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Dr Muriel Newman

One Year Out

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Two years ago the opinion polls were predicting that National would win the 2005 election. But it was always going to be close.

National had emerged from the 2002 election with its worst ever election result of 21 percent. But it came within a whisker of the Treasury benches on election night 2005. The catalyst, of course, was Don Brash’s seminal Orewa speech on nationhood in January of 2004. The speech unleashed a political storm, as the pent-up flood of discontent – built as a result of Labour’s divisive approach to race relations – swept the country.

That discontent started with Labour’s first budget in 2000, when they announced they intended to spend $350 million of taxpayer’s money on a ‘flagship’ policy designed to give preferential treatment to Maori. “Closing the Gaps” was to redefine state support as no longer being based exclusively on need, but on race. Under Labour the country was launched on the dangerous course towards state sponsored racial separatism.

In his straight-talking way, Don Brash threw political correctness aside and asked, “What sort of nation do we want to build? Is it to be a modern democratic society embodying the essential notion of one rule for all in a single nation state? Or is it a racially divided nation, with two sets of laws, and two standards of citizenship, that the present Labour government is moving us steadily towards?”

The debate that followed the Orewa speech launched National’s rise in the opinion polls. From 28 percent in December 2003, by March 2004, National had risen to 49 percent. Labour, on the other hand had fallen from 45 percent in December to 39 percent in March.

The opinion poll shock forced Labour to dump their Closing the Gaps policy – but in name only. Their racially-based programmes continue on.

While both parties moved up and down in the polls in the lead up to the 2005 election – Labour losing ground as a result of their pre-election “chewing gum” budget, then significantly gaining ground as a result of their $1 billion announcement to scrap interest on student loans – no other event had such an electrifying impact on the country as that Orewa speech.

Today, just one year out from the next election, National is polling strongly, consistently 10 or more points ahead of Labour. Labour has never properly recovered from the allegations of corrupt practice that surrounded their illegal election spending of more than $800,000 of taxpayers’ money.

Further, the key Economic Outlook indicator, which signals whether the economy over the next 12 months is expected to be in a better or worse state than it is now, has been negative for most of the last twelve months. The last time this Economic Outlook indicator showed that same trend was back in 1997 and 1998 and before that in 1990 and 1991. In both cases, the downturn was an early signal of a change in government.

Despite this, no-one should write off Helen Clark. She is a formidable campaigner, and Labour’s present dip in the polls is nothing new for Labour. At their low point in August 1996, Labour was polling at 14 percent and Helen Clark rated just 5 percent in the preferred Prime Minister stakes. As Prime Minister she has regularly polled over 40 percent with a peak of 52 percent in June of 2002.

Helen Clark has her eyes set firmly on winning a fourth term of office for Labour. As the Christchurch Press Political Editor Colin Espiner wrote in his excellent article The Prime of Helen Clark, “Clark cannot be underestimated. For her, being in government is not just about power. She wants nothing less than to shift the political paradigm; to permanently reposition Labour as a party of the centre, and as the natural party of government”.

Helen Clark has embarked on the mission of repositioning Labour in a planned and calculated manner. A background paper “Language Matters” that was presented to the Labour Party through a series of workshops in 2006 sheds light on her approach:

In the 2005 election, Labour’s main opponent National was very close to victory and by many accounts could/should have won. Why National failed can be endlessly debated but the signals are that Labour needs to set a much clearer agenda to win next time.

The big risks and challenges for Labour are the length of time it’s been in power; whether it can instil new blood and demonstrate new ideas; its ability to clearly articulate vision and ideas without being labelled arrogant and PC; the status of the economy and how that is linked to Labour’s governing.

A way to approach these risks is to reframe public discourse about the things that matter to New Zealanders and to ensure Labour is identified with those core values. Although a lot of work has already been done on this, it clearly hasn’t been effective enough because the majority of New Zealanders don’t really ‘get it’. And until they do – until the mere mention of an issue or a phrase by a Labour politician can evoke instant understanding and support amongst a substantial portion of the population – not only is the next election in doubt, but the hearts and minds of many New Zealanders could be beyond Labour’s grasp, possibly for many years.

The paper suggested that Labour needed some big, bold, new ideas:

Watch this space around climate change. This debate is “heating up” around the world. At stake is the right of big business to control the way it does business. In Australia and the US the debate is raging around alternatives to the Kyoto Protocol which involve “clean development of industry” (code for development on business’s terms). In early May, in NZ, a coalition of scientists formed a new lobby group aimed at easing the public’s fears about a climate change apocalypse. Called the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, they are committed to providing New Zealanders with balanced scientific opinions that “reflect the truth about climate change and expose the exaggerated claims that have been made about human-caused global warming” (In other words – code for vested interests that don’t want to change).

