What are John and the gang really saying?
Propaganda 101: What are John and the gang really saying?
By Malcolm Aitken
If political survival is about being seen to do things as much as doing them, the Government scored a propaganda coup recently when Social Development Minister, Paula Bennett, broke up a fight among a group of violent teenagers. Ms Bennett’s street fighting politics hit the media big time.
Her Government intervention of the most direct kind, although it (surely) wasn’t organised in advance, sent out a clear message. This is the Government that gets things done. That sorts out disagreements. That is not afraid to get its hands dirty in the process.
In addition to their overt key messages, politicians – public relations and propaganda theory tell us – use more subtle ways of ingratiating themselves with us. Think former US President Bill Clinton who must have carried around an onion and knife in his pocket or similar; he managed to mist up so frequently. Whenever he was saying something ‘meaningful’.
When speaking in public, his bud former British Prime Minister Tony Blair liked to take off his jacket and roll up his sleeves in a not-too-subtle indication that he was ‘getting to work’ and ‘sorting things out.’ Ms Bennett certainly did that.
Around the time of ‘fiery Westie’ Bennett’s (her words not mine) exercise in diplomatic intervention, PM John Key endured the undoubtedly super powerful handshakes of 120 touch rugby players when he’d just broken his arm in two places at the Chinese New Year celebrations. What a good bloke! A real Kiwi battler.
Maybe there’s an underlying theme the Government’s image makers are speaking to the unconscious public mind: this Government is no nonsense (peace making in the streets) and not for softies (Key’s tough flesh pressing), but does the decent thing and is down with the people (‘Westie’ Bennett). And, it’s inclusive: think Key very visibly hongi-ing his way through highly placed kaumatua in recent weeks like it was going out of fashion.
It seems the National PR machine is positioning the Government as a cool older brother (not to be confused with big brother), who will give you a hand up when you need it, but won’t patronise you with a hand out. Forget the nanny state days when the farty old Labour government told everyone how to live.
This new noticeably younger Government (that understands the electoral significance of generation Y) wants to play fair, and sort stuff out so that people can get on with their lives and achieve…. The Government’s tough and market rules apply, mainly, but this is conservatism with a compassionate trim. Be assured Peeps, this is the new politics of aspiration. This Government portrays itself as centrist, compromising and inclusive, yet tough and enabling Kiwis to get on with their lives; a set of adjectives that spans the political spectrum of appeal. An economically and socially liberal government, that’s well grounded in economic reality.
However, the same PR theories that tell us that the image of any organisation is important (what it says it is doing), tell us that its identity (what it actually does) is also vital.
If unemployment continues to accelerate and the signs of tough times turn into very tough times (which they just might), how long is this ‘aspirational’ government going to help people – regardless of their levels of aspiration –to keep their jobs and pay their bills.
For one thing, last weekend’s all round good vibe at Ratana Pa may soon be replaced by widespread Māori discontent when the likely economic realities start to bite, unless the PM can protect us against those realities or manage us through them with minimal pain. Remember, Māori are hugely over-represented in poverty and deprivation statistics.
Despite ACT looming over John Key’s shoulder on the far right, on the surface this is a compromising, inclusive centrist Government. Corporatist type summits to get all the interest groups working together to start navigating our way through the tumultuous straits of the global economy in crisis come to mind. The tino rangatirataunga flag flying over Parliament and on the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
However, just below the surface, critics might say, lies a starkly different reality. The abolition of employee rights in their first three months of employment recently by what our trade unions are calling the Fire at Will Bill (the Employment Relations Amendment Act 2008) is hardly centrist or compromising. Fining parents of truant children up to $3000 will surely hit some of the poorest hardest and is not a politically moderate move.
How much of a Government of the people is this fresh-faced crew, really? The image work is clever. Listening to John Key on ZMFM recently sharing laughs with the boys about his broken arm or talking about how cool the ZMFM crew are and how his daughter has to be virtually prized away from listening to their show is a little reminiscent of Cool Britannia in the UK ten-plus years ago. Back then Tony Blair met Noel Gallagher from Oasis and Labour politics had a definite taint of the cool about it (or at it least it tried to).
Yet despite Ms Bennett’s doing everything short of styling herself as the Minister of Jack Daniels, and a ‘good sort’ of Westie chick (again, her words) the Government’s attempts to portray itself as a group of easy-going, down to earth positive Kiwis may not work in the longer term because their image and their identity are out of synch.
Lockwood Smith’s stupid comments about Asians and the size of their hands during the election campaign will have got a lot of people offside – hardly the politics of inclusion.
And, inclusiveness has an economic dimension as well as a social one. You could call the government’s recent tax cuts for the middle and upper income brackets ‘aspirational’ and say they are rewarding success, but what about poorer New Zealanders faced with food and petrol prices, for example, which are bordering on the obscene. Where is their tax break?
Interesting times are on the cards for John Key and his team and the New Zealand voting public whose hearts and minds they want to win. The Government will have to work hard to keep its image and its identity in harmony and take the people with them.