Political Business

Lessons on political strategy

Posts tagged national

2 notes &

3 top of mind lessons from NZ election

With the votes at 99% in, I have three lessons top of mind tonight from this election.

1) MMP can create a stand-alone government. I’ve said it here and everywhere since MMP started - the system does not stop one Party from winning a majority of votes and it does not make coalition governments compulsory. Well done National for being the first Government in NZ to show it possible. More extraordinarily still, National broke records by doing it in a third term. An awesome victory. Do we now get a ‘traditional’ First Past the Post Government?

2) There was no mood for change. The left-wong parties got caned. I recently wrote that Parties tend to campaign in the equivalent of gated political communities - so are able to deceive themselves. The mood in the electorate today was actually an almost 3% swing against change. I suspect the problem was that the left-wing gave away the centre. They gave away ordinary NZ workers.

3) Money doesn’t buy elections. Despite many politicians trying to demonise political spending, and even creating laws to frustrate it, money clearly failed to buy success. This attitude is fundamentally patronising and dismissive of the wisdom of the electorate. The anti-money beliefs are held mainly by people scared and frustrated that their own messages don’t resonate with voters. Money doesn’t “buy” elections or votes. Ideas, attitude and connection with people win votes.

Filed under election 2014 election election night lessons national labour political campaigns political funding

0 notes &

What to say about bad polls

The struggle of Labour Leader David Cunliffe and MP Annette King today to talk about falling public support for Labour illustrated an unhelpful defensiveness politicians have when discussing bad news.

It’s a very human problem - most of us find it difficult to admit to weaknesses. We are especially challenged when discussing our ‘popularity’.

The way politicians handle this is usually to say the polls don’t show what they find on the street when campaigning. I know from direct experience that this claim is usually a conscious lie, or an indication that their campaign work is contrived (ie. they’re meeting supporters).

Another claim is that there is only one poll that matters - the one on election day. This is a transparent effort to avoid the issue.

This is the line Annette King took. It sounded terrible - evasive and defensive.

The other main claim is that the polls are rubbish and/or deliberately skewed. This line can work, as it undermines credibility of the source, and when said with confidence, authority and some irreverence, signals that you deserve popularity. It can just as easily be seen as sour-grapes.

Here’s what I think politicians should say:

"I’m honoured to have the support of [x%] but I’m bothered that I have not yet gained the confidence of more voters. I’m listening to what they want for this country. I’m proposing that [insert main campaign line]. In contrast, my opponent is taking voter support for granted. I’d welcome voters taking another look at my policies. My opponent has been wrong many times this campaign, so a lot of  people aren’t very confident about their vote for [him]."

This approach:

  • acknowledges that you do have people who like you, which makes it possible for others to like you as well.
  • acknowledges the problem, which means you are honest.
  • shows deference to all voters, signalling you regard them as more important than yourself.
  • uses the opportunity to repeat the things you hope will appeal to wavering voters.
  • suggests that people should be uncertain about their support for the opponent, giving a moment for your attitude and policies to be reconsidered.

Filed under cunliffe annette king labour national comment opinion polls polls what to say about polls poularity what to say when not popular

0 notes &

The politics of Christchurch consents

Confronted with confusion politicians should side with people, not politics.

For weeks no one really knew what the hell the whole Christchurch consent controversy was about. But it was controversy, and that means airtime, so politicians got stuck in. And none of it helped the public.

It’s slowly becoming apparent that accreditation was removed for technical breaches, such as clearing less than 75% of consents within a certain time frame.

But that’s not very sexy politically, and frankly, not that important to whether or not a building can be lived and worked in.

Which is why politicians decided it was easier to wallow in the controversy, not help define and solve the actual problem.

The Housing Minister claimed that when he spoke to people in the Council they didn’t think anything was wrong. He told TVNZ that Council workers were in denial. It was not politically convenient to wonder if they were right. In the same interview he said that the issues were “not severe”. But that did not stop the Government earlier allowing for the possibility that buildings might come down.

The claims of buildings under threat were politically motivated. They relied on the ridiculous assumption that engineers, architects and builders were submitting plans for consent that ignored standards in serious ways.

