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Madness, energy and pus: messages from Election 2017

As the New Zealand General Election 2017 campaign gets underway in earnest, George Hulbert casts his eye over the messages that people might be taking from the whole crazy business:

Normally, elections are a titanic snooze-fest – an endurance test for a population to suffer the considerable weight (and wind) of political egos who promise much and then - as we often discover - later deliver little. The thought of weeks of watching over-inflated windbags talking over each other is enough to drive you to drink (more).

So I’m beyond happy in being able to say that this year’s NZ general election is proving refreshingly different so far. Yay!

For starters, we have already seen no fewer than three party leaders get the chop, thanks to 1) good-old-fashioned Julius Caesar-style leadership murder (Labour), 2) an astonishing admission of benefit fraud (Greens) and 3) a perhaps-overdue political suicide (United Future). Driving into work every day I pass outdated billboard after outdated billboard, and I have to admit it does make me smile at all the craziness that’s going on.

Although I am not a wildly political beast, I am always interested in communication, message and public relations strategy. So, with just under one month to go till polling day, what are the non-policy-related messages I am taking from the current state of the election?

Momentum comes from energy, enthusiasm and openness

The emergence of Jacinda Ardern as the new Labour leader has injected real momentum into a party that had been through numerous leaders over recent years. Why is this? It may partly be because she has a Communications degree, but whatever preparation she has had - and regardless of the actual words coming out of her mouth – it is definitely also because she speaks with enthusiasm, vigour and a sense of positivity that has been sorely missing from a party that must have gone through numerous pairs of shoes from having been so firmly on the back foot for so long.

Regardless of your personal political leanings, it is hard not to be engaged by Jacinda’s open body language, her ready smile and her standout ability to connect with people because she actually speaks like a human being – shock horror!

As a big believer in the power of enthusiasm in generating connections with other people, I respond to the openness and passion she shows – in total contrast to her opponents.

Furthermore, whoever is advising her is doing a great job in placing her in colourful situations of brightness, enthusiasm and passion. Just look at the way she was lit – and the background – at the Labour party election launch: spot lit, colourful background, people often in shot, and then the grip and grin with the saintly Helen Clark in the middle of the crowd: all very powerful, personal, passionate, presidential even:

And look at this shot, nicely taken by Chris McKeen for a Stuff.co.nz article: a good old-fashioned hustings shot, but it shows infectious fervour:

And, while all this was happening, where was Jacinda’s number 1 rival, Prime Minister Bill English? TVNZ showed him standing in a field in a black coat, surrounded by grey people dressed (you guessed it) in grey, next to a road in the middle of nowhere on a grey day with four people in shot, one of whom looks like he/she is going for a ‘scary photobomb shot of the year’ contest:

It’s the polar opposite of the buzz, sense of passion and momentum that his opposition is already generating. So much so that the policy message he was trying to deliver – of a $10 billion spend on roads of national significance – got almost completely lost.

This message so far of ‘strong and stable government’ coming from National is woefully missing the mark in comparison to the fervour being whipped up by the youthful vigour injected into Labour by the Jacinda machine. (And let’s not forget that ‘strong and stable government’ was the spectacularly unsuccessful message used by the Conservatives in the dismal UK election earlier this year).

To me, ‘strong and stable government’ translates as ‘more of the same’. When coupled with drab grey people in drab grey settings, and in contrast to the agenda-setting momentum offered by the Labour team, it has the feel of a losing strategy, even at this early point.

Acne is not a winning strategy

And then there was the effort to try to make Bill English seem human, going for our sympathy by talking about… acne. Always a winner, acne. Once you’ve got your mind past any struggles you may have had yourself with pimples and pain, you’re left with… pus? Makes me feel a bit green, and not in a political way.

Three things worried me about this set-up. 1) The setting: so formal for such a personal disclosure. It looks like Hyacinth Bouquet was asked for her TV shot-framing views. 2) The suit: so formal. 3) The link between acne and how this makes him understand how people with disabilities feel. Awwwwwkward.

It all feels a bit like Bill English doesn’t know who he is / what he wants to show us. If he is the Southland farmer, show us that. If he is the leader of the country, show us that. Show us both, separately. But not this grisly mix, please.

…and the madness

Where do we start? This could be the most fun election yet:

Lipstick on a pig – thanks Gareth Morgan for the fun and posturing this delivered. Purposefully misunderstood by people who wanted to have a go, it did turn attention to the misnamed TOP party, but it has the feel of a hallmark to their campaign, and really gets in the way of their message about policy:

Winston First buying back power companies

After being unusually and completely silent for nearly a week, The Winston First party seems to be enjoying its own share of madness - with the views expressed by candidate Richard Prosser that if in government the party would buy back shares in the not-long partly privatised power companies. Where he came unstuck was in the matter of how he would pay for it – by buying the shares back at issue price, not the $11 billion they are now worth.

The amusing bit of this was that it allowed the ACT Party’s David Seymour a lovely opportunity to take a free hit at them – which he did in his own mad style by dropping the f-bomb at a Business New Zealand conference.

Metiria Turei

This NZ Herald article sums it all up, so there’s no need to go through it again, but whoever suggested/agreed that a strategy to promote past benefit fraud as an election campaign strategy needed their head examined. 

Particularly as subsequent news stories seemed to enlarge the extent of the fraud and create a spiralling disaster as MPs resigned from the Green party and their share of vote (at a healthy 14% not that long ago) threatened to drop below thresholds that might see them out of parliament altogether.

Just amazing really.

And so it’s tempting, as I wrap up this long piece, to look ahead to the four weeks we have left of this unprecedented campaign. National has yet to launch its campaign properly, and as the race tightens up as it inevitably will, who is to say that it isn’t going to get even crazier?

All I can say is: Where are you Pam Corkery? We miss you. You’d fit right in this year.