What could go wrong for National in this election campaign? To answer this question, we only need to look back three years ago when John Key became embroiled in the ‘teapot tapes’ affair, which threatened to derail National’s campaign altogether. Duncan Garner, then TV3’s political editor, has for the first time revealed his inside account on just how worried Key became about the recording of his conversation with John Banks: ‘How the prime minister handled it became the story. He called in the cops to shut the media down. Key and his party intimidated our organisations. The Government reminded us about the law and what might happen if we broke it and broadcast the tape. No one was talking policy – we were talking tapes. Labour leader Phil Goff didn't get a mention for two weeks – he became irrelevant’ – see Duncan Garner’s The real story behind John Key's darkest days as PM.
Garner points out that, in the end, voters ‘were more interested in policy than dirt’ and still gave National enough votes to lead a government. But as Garner also notes, support for National declined by seven points during the campaign. A similar decline this time around would be fatal to National’s election chances.
National’s strategy of safe and bland
The lessons of 2011 have no doubt informed National’s strategy for 2014. Competence, stability, blandness – all are words that might be used to describe National’s de facto campaign launch in the weekend at the party’s annual conference in Wellington. It seemed fitting that the only policy unveiled was a modest list of roading projects in regional New Zealand – something solid, largely uncontroversial and a policy unlikely to sway voters one way or the other.
As Tracy Watkins says, ‘Anyone expecting a splashy announcement would have found it an anti-climax’ – see: No rash promises needed as days tick by. Watkins says the bland conference and policy announced ‘fitted the "no frills, steady as she goes" brief to a tee’. This is because ‘National is in no need of a game changer or a big splash’ but just wants to play it safe and win.
John Armstrong suggests there was a clever motive behind National’s boring roading policy – it was carefully designed as a wedge issue between Labour and the Greens – see: Strategy creates a clever route to block Labour-Greens. Armstrong says to expect more such exploitations of the division between National’s opponents.
There are other signs of a bland, ‘business as usual’ approach from National. Although there are some hopes on the political right for a tax-cut announcement, this looks likely to be more meek and mild than National backers would like – see Andrea Vance’s Tax cuts not high on list of priorities.
It’s this moderate direction that leaves people like the NBR’s Rob Hosking feeling frustrated. He writes today to say that National has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win on a more radical programme of economic reform: ‘There has not been an opportunity like this for a the liberal-conservative side of politics in New Zealand since at least 1949 – and even then the prevailing statist assumptions of that era made the opportunity somewhat attenuated. If Election 2014 is just about a win against the odds for National -and for Mr Key personally – that win is going to be dissolved fairly quickly into the sands of hubris’ – see: Historic win or hubris? (paywalled).
Much of the weekend’s imagery centred around a new branding of National’s campaign as ‘#TeamKey’ – a social-media friendly label which unsurprisingly seeks to take advantage of the party’s biggest asset. The TeamKey brand comes with its own website – TeamKey – which collates National’s social media activity on Facebook and Twitter in one place.
How is TeamKey being received by commentators? Andrea Vance is impressed by the unified approach, but warns of the risk of relying on Key alone: ‘It must be the cleanest night of the long knives in political history – not one "retiring" MP has turned feral on the party… There's still one elephant in the room though: the absence of a credible successor. The rebrand is Team Key – not Team National and the campaign centres on his undeniable popularity. Which begs the question: Without Key are they sunk?’ – see: Nats future bright while Key at helm.
From the left, the main critique of TeamKey is that it is a ‘personality cult’ – see The #teamkey personality cult by Labour adviser Greg Presland. Presland also predicts that National will try to keep Key away from any underhand behaviour during the campaign: ‘I suspect that from now to the election we will not see him involved in any further attempts to undermine David Cunliffe using underhand or subversive means. Expect increased use of the right wing blogs however to continue to try and tarnish David’s image and expect Key to veer away from any behaviour which could be branded as manipulative and tricky’.
The personality cult theme is also explored in an interview with Steven Joyce on TV3’s Firstline – see: #teamkey no cult of personality – Joyce. And see the mock Cult of Personality film poster from new anti-National satirical site Neetflux.