Fortunately, the ultimate responsibility of being in Government began to take hold. National’s position matured into saying there were only technical deficiencies, not serious ones. Making political capital is not as important as the lives of real people with real buildings just consented or about to be consented.

But by then the damage was done. Those doing the doing for the Christchurch rebuild - the Council, the public and the building industry - were let down by the talkers.

Average-quality politicians embrace political controversy because it is a safe way of getting airtime.

Good politicians would have seen very early that the best way to distinguish themselves, to get airtime, to get support from locals, and to actually do good, was to break through the controversy mire.

A good politician would have called the controversy for what it was; a problem created by systems and processes gurus, not by anything actually wrong with buildings or accuracy of consents granted.    

Filed under christchurch consents local politics lianne dalziel bob parker gerry brownlee maurice williamson national controversy Political Motives

0 notes &

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

1 note &

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

0 notes &

Drunk, or ‘tired and emotional’

Aaron Gilmore, MP, was abandoned by people he should have been able to count on; his Party.

National should have counseled the relative newbie on the advantages of speedy public honesty. It should have helped him pick a factor from his behaviour that he could apologize for. Instead, it left the poor guy to be battered by the hypocrisy of the media and general public.

One of the strengths of conservative political parties is a tendency to protect its own. Against the combined power and fickleness of the public, you need to be able to count on your fellow Party members. John Key and National were surprisingly willing to throw a Party member to the mob just for getting tipsy and arrogant at a restaurant.

The Gilmore situation illustrates the difference between whether people will give you a break or not; whether they will say you were drunk and arrogant, or tired and emotional.

The two main factors are;

1) Whether people have a reason to think you’re okay, so behaviour can be excused, and /or

2) Are in a mood to make themselves feel better, or seek the favour of others, by criticizing you

Some lessons then:

  1. People are hypocritical, but are tolerant if you have given them other reasons to think you are okay (Gilmore’s incident, and management of it, was his first introduction to most people)
  2. An MP can get drunk and silly in public, but not drunk and supercilious.
  3. If you don’t seek help from your Party mates within the first 48 hours, you’re on your own.
  4. Talk directly and verbally to your Party mates, don’t rely on Party officials, written messages, or the media.
  5. Timing might be against you (National MPs were in a bad mood this week, with Key caught on some sloppy comments, and the Might River Power sale coming off tatty, not glorious)

I confess to feeling soiled by adding to the pile of views already expressed on this banal matter. Even raging against the hypocrisy doesn’t stop it. My general rule is that only silence helps.

But now I’ve used the situation to draw some political strategy lessons, I’d like to compensate by offering some perspective. Here is a random list of clumsy behaviour exhibited by politicians and media. It demonstrates that many of us, if not all, are prone to excess, slips and shifts in character.

Life without this sort of expression would be damnably dull.

Follow up 13/05/13

Aaron Gilmore has announced that he will resign from Parliament. It demonstrates that there’s few of us who can resist peer pressure. It’s a victory for righteous bullying and blame-culture.

Filed under gilmore alcohol drunk key new zealand national strategy tactics media management lessons

1 note &

Winston economic guru?

Ironically, it’s NZF denting the Government’s economic credibility. We examine why.

Never mind all the side shows, National’s core popularity has been due to John Key’s  economic ‘credibility’.

This has been built on three factors:

  1. The global financial crisis has made economic times tough, not National
  2. John Key is a self-made smart economic operator, who is likable
  3. National is the party of economic stability

Labour has been unable to make public headway with criticism of National’s economic performance. Primarily because it, and its spokespeople, do not yet have a reputation for credibility.

Winston Peters does not have a reputation for financial credibility either. But he’s been going on about financial matters most of his career.

Now, fours years into a recession with no apparent end, the timing is right. People are beginning to wonder, after inconsequential Budgets, what National has done that matches responses in nations such as the UK and US.

Winston Peters has a private member’s bill to amend the Reserve Bank Act. It won’t pass, but it has spurred debate about whether the current Act is helping the economy. The appreciating strength of the New Zealand dollar has raised concerns about exports.

Winston’s Bill would have given the Reserve Bank Governor the ability to consider many economic factors when setting the official cash rate (OCR).

