This year's general election campaign is highly professionalised and bland. More than ever before, New Zealand parties rely on professional campaign tactics and strategy, with the result that campaigning has become meaningless for many voters.
Because there is little to excite or enthuse the public, voter turnout might well be the lowest in over a hundred years. So just how significant is the current election campaign for voters? How well are politicians and political parties helping us make sense of the big issues and problems in society? What is the health of parliamentary democracy in New Zealand? So far, not so good, and there are many items in the election campaign today that highlight the ill health of contemporary electoral politics.
It's not just the intense focus on hand shaking, baby kissing, and walkabouts - it's the overwhelming focus on personalities in general. Today we see that personal attacks on various leaders is central. See, for example, TV3's Labour changes tactics, targets John Key.
Celebrity is also a heavy part of the personalised approach. Today, Barry Soper reports on Labour's use of All Black Jerome Kaino - see: Political Report for November 8. New Zealand doesn't have a tradition of celebrity involvement in parliamentary politics, but this is obviously changing. Perhaps surprisingly, the party at the forefront of this 'Americanisation of New Zealand politics' has been the Greens. In the 2008 and 2011 campaigns, the party has made an effort to sell itself on the basis of celebrity endorsements - by including cultural and sports stars on its billboards, using an actor to MC its official launches, and even having actors running for Parliament. Such a shift, according to some political scientists, is part of 'a despicable trend that epitomizes the banal and the mindless in public life, empowering image over substance and producing pseudo-charismatic leadership'.
The use of media professionals is incredibly evident in the campaign so far. There's always been the PR and journalist 'hired guns' working for the parties, and it's obvious that they have a strong sway over the campaigning techniques being used. But increasingly these PR-orientated people are actually running the show. The main abilities of Maggie Barry and Kris Fa'afoi, like John Key himself, is not what they stand for or believe in but for their ability to communicate the brand. This is not a bad thing in itself but is that the prime skill you want in the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers - the ultimate decision-makers? Good for winning elections but is it good for government?
Metro magazine have their 'election issue' out at the moment, with some very useful political items in it - in particular a three-page article by Matthew Jansen entitled 'Gaming the system'. In this, Jansen notes that New Zealand politics at the moment is essentially 'worthy, dull, unwatched' and so he ponders: 'can politics learn from sport and become more exciting?' But his answer is that politics has already become too much like sport and is losing its meaningfulness:
'Politics, like sport, has been thoroughly professionalised over the past 20 years. The effect is the same: a small group of people playing the game at a higher level, but with a reduction in mass participation. We are now consumers rather than producers of our politics, spectators rather than players. And there, perhaps, is the reason politics seems duller than before. The grown-up marketing types are in charge. Everything is airbrushed and soundbitten to exquisite extinction. The personality has been packaged for mass media, the policies tested by focus groups, the audiences screened for malcontents'.
Jansen argues that this deep malaise in which there is no 'passionate contention between ideas' occurs despite, rather than because of, the importance of politics in shaping our lives: 'Which is maybe a shame, and possibly dangerous, because politics (like Philip Larkin's Mum and Dad) can really f*ck you up'.
Karl du Fresne's blog post today, What we need is a Lange - or even a Muldoon is also very insightful in this regard, and is also worth quoting at length:
'The major parties have become more risk-averse and more centrist. The defining ideological differences that once separated National and Labour have narrowed to the point where they are reduced to fighting over a shrinking patch of centre ground. What this means is that election campaigns are matters of tone and nuance rather than the great contests of ideas that they should be. It's all about "branding". There's no fire, no galvanising vision. At a Business New Zealand pre-election conference addressed by the party leaders last week, it was the minor parties that presented the bold ideas (and Pita Sharples the wit). In difficult times like this, an election campaign provides an opportunity for the nation to debate whether to tear the house down and start again. But John Key and Phil Goff are like a married couple squabbling over which shade of off-white to paint the kitchen'.
