As New Zealand’s general election campaign rolls into its second week, John Pagani argues that the following comment by the National Party prime minister, John Key, sums up what the choice is all about.
Mr Key says don't expect a change in style from a second-term National government, should he win a second term.''I think in a lot of ways it will have a very similar look and feel to it...."
John Pagani says:
It's a consistent message for a conservative party.
He then makes a more telling point, through gritted teeth I am sure:
The right track/wrong track polls all say most people think the country is on roughly the right path. So, it's going fabulously well, vote John Key and National for more of the same.
That's a neat summary of how a governing party’s election narrative works, whether they are of the moderate right or the moderate left. “Re-elect us, and we’ll finish the job”, the government says. Translation: give us a fresh mandate, so that we can keep on doing the good things that you like, providing strong and competent government. More of the same. Don’t risk a change.
National’s first campaign spot is exhibit A. Here are the words:
Despite one of the toughest periods in New Zealand’s history we’re starting to see the promising signs of recovery. Make no mistake, this year we have a very clear choice to make. John Key and National: building a brighter future.
Notice though how the pictures add an edgier sub-message: a contrast between the National-led government with the “risk” presented by the main opposition party (Labour), who are miles behind in the opinion polls. (For a good analysis of the images used and the text’s emphasis on “John Key and National”, click here). And, after all, it’s barely three years since Kiwi voters sent a long serving Labour government packing.
As John Pagani suggests, this sort of narrative works when most voters are basically happy with the state of the country and with the government’s performance and are not inclined to try the main alternative.
Voters are much more likely to give an incumbent government “another go” after one term than when they have been around a bit longer. Tony Blair’s re-election in 2001 was a good example. So was Helen Clark’s successful 2002 bid for a second term.
They both found seeking a third mandate a much trickier proposition. Both Blair and Clark (just) made it over the line in 2005 and in so doing, showed that the quest for a third term separates the strategists from the dilettantes, the political storytellers from the followers of old playbooks and, let’s be honest, the deserving from the undeserving. “Don’t throw it all away” will fall on deaf ears when most voters are tiring of the government, especially if the opposition has started to regain some credibility.
The governing party usually offers new policies that are more popular than the alternatives on offer. Helen Clark’s promise in 2005 to scrap interest rates on loans for full time and low income students was one example. They should also be bolder and more robust. Sir Robert Muldoon’s “Think Big” energy programme back in 1981 enabled him to win the jobs argument but ended in disaster – after he had secured a third term.
OK, I’m getting ahead of the current New Zealand situation. For now, it looks as if Key will win, and, just maybe, with an overall majority, by using a “more of the same” narrative, which is itself embodied by a safe and risk-free, if not dull, campaign.
So, where does that leave Labour? Pagani says:
Oppositions represent change.
He’s right about that. The main opposition party usually tells voters that “it’s time for a change”. But that’s not quite the story Labour is telling this time. More on that soon.