He claims that inflation has not been a problem for a long time, but a high dollar value has been - so should be a factor in setting an inflation target.

Labour backed Mr Peters’ bill. It also seems to be advocating more radical options, pointing to US, which is printing money to devalue its currency, and other nations putting in valuation caps.

Winston’s bill was, surprisingly, a conservative route to improve flexibility, contrasted with Labour’s more radical prescription.

The circumstances have allowed Winston to appear thoughtful, considered and - crucially - proactive. While the Government appears to say things are okay as they are, and Labour hopes for many things. 

Filed under winston peters economy reserve bank labour national nzfirst

2 notes &

Why politicians like the beneficiary debate

"Beneficiary bashing" has raised its meta-issue head again, so political parties can cement their identities.

National’s ‘new’ rules for beneficiaries have re-ignited the old debate over treatment of those on welfare. The political classes define themselves by whether they say the rules are about employment and responsibilities, or whether they say the rules are mean and unfair.

In recession politics, benefit arguments are not about facts or details. They’re about symbolism, acted out via polemic about attitudes to welfare.

For example, Labour knows there’s always rules about taking money from the State, and National knows there’s no jobs for people to be forced into.

National is not making the changes to save money, as none of these new rules are likely to be broken.

National is not really making the changes to stop poor behaviour, because of the 300,000 people covered, only a miniscule number of people are affected - probably only in the hundreds.

So why is National doing it, and why are Labour and the Greens complaining?

Because the beneficiary issue is actually about political identity.

Political symbolism requires statements of what you are against, and what you are for.

National is against “bludging” off the State. Labour is for helping people in need.

But we already knew that. So where is the political gain?

The gain is called ‘framing’: getting voters to side with one of the two competing ways being offered to view the situation - and thus to side with a political party.

For National, it’s important to hold their core, and a little of the middle ground. These voters dislike dislike non-triers, and bludgers, respectively.

Labour and the Greens also want to hold their core, especially given some recent instability within Labour. Rallying around ‘respect’ for beneficiaries is an easy touchstone.

National will hope that middle New Zealand sees the ‘new’ measures as fair tinkering that just insists on what ordinary people would do themselves if they were unemployed.

Labour will be hoping that although it might not gain votes from middle New Zealand, those voters will hear, and like, a message that Labour wouldn’t punish or hurt people in tough circumstances. 

All Parties will succeed in labeling themselves. Job done, yet again.

Now, to move on, if any Party is brave and inventive enough, to win votes from the undecided middle ground.

Filed under national labour greens beneficiaries benefits welfare framing

0 notes &

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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The word of the week is: determined

National’s spin phrase from the conference is: ‘determined’.

The word is out, National will no longer be a shrinking violet. National ‘knows’ its plan for the economy is good, so it will now be more determined to carry it out.

Over the past four years, National’s annual conference has tended to reinforce the theme of the year. These have varied from driving public service to hit targets and public private partnerships (PPPs), to the mixed ownership model for state assets.

This year there is no new economic theme or plan. This year National has decided to say that it really, really means all the stuff it’s previously announced.

It especially means it with asset sales, so will incentivise share purchases, and is especially keen on oil and gas exploration.

So the word ‘determined’ was spun between Ministers, MPs, delegates and media.

This is revealing in a number of ways:

1) National is trying to talk itself into a determined mindset. Which means it isn’t quite sure, or at least that it needs to jump start itself into this mindset.

2) National is acknowledging that it’s been too careful in the past about following through with plans. What the heck ever happened to PPPs?

3) After four years of strong polling, National is finally confident that it has public support, so is less bothered about upsetting its usual opponents.

Strategically, this is the best route. You either cringe your way to the next election, or do the things you think are right, and/or popular.

Two words of warning though;

  1. the “determined” talk is simply a feedback loop within the political class. Just saying it doesn’t make it so, and it is unlikely to be communicated across to the voting public. It’s especially hard to carry on with your determination when your Government has now slipped into the frame whereby almost any action is an invitation for controversy.
  2. public support doesn’t tend to wax and wane accurately. Sentiment tends to reach tipping points then change dramatically. That’s why Key’s wariness served National well in the first term.

Filed under national john key conference ppp asset sales