Steve Braunias does a superb job of parodying the inanity of politicians in their campaigning. See for example this week's The Secret Diary of John Key. Braunias has also got a feature in the latest Metro ('Eating political lunch') in which he managed to satirise Metiria Turia, Don Brash, Hone Harawira, Phil Goff and John Key. David Slack does a similar job in his parody of a National Cabinet meeting. In his Metro editorial, Simon Wilson argues that the theme of the election so far is 'Let's not talk about politics', and John Key is the 'chief instigator and main beneficiary'. But more importantly, Wilson's profile on the so-called 'Battle of the Babes' contest in Auckland Central is appropriately dismissive. In 'My dinner with Nikki & Jacinda', the contest appears better characterised as the 'Battle of the Bores'.
The overuse of sloganeering by all parties is also evident today - see for example TVNZ's Goff pledges to close Aussie wage gap. And politicians have been caught out using a lot of 'doublespeak' in the campaign - see Chris Whitworth's John Key shows doublespeak 'not unhelpful' during elections.
There's also a lot of claims of policy plagiarism in this election - see TVNZ's Greens accuse Labour of copycat politics (http://bit.ly/uhEStK). Such complaints - increasingly frequent in this election - serve to show just how ideologically convergent the parties are becoming that they can all so easily swap policies. This is reminiscent of the remark once made about policy stealing in New Zealand elections by political scientist RS Milne: 'Each party is mortally afraid that the other will steal its clothing, mainly because the clothing is not distinctively marked with the party's name'.
Similarly, a high degree of ideological flexibility is noted by Tim Watkin in his Pundit blog piece on National's approach to privatisation - see: Is it the right time to sell assets? Lessons from the past. Watkin ponders that 'Ain't it funny in politics how principles bend to fix the times?'.
So we are reduced to a spectator role - consumers watching the advertising and making our purchase on November 26. Modern parties just want your money and your vote and are not really interested in your policy input. Political party conferences have long ceased to be arenas of debate and decision, but are instead showpieces for the leadership. The real decisions about what policies will run are made by the focus groups.
Partly as a result of this marginalisation of citizens, fewer bother to vote. Voter turnout is discussed in the article by Tracy Watkins and Paloma Migone's item National heading for outright win. In this, both Chris Trotter and Raymond Miller ponder whether there will be a very low turnout on polling day. It certainly seems likely, and in my opinion turnout could be the lowest in a century. At the last election it was 75%, and my forecast is that it will drop to at least 74% this time around.
Other important items today include: Paloma Migone's Greens gaining at Labour's expense, Dene Mackenzie's Greens setting policy debate pace, and Gordon Campbell's Time for Labour to roll up its sleeves.
Tracy Watkins and Paloma Migone (Stuff): National heading for outright win
John Hartevelt (Stuff): When will the wind change?
Paloma Migone (Stuff): Greens gaining at Labour's expense
Vernon Small (Stuff): Greens break through glass ceiling
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Will it be 2002 reversed?
John Armstrong (NZH): Goff played the man, but now faces uphill battle to win
John Hartevelt (Stuff): Goff needs to get with reality, Key
Claire Trevett and Audrey Young (NZH): National hits back at Goff's 'vital statistics'
Chris Whitworth (TV3): John Key shows doublespeak 'not unhelpful' during elections
Gordon Campbell (Kapi-Mana News): Time for Labour to roll up its sleeves
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Calm before the election storm
Fran O'Sullivan (NZH): Labour's mixed messages can't contain National's advantage
John Pagani (NZH): Labour's problem - making change look better than drift
Paul Henry (TV3): Labour's chances of winning 'impossible'
Barry Soper (Newstalk ZB): Political Report for November 8
Gordon Campbell (Scoop): On the only foreign policy issue in this campaign
Danya Levy (Stuff): Stats NZ anger at Labour's 'bias' claim
Lloyd Burr (TV3): Five National MPs you may not know
Matthew Dearnaley (NZH): Support for wage policy as Goff strolls
Shabnam Dastgheib and Danya Levy (Stuff): Designer: NZ First pinched my work
Amelia Romanos (NZH): Advance voting starts tomorrow
Toby Manhire (Listener): Tuesday 8 November: what chance a teal deal?
Steve Braunias (Taranaki Daily News): The Secret Diary Of . . . John Key
Karl du Fresne: What we need is a Lange - or even a Muldoon