Can the Greens reverse their fortunes before polling day?
The chattering classes have recently been abuzz about the recent return of Mike Munro to the Labour Party’s inner circle as a strategic advisor.
Munro served as press secretary for six years during the Clark-Cullen government. He is said to have attended a daily briefing with Clark to go over the previous day’s press, and how policies had been received by the media. He was regarded as an influential figure, and was highly regarded for his management of the press gallery.
Some say the world has changed since Munro’s last tour of duty (in the meantime, he’s been doing comms for Todd Corporation). Yet many of the politicians are the same, and when he looks around the media, he’ll see many familiar faces (Gower, Garner, Campbell, Young, Hosking, etc). And we’re all familiar how the mainstream media has been gripped by Jacindamania. Yes, he’s been helped by the fact Labour’s new leader has natural media smarts. But what a turnaround.
My question, late this week, was: Does the Green Party have a Mike Munro?
Political insiders were quick to respond with one name: Andrew Campbell – who variously served as the Greens’ political director, communications manager and chief-of-staff between 2011 and 2015; a period when the party lifted its election-day support from 2008’s 7% to 11%.
I gave Mr Campbell a call at NZ Rugby, where he’s now working as a communications manager.
In short, forget about a political comeback.
“I’m really enjoying my work here,” he said. He had no desire to return to politics, or indeed even to comment on recent events.
Yet to regain support – or even survive – the Greens have to understand what went wrong with the Turei gambit, and have a comms plan for where to go from here.
One Green Party insider tells NBR the key problem was that the communications team did not “war game” what would happen after their co-leader confessed to beneficiary fraud at her party's July 16 AGM.
There was an effort to anticipate reaction from the media, and other parties but it was not carried out by election-hardened staffers, or in enough depth (Mr Campbell’s lieutenants left around the same time he did).
The insider thinks that while maintaining a relative silence publically, National did its own research, which it passed on to various media.
Another strand of the rumour mill holds that it was, in fact, Labour who tipped off Newshub to Ms Turei's electoral roll fraud (a reasonably minor matter but one that lent itself to broader suspicions about Turei's living arrangements, and established a scoff-law pattern).
Either way, Greens supporters will be disgusted.
But the insider says that is within the rules of the game and should have been expected. Before an admission of that magnitude, there should have been a “forensic level” of research, including establishing the names of all of Turei’s flatmates, then contacting them all, the insider says. By the time political operatives came snooping, or media calling, all the ducks should have been in a row.
Of course, they weren't, and it all went to heck as Turei’s story shifted, and neither she nor her party had answers to questions about her time as a student, culminating in a complete meltdown when RNZ put specific information to the co-leader that contradicted her story.
NBR would add that Ms Turei would have been in a much stronger position if she had paid back the money she defrauded during her time as a corporate lawyer. Or, at least, before she went public.
So where to from here? A three-point PR plan
Mr Campbell did share that, as has already been well-covered, the party had three planks to its strategy while he was part of the team: to establish economic credibility, to be seen as trustworthy enough for government, and to be seen as strong on the environment.
Economic credibility and trustworthiness were established through a range of measures from the superficial (Green MPs dressing more conservatively) to the more involved (the relatively fiscally conservative memorandum of understanding with Labour).
Now those intertwined initiatives are shot to shreds.
How can they be repaired? The Green insider had a three-point plan:
1. Lay low for a week
The first step should be to just lay low for a week; to merely manage seven days without further chaos, infighting or resignations.
2. Focus on Shaw
The next step should be to focus on leader James Shaw (not that there’s much choice with Shaw now the party’s sole leader until its next annual meeting, some time post-election). “He embodies economic credibility,” the insider says.
But on the issue of trustworthiness, Shaw has damaged his brand, and there just won't be a fast fix.
“The trust thing is deeper and the phone could be off the hook for a while,” the insider says.
3. Lower sights and focus on past Green voters
The nightmare scenario for the party is that the “hard Greens” stay at home on September 23 because they’re disillusioned by Turei’s resignation, while the “soft Greens” vote Labour.
Polls by Newshub and UMR indicate this has already happened to a degree. A National Party tracking poll is rumoured to have shown additional cratering after infighting over Graham and Clendon’s resignation, with the Greens on just 4%.
The insider says “It would now be a miracle to get 11%” (the Greens’ total in 2011 and 2014.).
Instead, the party should abandon its 15% goal and tightly target attention on people who have voted Green in the past in an attempt to hold the line above 5% to avoid electoral obliviation.
Anatomy of a meltdown
New Zealand being such a small town, it quickly became known in media circles, then through social media, that the father of Ms Turei's child came from a successful and relatively well-off family. If you lived on the North Shore during the 1990s, you would have been aware of the grandmother as a public figure. It stretched credibility that her partner’s parents would let their grandchild live on the breadline.
It didn’t help when Turei admitted she enrolled one electorate (using her estranged partner’s address) while voting in another. Nor did it that she stood for the McGillicuddy Serious Party. A great student jape – but also, given it involved forking over a candidate deposit ($300 today) and a bit of effort, not one that someone would likely indulge in if they were genuinely struggling to feed their child.
There was also a photo broadly circulated on social media that seemed to contradict Ms Turei’s story.
The soft Labour votes that initially went to the Greens fell away. Many like an underdog story. Few like someone who fibs or exaggerates.
Ms Turei could have continued to fight against the talkback vitriol, or indeed feed off it, but it was attacks closer to home that did her in.
First, new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern let it be known that she did not want Ms Turei in cabinet (though was diplomatic enough not to say so until the Greens made a public announcement that their co-leader would not seek a ministerial position).
Then Green MPs Kennedy Graham and David Clendon withdrew from the list.
And the fatal blow came when RNZ put written questions to Turei, asking for her response to evidence of apparent substantial support from her child’s grandparents. She could have simply said “no” (if that was the case) without breaching any family privacy. Instead, she refused to answer.
Her supporters continued to argue she was been punished for being brave enough to tell the truth about her past offending, forced on her by circumstances and a bad system. But by refusing to answer RNZ’s questions, she gave the appearance of lying by omission. That made her position untenable, even before the Newshub poll. Within hours, she resigned as Green co-leader.
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