew Becroft and the
Sensible Sentencing Trust president Garth McVicar, applauded Key's
strategy. The National leader had held meetings with Becroft and
other experts prior to formulating his policies, and Key's
willingness to defer to the opinions of others paid off in public
endorsements, enabling him to show that he is open to broad-based
consultation. Clark, on the other hand, received a lukewarm
reception for her main education proposals from professionals in
that field. Educators welcomed Clark's concern but questioned the
practicality (i.e., GNZ funding support) and clarity of her new
education policies.

Other Party Leaders Speak to Supporters

9. (SBU) Although most media attention was on the Clark and Key
speeches, two other party leaders also recently gave their
respective first political speeches of the year. On January 20,
Green Party co-leader Jeannette Fitzsimmons gave her 'State of the
Planet' speech, where she issued a challenge to the leaders of the
major parties for more action and less rhetoric on social and
environmental issues. On January 30, the leader of the Progressives
Jim Anderton, a junior partner in the Labour's governing coalition,
called for middle class tax relief. (Note: Clark has already
signaled that such relief will be part of her government's budget
due later in the year. End Note).


10. (SBU) In the past and even in an election year, Clark gave her
first political speech on the year on the opening day of Parliament,
which this year falls on February 12. Her decision to move her
speech to the day after Key's and also to Auckland suggests that she
regards him as a genuine threat to her re-election prospects. It
also underscores the significance to Labour of winning Auckland
(where both Key and Clark spoke and where Key has been leading in
the polls). Labour's strong showing in South Auckland effectively
tipped the balance for Clark in 2005. Clark's avoidance of the
timely issue of youth crime reveals that her celebrated sense of
being on the right side of popular opinion may have diminished.
Key's speech and proposed policies were in contrast to the sometimes
unfeeling right-wing rhetoric voters came to expect from the
previous National leader Don Brash, and allowed him to be portrayed
as a pragmatic centrist. The two speeches from the main party
leaders, while similar in subject matter, were essentially a contest
of choice versus compulsion. The media claimed Key as the winner in
the battle of the speeches; upcoming polls will tell if voters
agree. End Comment.


© Scoop Media

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