Bryce Edwards: New Zealand’s year of style over substance

Bryce Edwards: New Zealand’s year of style over substance

Style isn’t always a bad thing in politics. There is a lot to be said for a politician who can channel emotions and values in a way that salves the soul or mobilises the masses. That’s the type of powerful leadership that makes history. Jacinda Ardern has been an exceptional world leader in this way. In 2019 the New Zealand PM responded to the 15 March terrorist attacks with an emotional and thoughtful response that was a lesson in leadership.

Understandably Ardern’s strong and appropriate statements made her the “politician of the year” in nearly every political pundit’s end-of-year summary. Similarly her pronouncement about the Muslim victims that “They are us” was clearly the quote of the year.

For all that, there are an enormous number of New Zealanders who need more than hugs from their prime minister. They voted for the parties of government because they wanted to see a promised “transformation” rather than business as usual.

It was supposed to be the government’s “Year of Delivery” – or so Ardern declared to the press at the beginning of 2019. It was a neat line, because 2018 had been the “year of the working group” in which little reform was carried out, on the promise that the experts would hand the government some major new policies to implement.

However as 2019 rolled on and key promises such as KiwiBuild’s 100,000 affordable houses, a capital gains tax and alleviating child poverty failed to eventuate, the “Year of Delivery” line became a stick with which to beat the government at every turn.

We have now learned that Ardern’s “Year of Delivery” promise was only ever a slick catchphrase dreamed up by a speechwriter, not Ardern herself.

Last week Beehive insiders told leading political journalists that the “Year of Delivery” promise was actually a spin-line produced on the fly by the PM’s top spin doctor to get his boss out of a tight situation when she needed something memorable to say at the start of 2019. The explanation from the Beehive was to convey that it’s not actually fair to hold the PM to account for a catchphrase that was never intended to be taken so seriously.

It is extraordinary that something presented as a solemn promise to the electorate is now being explained away as nothing more than a manufactured PR soundbite. But, in fact, this episode perfectly epitomises the year in politics – showing how PR has come to dominate.

Simon Bridges’s National party is no different. It was reported earlier in the year that his office now employs more social media experts than policy advisers. National seems determined to emulate the successful online advertising campaigns of conservatives in Australia and Britain. Never mind the integrity of those campaigns.

These advisers appear to be encouraging National to make inroads into swing voters by appealing to law and order emotions, rather than via any real promise of material progress in people’s standard of living. The party’s nadir was the promotion of an anti-gang “Strike Force Raptor” police unit that might be deployed to stoke fears of rising crime. And then there were the successful but utterly empty critiques of the prime minister (such as suggestions she is only a “part time PM”).

In fact no one will be surprised that New Zealand now has many more public relations practitioners than journalists. The latest census results show about 8,000 people work in PR, greatly overshadowing the roughly 1,600 journalists working in print and broadcasting. Other calculations have put the ratio of PR to journalists at 10:1.

Many of the PR professionals work directly for the politicians, government departments, or local government authorities. “Communications” is a booming sector of politics and government. RNZ reported this year that over the last five years public sector communications staff numbers have risen 60%. Job opportunities in political PR will doubtlessly only improve during election year.

Of course good communicators are needed in politics – especially in the political debate of an election year. We would be poorer for it if politics was all substance and no style. But superficial slogans of “Let’s do this” or taunts about a “part time prime minister” shouldn’t cut it. We should be demanding more substance from our politics.