Political Business

Lessons on political strategy

Posts tagged john key

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Over selling

A rule in professional life is to manage expectations; don’t over promise, but over-deliver.

Despite the professionalisation of politicians, the desperation of popularity drives them to ignore this rule.

They regularly inflate the likely results and reasons for their planned policies. Then they inflate the actual results, and change the reasons, once the policies play out.

The “inflating expectations” approach helps politicians feel they are winning the immediate popularity contest. But it means they are always losing contests they’d attempted to win this way in the past. All those exaggerated promises are regularly returning for explanation as to why it didn’t turn out.

It is this erratic and inconsistent approach to describing problems and solutions that generates mistrust among voters. 

In fact, this approach is why politics is a slippery slope; why Governments seem to mount up troubles the longer they go. In short; the inflated promises about solutions to inflated problems catch up with them.

For example, the National government raised expectations of its partial asset sale plan by saying it could earn $10 billion, reach 250,000 investors, and include “Mum and Dad” investors. When the first two sales unfolded flatly, the Government tried to deflate its previous claims, claiming instead that it was now expecting $5b.  The Meridian Energy shares attracted only 62,000, and the sale price was right at the bottom of the suggested range.

Politicians would do better to downplay problems, and underplay their responses. In fact, they’d do better not to own too many problems or solutions in the first place. But then we would all start asking about the point of politicians.

Filed under john key asset sales promises over-promising policies over-selling mixed ownership meridian mighty river power

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Political psych (cont)

Politicians, like all people, are more complicated beasts than pop psychology reveals.

The Sunday Star-Times echoed my personality test survey of politicians earlier this year, with a test on John Key and David Cunliffe.

The difference between Key and Cunliffe was intriguing. Cunliffe was more extrovert than Key, but less “agreeable”.

It was disappointing that the results were used to fit the pre-existing theme of politicians being gregarious. I suspect they weren’t helped by the politicians crafting their answers to the ten questions. Few politicians would want to reveal their inner doubts to a newspaper.

My survey a few months ago of over three dozen New Zealand politicians uncovered a wide range of personalities, and a surprising level of introversion. It revealed politicians to be keener on a day with the family, and a night in, or a lie down, than doing the political circuit.

On the two subjects of the survey, Dr Marc Wilson, head of Victoria University’s School of Psychology, was perceptive. Most interesting was the degree to which Cunliffe has “mongrel”; effectively a mix of personality traits which may be difficult to like, but make for a tough-minded, flexible, politician. Wilson said:

but in Cunliffe’s case, the lower agreeableness may mean he’ll find it harder to keep on smiling as the the day draws long”.

A difficulty with the SST story is that it mixed up judgements on personality, which is Wilson’s specialty, with judging what makes an effective politician, which is mine. There’s as many way to do politics well, as there is to do life well.

So the application of psychology to political aptitude is massively interesting, but tough to draw lessons. My survey of politicians showed a wide range of people go into, and stay in, politics. That means there’s more than one trait for political success.

Filed under political psychology psychology john key david cunliffe leader prime minister personality

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Letting the bastards get under your skin

The reaction of John Key to criticism of his GCSB bill by the Human Rights Commission was politically unseemly.

He threatened to cut the Commission’s funding:

"I actually don’t think it was a very good submission at all and they need to pull their socks up. If they’re going to continue to be a government-funded organisation they should meet the deadline should everyone else." [sic]

In New Zealand, the semi-autonomous position of Commissions is closely guarded by media, and a little by the public. A threat to their independence is frowned at by the political class (it’s likely that the public give as much credence to a Commission’s criticism of Government as they give to their criticism of public and social issues).

Key was probably frustrated because he had got through the public hearings and was on the home stretch to pass the legislation. Then the Commission late-tackled him with criticism he knew would reignite public attention.

In that case, Key would have been better to give himself a small shoulder-shrug, count to ten, and answer the criticism properly.

Instead, he let his frustration show. It was a significant moment of weakness on this Bill (if the petulant and clunky exchange with Dotcom wasn’t signal enough). ‘Amiability’ has been his watchword, but he’s letting critics get under his skin.

Filed under john key gcsb dotcom human rights commission

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Going too far

Desperation turned Labour rabid yesterday in its pursuit of Peter Dunne.

Peter Dunne is clearly no longer leader of a political party. If the truth were known, it might turn out that he hasn’t been leader of a fully-fledged party for quite some time.

But the Speaker is right to let United Future speedily resubmit for Party status. It’s the fair thing to do, and most of us take pride in the reasonableness and fairness of our culture.

We’re not litigious, nit-picking, drama queens. Let’s leave that to America - and maybe now, to the Labour Party.

Labour looked rabid yesterday in its pursuit of the Speaker and its attempt to get Dunne’s entitlements cut during the period in which his Party resubmits for registration.

Labour’s desperation to make the Key Government look messy, led it to precisely the type of behaviour that voters dislike. In fact, precisely the opposite behaviour to the tempered jovial and easy-going demeanor that has had John Key so high in the polls for so long.

