WikiLeaks cable: 2005 election campaign

Photo / Mark Mitchell
Photo / Mark Mitchell

This is one of the diplomatic cables about New Zealand held by Wikileaks.

September 11, 2005
Charge D'Affaires David Burnett
In the midst of the 2005 election campaign

1. (C) Summary: As reftel notes, in this undecided campaign, the personality of the major parties' leaders may really influence voters' decisions. The following are two brief snapshots of what's on offer. End Summary.

Prime Minister Helen Clark

2. (C) Clark is the consummate career politician, who has been accused of acting with the sort of arrogance that can come with being the largely uncontested leader of the country for the last two terms. She often contrasts her depth of political experience with that of Brash, whom she tries to portray as a political neophyte. Indeed her capability to run the country's affairs is widely recognized, but this is not to say that her personality wins over the voters. Her length of political service is also both a liability and an asset: Kiwis begrudgingly respect her experience, yet at the same time are suspicious of her ability to shield herself from association with her Government's errors.

3. (C) Clark's grasp of policy detail is positively Herculean and has been put to good use at her weekly press conferences and now in the election debates. Her political instincts are widely recognized, despite some recent decisions clearly being on the wrong side of public opinion, notably the woefully received 2005 Budget which failed to provide much anticipated and desired tax relief to the middle class. Clark is faithful to the concept of centralized power within government. All policy is vetted by her office and is tightly controlled, as is the campaign. Very few are allowed into the inner circle. As Prime Minister she is a very controlling manager, bordering on obsessively so.

4. (C) Clark avoids obvious falsehoods and has by and large supervised a more open government and disciplined erring ministers. Yet she also habitually shies away from close-to-the-bone truth, as evidenced with two noted incidents. In the first, she signed a painting donated to charity as her own during the last election campaign, even though it later came to light it was the work of another. This campaign season, the country witnessed the trial of a number of police officers accused of rushing the PM's motorcade at dangerous speeds to catch a flight to a rugby match. In both instances, Clark was less than forthcoming with taking responsibility for her actions or that of those who ultimately fell under her command. She very quickly cut support from Labour MP John Tamihere when he was implicated in financial improprieties. One gets the feeling that she is not the sort of leader to have a Truman-esque the buck stops here, plaque on her desk.

5. (C) Clark is no shrinking violet. Even before hard-edged, grizzled union men put her through the fire in her early days in the Labour Party, she was a forthright and resolute student activist. Clark was at the forefront of a group of iron-willed feminist MPs who stormed the Labour party in the early eighties despite their male counterpart's skepticism. Many of these MPs remain in politics and sit at the right hand of Clark.

6. (C) Clark is goal orientated and usually meticulous in her planning. A demanding taskmaster, she exacts high standards and a work ethic from staff and colleagues. Despite the Labour Party having a history of turning on their young, Clark has a very loyal following and her inner circle has been notably cohesive since she became leader of the party (her Chief of Staff, and gatekeeper, Heather Simpson, has been at Clark's side since she was a backbencher. Simpson, often referred to as the second most powerful person is New Zealand, would walk across hot coals for Clark and is so close to her that she can often speak on the behalf of Clark, privately of course).

7. (C) Clark carefully weighs her arena, timing, message and the appropriate messenger. For the first, head-to-head debate with Brash, Clark nixed planned, dual radio-television coverage, favoring instead only the radio format. While Brash is no fashion plate, Clark is universally recognized as not "camera friendly." When the media pressed her for weeks on an election date, Clark obstinately responded in refrain that she would make the date known "in due course." When queried in Parliament, Clark routinely repeats limited, scripted points, and refuses to be pushed into further explanation or into ground that she does not control - quite different from Brash's manner in which he appears compelled to explain. However, Clark is quick and sharp with criticism if she believes she has either evidence to back her up or sufficient cover that evidence is unnecessary, such as citing confidential meeting notes which Labour claims shows that SIPDIS Brash has a secret agenda to eliminate the anti-nuclear legislation. When she has neither evidence nor sufficient cover, Clark deploys Labour ministers to make the accusations and avoids potential, personal blow-back. Recent examples include Education Minister Mallard's unsubstantiated claims of U.S. financing of the National campaign and recent posters from Young Labour depicted President Bush alongside Brash, conveying that Brash would take New Zealand into Iraq.

8. (C) Although Clark is often viewed as cold and somewhat remote to the aspirations of families - she has no children - Clark and husband Peter Davies have a close bond. Furthermore, she is very close to her parents, sisters and their children and often holidays with them. Her physical appearance is often mocked as dowdy and drab, despite periodic efforts, especially at election time, to inject some glamour into her looks. Clark does not appear to take such mockery to heart and appears to succumb to such "extreme makeovers" only at the behest of her image gurus. But by and large, she gives the impression that she is very comfortable in her own skin and is more interested in substance over style. Still, Clark's exterior armor is not without its chinks, and her rare political missteps often flow from her personal than her political side. She has complained that National's billboards portray her as "sleepy and grumpy." Two weeks following a debate, Clark publicly lamented abuse suffered from National supporters among the studio audience. Recently, she entered a cockpit of an Air New Zealand flight to confront a pilot who - incorrectly - blamed her for the flight's delay.