National’s social media
The use of social media has also come into the spotlight with the ‘#TeamKey’ branding. Social media analyst Matthew Beveridge thinks it might be a little over the top and lacks credibility: ‘Social media is not the be all and end all of a campaign, it is simply another tool in the campaign tool box, but at the same time it isn’t something you can turn on and have work right away. It is something that takes time and effort to build. It requires genuine engagement, not just using it to push out press releases. Which is what some senior National MPs seem to think’ – see his very thoughtful blog post, Social media for the sake of social media?
The fact that a prominent member of ‘TeamKey’, Gerry Brownlee, is particularly technology averse has been pointed out – see: Brownlee not quite ready for #TeamKey. The ability of the hashtag to be ‘hijacked’ is also reflected upon in TVNZ’s National's #TeamKey hijacked.
National’s biggest threat – complacency?
With a raft of political opponents, it may seem surprising that speakers at the National conference emphasised complacency as much as other parties as their enemy, as reported in Tracy Watkins’ Election complacency worries National leadership.
John Armstrong also nicely sums up National’s focus on voter turnout: ‘If nothing else, such was the constant hammering of this message that Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre should be a Complacency Free Zone by the time the conference winds up at lunch-time today. However, the party apparatchiks who are sent to the conference by their electorate organisations are the last people who need to be reminded of how close the election is likely to be – and thus how vital it is to get National-leaning voters to the polling booths’ – see Voter turnout a worry for National Party.
Whenever the Opposition was discussed during the weekend, a would-be ‘TeamCunliffe’ was contrasted with the unified TeamKey. Attorney-General Chris Finlayson told delegates: "Cut off Phil Goff and up shoots David Shearer and Hone Harawira, saw off David Shearer and up springs David Cunliffe and Laila Harre" – see the list of conference quotes in Newswire’s Beware the dreaded hydra and Newstalk ZB’s Labour roasted at National conference.
Fitting in with National’s seemingly ‘boring but safe’ campaign strategy, gone is any prospect of a ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’ deal in Epsom – or in any other seat. Instead, any pre-election deals will probably be announced openly, well in advance of the election date. John Key hinted that a decision on giving Murray McCully’s East Coast Bays seat to Colin Craig would be made by the end of July – see TVNZ’s Key hints at decision on Conservative deal.
By putting his own cards on the table, Key is also hoping to force other parties’ hands, including New Zealand First’s, as detailed in a report by Audrey Young – see: Delegates will get hard word on campaign.
National is not in a position to offer the Maori Party any kind of deal, which might explain why it is becoming concerned about whether its relationship with the party has harmed its own chances. This is evaluated in an interview by Michael Fox with candidate Chris McKenzie in Maori-National relationship 'biggest obstacle'. Fox reports McKenzie as blaming ‘the perception on a lack of understanding among the electorate, saying it was a common misconception that the Maori Party gave National the numbers to govern and that they had supported some of the Government's most unpopular policies’.
Reaction to John Key biography
The first book-length biography on Key is out, John Key: Portrait of a Prime Minister, written by Herald columnist John Roughan. For a taste of the biography, read the Book extract: John Key, Portrait of a Prime Minister.
The most critical review of the book published so far is by political scientist Jon Johansson in the Listener. As part of a lengthy piece, Johansson writes: ‘Roughan’s portrait is lightly textured and incomplete. For example, the book opens with a story about Key’s golf game with President Obama, followed by one on the Key family weekend at Balmoral. It’s all gee whizz this and aw shucks that about Key’s ease when representing us on the world stage. But you won’t find any serious reflection anywhere in the book about foreign policy under Key, or war for that matter, so no Afghanistan, no mention of the 10 combat deaths on Key’s watch, their effect on him or for what purpose their sacrifice was made’ – see: The real world.
From the opposite direction comes an unsurprisingly favourable review from National blogger David Farrar in The John Key Biography – the early years.
Finally, for satirical takes on Key’s biography, read blogger Scott Yorke’s John Key: Portrait of a Saint, and see the mock book cover at anti-National satire site Neetflux: John Key: Portrait of a corporate stooge.
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