The dilemma facing Oppositions is that you need to be passionate to expose the Government, but too much passion turns people off because it’s shrill, self-serving and disproportionate.

Labour crossed that line yesterday. It allegations of corruption were an outrageous slur on the Kiwi culture of fairness.

If United Future fails to re-register, then the Speaker’s course must be clear. Until then, let’s give them a chance. It’s the Kiwi thing to do.

Filed under peter dunne labour united future parliament david shearer john key dilemma opposition

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Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas

Every political party in Parliament is responsible for the travesty of ignoring the Electoral Commission’s recommendations on MMP.

As National has revealed, each of them had an opinion on the major recommendations. The result was a patchwork of competing ideas.

The problem was not the differences, but that any of them thought they were entitled to views in the first place.

The views are in themselves a perfect illustration why politicians should have no role in electoral or constitutional matters. The mix of principle, ideological and self-survival is ugly. I feel sorry for the politicians - that they were even obliged to face such a conflict.

It’s ironic, because the political sector is obsessed with conflicts. David Shearer went to town on John Key’s conflicts over appointment of a head of GSCB.

Yet here they were, conflicted to all hell over whether to vote for changes to MMP that could affect their chance to govern, or even be in Parliament at all. Thus, Shearer could not commit to more than a “discussion” on the recommendations, because his Party was against, or at least ambivalent, toward some of the changes.

These are matters are for the people to decide. We decide who gets into Parliament to represent us on day to day national decisions, and we should be deciding how we do the voting.

We can’t let National off the hook by blaming the whole of Parliament for not accepting the Commission’s changes, or not putting the changes before us all to vote on in another referendum.

Judith Collins’ easy dismissal of the recommendations because it was too hard to get “consensus” (her newly invented requirement) makes a mockery of the apparent enthusiasm with which she had earlier urged the public to get involved with the review. John Key himself said the review was a chance for the public to “finally… kick the tyres on MMP”.

John Key’s ‘end of the matter’ attempt to shut down the recommendations was unedifying for a man previously so wedded to principled management to Government and treatment of public attitudes. 

We did have some clues that National was not going to like the electoral commission recommendations. For example, in 2011, John Key said he did not think it was necessary to eliminate the “one seat rule”.

I would imagine that Key, in particular, preferred the embarrassment of shutting down the whole thing, to the embarrassment of picking up some of the recommendations and not others.

It’s easier for a turkey to ban all holidays, than ban just Christmas. That’s why politicians shouldn’t be forced into the ignominy of voting on electoral stuff at all.

Filed under electoral commission electoral law electoral reform mmp review national john key david shearer

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The duplicity of spending cuts

A Washington Post analysis has shown why Governments find it so hard to cut budgets: they don’t really want to.

The Post examined the detail of spending cuts claimed by the US Government in April 2011 and concluded that the cuts were “an epic kind of Washington illusion”.

It found that about $17.4 billion in cuts were made by stopping activity that had already been canceled.

In the real world, in fact, many of their “cuts” cut nothing at all. The Transportation Department got credit for “cutting” a $280 million tunnel that had been canceled six months earlier. It also “cut” a $375,000 road project that had been created by a legislative typo, on a road that did not exist.

At the Census Bureau, officials got credit for a whopping $6 billion cut, simply for obeying the calendar. They promised not to hold the expensive 2010 census again in 2011.

Today, an examination of 12 of the largest cuts shows that, thanks in part to these gimmicks, federal agencies absorbed $23 billion in reductions without losing a single employee.

“Many of the cuts we put in were smoke and mirrors,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a hard-line conservative now in his second term. “That’s the lesson from April 2011: that when Washington says it cuts spending, it doesn’t mean the same thing that normal people mean.”

From my experience, there’s two different forces driving this outcome:

1) Governments want to appear to the public bold and decisive, so are prepared to include in their calculations things that aren’t real cuts.

2) Officials want to help the Government reach the target, so look for the easiest things to cut  They don’t really want to go through real baseline reviews because they are hard work, cause pain, and hurt stuff that staff, peers and stakeholders don’t like.

These two forces effectively collude to ensure Government attempts to cut spending usually only suspend or temporarily lower, the year on year increase in the cost of government.

Filed under budget budget2013 spending cuts national john key budget cuts duplicity illusion government

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Finding humour in politics

There’s humour in ordinary life, but none in politics. That’s got to change.

Politics is about serious matters. But then, so is almost every other field of human activity. Yet humour can be found in every walk of life, but rarely in politics. Why are politicians so damn serious, and what is it costing them?

I was uplifted by the reply of the office of the US President to the petition that America build a Death Star. No matter what you think of the current administration, it can’t be all bad if it has the confidence, wit and goodwill to give a humourous official reply to a light-hearted petition.

It made me realise what politicians lose by failing at humour; they lose their humanity. And their humanity their connection to voters. Part of being “human” is generosity, self-deprecation, and objectivity. Humour says you can do those things. Lack of humour, or sarcastic humour about an opposition, says you can’t do those things. 

Why do many politicians lack humour?