9. (C) Perhaps a holdover from her upbringing in a very frugal household, Clark exhibits a Presbyterian streak in her determination to run balanced budgets. Arguably, Clark's greatest strength is in her intellect (recognized by Brash himself during a recent leader's debate). She has also demonstrated coolness under pressure and steely ability to withstand assaults that would have felled most mere mortals. Clark's greatest weakness is her reserve. Coupled with her mental agility and her passion for elite or solitary recreations (opera and cross-country skiing) and her childlessness, ordinary folk sense distance. Despite this, many who know her intimately maintain that the private Clark can be funny, warm and open, and we at the Embassy have found the same. These traits, however, often do not come across on television.

Dr. Don Brash

10. (C) Brash portrays an awkward humanism that opens the door for the middle ground vote. In campaign footage, he always wears a tie - a sometimes striking contrast such as when he awkwardly slipped behind the wheel of a dragster or when he has appeared side-byside a hard-hat wearing contingent to promote his party's tax cut policy. While his wire-rimmed glasses, tie and overall professorial demeanor suggest that he lies somewhat removed from the "mainstream" Kiwi voter that he courts, he is nevertheless present and engaging these mainstream - or more precisely, swing voters. Is it having an effect? Recent polling suggests movement of "modest" income voters NZD 21 to 33 thousand; USD 15 to 24 thousand) from Labour to National (a swing as much as 15 points by one poll).

11. (C) Brash can exude authority, gravitas and, very nearly, power. Embassy officers have been struck how much more confident he has become about his own political skills during this campaign. However, all this can be washed away when Brash is cornered by a difficult question requiring a succinct and straight forward answer. In such cases, he often flounders and in doing so loses some of the key qualities many look to in a leader, thus devaluing his currency. In particular, Brash has fumbled, repeatedly, on matters of policy and recollection of events concerning foreign relations, asset sales, and the influence of outside interests, such as business and religious groups. His bumbling results from - among other things - his relatively limited experience with political campaigning and the political fray; his apparent, compelling need to explain (often with too much detail) as demonstrated on his equivocating on asset sales in a recent debate; and remnants of old-fashioned (though not necessarily outmoded) values. As such, he has in part lived up to Labour's label of him as an amateur. On the other hand, Brash portrays a campaign and policy platform based on values personally held rather than policy objectives based on polls. Kiwis respond to this, even when Brash expresses himself ineptly. Comments that he took it easy on Clark in a debate because she was a woman and that he is not a feminist, have, ironically, seemed to capture several points of the woman vote from Labour. Brash's gentlemanly way may also portray his general distaste of and aversion to negative campaign politics.)

12. (C) Opinion is split on whether Brash is brave or just plain naive in the way he at times acts contrary to the conventional wisdom of a politician. (He entered politics only in 2003.) Despite Labour trying to paint him as dishonest and duplicitous, Brash has made the "honest" appraisals of New Zealand's current state of affairs a hallmark of his leadership, such as the state of race relations as articulated in his speeches on Maori issues ("Orewa I and II"). Brash has even said that he will be honest "even if it hurts politically," although ironically this week he belatedly admitted he had in fact known of plans by a Christian group to distribute antiLabour and Greens pamphlets, despite having denied this. Even so, in his short time in politics Brash has made forthright, even courageous, remarks on many issues considered sacrosanct in New Zealand politics (again race relations and, although less explicitly, the anti-nuclear legislation).

13. (C) Another interesting aspect of the campaign has been National's repetition of a clip following Brash's January 2004 Orewa I speech. The clip shows a bit of turf striking him in the face - literal mudslinging. The image would likely portray leadership weakness to the American eye, but curiously, the "average" Kiwi appears to perceive this as testament to Brash's willingness to highlight the need to address the hard issues of race relations rather than to white-wash the differences around the edges.

14. (C) Recently, Helen Clark, Don Brash and several other candidates appeared in a series of photographs, each holding the same baby. Brash happily kissed the baby, but Clark nearly held the baby at arm's length. The collection of photos exhibited what is a silent theme in the election, important to many New Zealanders - that Brash better understands the dilemmas of families. He has spoken openly about the failure of his first marriage, has children from that marriage, and commented freely on his marriage to his Singapore-born wife. His wife has featured in party materials, and his daughter has appeared on the campaign trail with him. In part, the connection to family is novel because campaigning with family in New Zealand is not traditional. The subtle message is that Brash - though not of the mainstream - is very near to it, unlike the relatively distant Clark.

15. (C) An analysis of Brash's core self is by no means a linear exercise. He is somewhat of a paradox. Although a classical liberal, free marketer and economic rationalist, he voted for the bill that decriminalized prostitution. He is divorced and remarried; in fact he cheated on his first wife. Brash's residual Presbyterianism is of the liberal variety, not the stern Scottish brand. And his "Christian socialism," which defined his formative years and is a holdover from his father's politics, lingers in a residual social conscience. Rather than a "no" or even "minimal" government advocate, he is a ""limited"" government man. The government, he has declared, "has a vital role, including funding education and providing a social safety net.""

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