The paper goes on to suggest that Labour should discredit the Climate Science Coalition by using Orwellian language, which is where the phrase actually means the opposite of what it says. Orwellian language involves using an expression like ‘free trade’ to describe what is in effect bureaucratic control, or ‘competition’ to describe protectionism. It is an extremely dishonest strategy since only those who closely follow what is going on are able to discern the truth from the lies.

The paper asks the critical question: How can Labour take charge of the language and frame important public debates in its own terms? In other words how can it best use language and ideas to manipulate the general public?

It then suggests polling: Use market research to uncover people’s values, how they really think. It suggests clarifying and articulating a core set of values that resonate with Labour members and voters, and promoting them with dignity and strength knowing that if you control the language, you control the message; the media doesn’t create the message, they run with it.

Climate change was the issue that Labour identified would demonstrate a fresh approach showing leadership to the rest of the world – that this little country at the end of the world can be a role model.

As a result, they are out-greening the Greens by setting the target for New Zealand to become a world leader in ‘sustainability’. Tragically for New Zealand this policy is based on the dark art of politics – a political construct designed to help Helen Clark win the next election.

As H L Mencken, the influential American journalist and writer put it: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary”.

The weight of scientific evidence does not support the policy being proposed by Helen Clark. In spite of the collapse of carbon trading schemes around the world – including in New South Wales – Labour has just announced a similar scheme for New Zealand that threatens to pass the lion’s share of cost of the Kyoto Protocol onto householders!

A couple of week’s ago I invited newsletter readers to register for the NZCPR Research Panel and complete a survey on climate change. With the preliminary results showing that 90 percent of respondents do not believe that the Kyoto Protocol will have any impact on climate change and 89 percent believe that the Kyoto Protocol will damage the economy, it is clear that Labour has not included NZCPR readers in their polling!

The New Zealand Centre for Political Research is now two years old. It was born on election night 2005, when, after nine years as an MP, I faced the challenge of having to find a way of making a difference from outside of Parliament. My concept was to build a web based think tank that takes a research based approach to public policy issues and provides a forum for public opinion and open debate. By exposing the truth behind the glib political spin that comes out of the Beehive, and by providing a forum for sharing the wisdom of thousands of newsletter readers, the NZCPR is playing an important part in informing the public and shaping political views.

In light of Helen Clark’s determination to create a new political paradigm in this country, where high taxes and an interventionist government are considered to be the norm, the work of the NZCPR has never been more urgent. And if the Electoral Finance Bill, which seeks to ban free speech in election year, is passed in its current form, sites like ours – where public opinion counts – will become even more important.

With election year just around the corner, the NZCPR is gearing up. But I desperately need resources. As you know I run this operation on my own on the smell of an oily rag. Although the website is now getting almost a million hits a month, funding remains a key constraint. My request to you is this: if you value the weekly newsletter and the work of the NZCPR then please send in a donation so that I can make the changes needed ahead of election year. (To help, please send in a donation … and remember that weekly or monthly contributions are more than welcome )

From next week on I will be publishing a new mid-week column on the NZCPR.com website called “Mid-week Politics”. Essentially it will be a thought-provoking political opinion pieces from current and former MPs. If you make a note to check the website on Wednesday morning (adding www.nzcpr.com to your favourites will help) you will find Mid-week Politics at the top of the homepage. You will also find that we have a new Noticeboard section at the top of the homepage to keep website visitors updated on NZCPR.com developments.

Finally this week, it is important to remember that since minor parties play such a key role in MMP governments, they should also be the focus of careful scrutiny.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, Trevor Grice, founder of Life Education NZ, has been puzzling about a serious contradiction that exists within the Green Party that creates hypocrisy of stultifying proportions. In his article The Green Messchine, he writes:

“The Green Party has to decide what its philosophy really is. Is it Clean Green –condemning poison products for human use, or is it Dirty Green – promoting poison products for human use? The hypocrisy of their two positions is plain for all to see: Kedgley saying poison in food is bad, Nandor saying poison in party pills is OK. The Party saying polluting the environment with poisons is bad, Nandor saying polluting our bodies with poison is OK. This is a major contradiction for the Green Party to resolve”.

This week’s poll asks: What do you think will be the key 2008 election issue? And what issues you would like to see the NZCPR tackle over the next 12 months?