In part it’s the environment in which they work: high expectations and demands from the public, high levels of inquisition into their professional and personal lives, high stakes debates, and human issues where there’s little reason for light-heartedness.

This can clearly be beaten.

Take Barack Obama. He regularly displays what feels like genuine good humour.  He’s able to get into the zone because he knows it is important to his public support.

NZ Prime Minister John Key makes a habit of good humour. He’s not funny. He’s simply light-hearted. It’s disarming, defusing, and connects him to people. Light-heartedness oils the wheels of everyday conversation.

Which is why so these politicians are so successful, and most others are not.

They take themselves, their opinions and their goals too seriously. They raise them above the needs of others, including their voters. They spend so much time fighting to win an attrition battle of opinion they forget how to lighten up.

Democratic politics is ultimately about popularity. And that is not determined by being right. It’s determined first by being liked. And we all like those with a smile on their dial.

Filed under obama politicial humour john key popularity funny

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Can a politician be too popular?

What’s most important in a politician: seriousness or knowing pop songs?

This lovely piece of on-ground reporting from the 2012 Presidential race got me thinking about what voters value most in a politician.

Republican voters at a rally worried that people would vote for Obama because he was “hip, cool, and sympathetic.” They wondered out loud whether they were electing a President or “someone to know the top hip hop songs”.

It’s a fair question. The reality is that voters appear to want both: they want someone who can govern with the gravitas and smarts required of a serious job, but who is simultaneously aware of ordinary things.

Voters want politicians to be like them, but much better versions.

This is why populist politicians fail (they’re too much like us) and why serious politicians fail (they’re not enough like us). The strategic magic of politics in carried out between those extremes.

This also explains why too much popularity can be a bad thing. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key spent his first term on a prolonged honeymoon with voters. His affable, easy-going, style was a hit. He could be your neighbour. A comparison video on the respective “blokiness” of Key and his 2011 Opposite, Phil Goff, made the point. Key was the guy you’d want at your BBQ. He wouldn’t talk politics and be right-on and on-message all the time.

John Key has become too conscious of his success.  His recent description of himself as someone who makes jokes and “entertains” many people each week, was unsettling to see stated out loud. He now prefers and seeks out these sorts of informal and non-political interactions with the public. Self-belief may have led to recent injudicious comments denigrating Beckham as “thick as batshit” and another describing a radio host’s red jersey as “gay”.

Flippancy is acceptable in the context of informal light-hearted engagement. But John Key is crossing the line so far into populism that he’s at risk of losing the gravitas we want even of our most popular politicians.

Filed under john key obama romney populism beckham Phil Goff

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National burns off core voters

By delaying partial asset sales to deal with Maori interests, National is burning off core voters.

When the issue of Maori claims on water arose, I mused that this may be the angle National needed to regain support from mainstream voters. I thought National could gain support from middle-New Zealanders peeved to see Maori interests dictating the matter.

To gain that support, National needed to be strident about its plan. By delaying for further negotiation and perhaps legal challenges, National now appears to core National voters, and some swinging voters, as having weakly given in to Maori interests.

This is politically dangerous because these voters were among the few people supportive, or at least agnostic, on partial asset sales.

National has now managed to annoy two very sizable chunks of voters: “nationalists” who are bothered by the idea of selling profitable assets to foreigners, and conservative white voters who don’t like giving in to ‘unjustified’ Maori claims.

Maybe National is making the only choice it can in the circumstances. Maybe it is the right choice. Key says the delay will provide certainty that should shore up the share price.

Either way, the announcement makes the asset sale programme look very tatty. At best it is a delay forced by not planning well. At worst it is a delay forced by lack of willpower.

It has been pointed out that the issue could be the crippling of National as the Foreshore and Seabed issue was for the Labour administration in 2003. The pundits forget that despite antagonising Maori, Labour saw out two more terms in power!

This delay is more reminiscent of a particular moment in Labour’s foreshore saga. In Christmas 2004 (I think) Helen Clark delayed a decision on the issue until the following year, hoping that the summer recess would defuse the heat. She was wrong, Labour came back to increased controversy.

Politicians love delay, but it only stalls the inevitable. The partial float delay is likely to give the public even more reasons to wish National had never thought of asset sales at all.

Filed under asset sales national John Key foreshore and seabed labour helen clark maori

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A logarithmic graph of mentions of NZ political party leaders over the month until August 24th. It appears that the smaller the Party representation in Parliament, the more volatile are the number of mentions. It’s an interesting indicator of the value of incumbency - the almost permanent presence in the public agenda of the Prime Minister.
Note: The NZ First label is a measure of mentions of Winston Peters

A logarithmic graph of mentions of NZ political party leaders over the month until August 24th. It appears that the smaller the Party representation in Parliament, the more volatile are the number of mentions. It’s an interesting indicator of the value of incumbency - the almost permanent presence in the public agenda of the Prime Minister.

Note: The NZ First label is a measure of mentions of Winston Peters

Filed under leadership Russel Norman david shearer winston peters John Key graph