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Three years ago, on Saturday 26 November, New Zealand determined the structure of its government – or at least, three-quarters of her population did. The 2011 election had the lowest voter turnout by proportion for more than a century, with a million abstaining from popping on over to a nearby ballot. As The New Zealand Herald trumpeted, “1 million didn’t bother to vote”, making especial note of the vastly under-represented ‘youth vote’. Regardless of whether this was due to apathy, resignation, no confidence or ignorance, this election we have seen measures taken to boost the voting population from all sides of the political spectrum.
But do the upper echelons really want them to work? A particularly trenchant cartoon courtesy of Guy Body showed John Key in Don Quixote–esque regalia tiptoeing past a cave filled with the “youth vote”, confiding in a plucky aide “just pray it’s too busy looking at cats on YouTube”. If I can draw out the Don Quixote motif a little further, all the exhortations to ‘vote’, to ‘participate in the democratic process your forefathers died for’ etc amounted to little more than tilting at windmills; the youth enrolment rate is, at the time of publication, stagnant and low, while, even among other demographics, fewer people are enrolled than in elections of previous years. Why?
If this election is going to remembered for anything, it will be the spectacular lack of parties visibly promoting policies, strategies and aims. Oh sure, there are debates and press releases, but attempts at targeting the common New Zealander seem to define themselves by opposition: they engage less in campaigning and focus more on anti-campaigning, or ‘negative campaigning’. This term describes a political campaign run with the intent of attacking an opponent. It is a term that many New Zealanders will grasp instinctively.
For New Zealanders, this means instead of billboards promoting parties’ visions, we get denigration of competing parties. Exhibit A: National’s billboards show a group of rowers riding towards a horizon that one assumes is meant to be a bright future, but which could equally be just Rangitoto or something. This showboating display is complemented by a variation on the theme: a hapless boat manned by the Labour and the Greens, pulling in different directions. The intended inference, that Labour and National would lead the country nowhere (except perhaps up shit creek), is obvious.
Similarly, the ACT billboards specifically besmirch other parties, promising to “cut green tape” in a pointed jab at the Greens’ pesky insistence on caring about the environment despite financial unviability. Meanwhile, one advertisement, in Mandarin, labels National and Labour “racist”. On one hand, if the shoe fits… On the other, they don’t tell us anything directly about their policy and vision beyond broadly identifying their ideologies.
The right wing are not the only culpable political faction. You could argue, as many centrist commentators have, that negative campaigning on the left reached its apex – or nadir – during the dismal days of Shearer’s leadership. His leadership was defined by knee-jerk contrarianism and unclear goals, while his fellow MPs were sycophantic and genuflective. The Labour billboards, while savvy enough not to attack the National leadership of the past or the present, still target National as being deleterious to the nation’s future without specifying what they’re doing to counter it. Indeed, the only party which has billboards prominently displaying policy is Internet Mana, to their credit, although the in-fighting, hate campaign against John Key and involvement with Kim Dotcom, whose rise to weird folk hero is deeply lamentable, could hardly be construed as positive. Speaking of Dotcom; another issue that has dogged this election is personality politics.
Naysayers might argue, not invalidly, that parties have a history of campaigning on personality in lieu of policy, but this election campaign has been especially ridden. This was exemplified recently by the Judith ‘Duchess of Maleficence’ Collins debacle. I was as pleased as anyone to see her and her parochial, cruel measures go, and watching the assorted journalists at her resignation press conference try in vain to come up with synonyms for ‘Unprecedented!’ was good fun, but it was a detraction from policy in favour of a witch-hunt. For all the joyous peals of ‘ding-dong’, the one thing absent from the conference was policy Collins had implemented and whether it would be repealed, what exactly Collins stood for besides megalomania.
Political strategists are mostly wary of negative campaigning because it risks further alienating people not involved in the political process, undecideds or centrist-leaners. How often have you heard someone utter “They’re all as bad as each other”? The backlash against personality politics is that though it might create political awareness, it does so on a purely superficial level that may obfuscate what is at stake for potential voters. One thing is for sure: political discourse in New Zealand is all the worse for the employment of these dubious tactics, and when we look at the lack of voter turnout, it is these issues in the political structure we should be highlighting. Is it any wonder we don’t trust politicians, or are disillusioned with the political process? Claims of the ‘voter paradox’ aside, we are conditioned to think of politics as toxic from day one.
This is why when a crowd of youth chanted “Fuck John Key”, the backlash was in many ways ironic. Consider the puritan assumption that our honourable prime minister would find the language distressing. The F-word is one John Key is no doubt familiar with, probably even one he has gone so far as to articulate after hearing of some National MPs’ questionable capers. Then, of course, we had the same political hacks bemoaning the lack of youth involvement while demonising the political expression (whether it was undertaken rightly or wrongly) of these same youths.
What was most surprising was the reaction on the left, with Labour MP Chris Hipkins condemning the chants. “Getting a bunch of people drunk and getting them to chant abuse isn’t political leadership. It’s thuggery and megalomania intertwined,” he pontificated, before using the T-word again (at least it was larrikinism, I suppose): “I want more young NZers to vote to be heard, not because they’re being wound up & manipulated by the worst kind of cynicism and thuggery”.
Well. That’s one way of interpreting it. Another is that the chants of “Fuck John Key”, the numerous and sometimes hilarious defaced billboards, represent not so much ‘negative politics’ or anti-campaigns as a rejection of the system that produced negative politics in the first place; a kind of anti-anti-campaign, if you will. If this is New Zealand’s way of expressing ire at a damaged and alienating system, may it continue as long as necessary.