After last nights result I realise that my pre-election day cartoon was off the mark, but perhaps amusingly naive. Palmerston North has re-elected Labour’s Iain Lees-Galloway for the third time. On the party vote things were clear-cut. National’s slightly increased total vote is not a land-slide, and Labour’s depreciation from 27 to 24.5 percent hardly makes a rout. But the media are trumpeting superlatives and clichés, and TV3s Lisa Owen has kept on with her nasty barrage directed at Labour interviewees while paying no heed of what the are actually saying. She would merit an award for worst media journalism if their weren’t so many other claimants. (I watched TV3s coverage because I couldn’t stay on TVONE without swearing loudly at Mike Hosking, and my beloved Aunt was present.)
Owen’s technique — though not just hers — is to ask a question of the interviewee and interrupt them mid-stream with a direct contradiction. The interviewee keeps their guard up because of that and Lisa gets nowhere in terms of informative answers to her ham-handed questions. Overall, I think the atmosphere she creates is sour, and that is true for much of the NZ political journalists. But unlike Patrick Gower, the Espiner’s, Susan Wood, Duncan Garner, and even Paul Henry; Lisa doesn’t seem capable of turning it off — even for a little while.
It was sad to see Hone Harawira expelled from Te Tai Tokerau, and the Internet-MANA experiment fail so completely. But the hard lessons to learn must now be learned. Radical politics do not succeed in moving large sections of the electorate in a time of quiet stability. They have to be restrained; I don’t mean hidden, nor repudiated. They simply cannot be permitted to dominate the brand.
On the subject of branding it is crucial to get control over the message and guide its delivery via the media, and the internet. Yes I am referring to ‘spin’. Which is propaganda by another name. It is the foul smelling, shadowy environment of blogging, leaking, bending the truth, and acting without mercy. It is immoral, and reprehensible. John Key has managed with profound success to remain (at least in appearance) to be above his parties blunt overuse of vindictive propaganda. He is not in fact quite so angelic in his celebrated occupancy of some higher celestial plane, but he still only knows what he strictly needs to, rather than being at the centre of control.
The opposition parties (I refuse to call them a left bloc because that is both disingenuous and a cliché) need to get dirty. By this I mean that if the Green Party wants to become the main opposition party then they need to build a stronger propaganda machine. Crucially this has to be kept apart from caucus, and especially the party leadership. It should not be a clone of National’s arrangement with Whale Oil, Kiwiblog, various lobbyists, journalists, and bloggers. That system has flaws which are starting to be exploited. But the Greens should start brainstorming.
Labour badly needs to put more crackle and fizz into its machine — but first should deal with the matter of what it stands for. Is it the party of new-left progressives like David Cunliffe, or of quasi-conservative realists like Kelvin Davis? An arrangement to better represent the divergent factions of the party — ideally behind a leader who is not of any particular — could work. If the wider party membership can get on board too then a stable foundation will have been laid. A big problem in the last six years has been that Phil Goff, David Shearer, and David Cunliffe had to keep looking over their shoulders. But to be honest I think it would be more efficient for Cunliffe to remain leader while presiding over the building of a robust spin machine. That way it would be entirely separated from a new leader.
The challenge for National is outliving John Key, and the ongoing ramifications from the skirt being lifted on their spin machine. The worst propaganda is the stuff that is easily recognised, and they’ll be in trouble if they don’t adapt their strategy. As of today they can expect 61 seats out of 121 in the next parliament with 48 percent of the party vote. Hardly the absolute majority the Sunday Star-Times was honking on about (absolute majority implies a majority of actual votes cast) — it is a bare majority of seats that could disappear with the special votes. I do not wish to appear a sore loser, and I say that National have had a stunning victory. I just mean that it is a weakness if the feeling of supremacy overwhelms the hawkish minds in caucus.