NOW IT’S CLEAR. Now we know how the next 17 days of the 2017 General Election are going to go. National’s strategy has come down to frightening the electorate into betraying its own hopes of a better future. Distilled from God knows how many focus groups, the two trigger-words National have seized upon are “Tax” and “Trust”.
Yes, it’s pretty thin. But, what else has National got? Nine years of arrogant contempt for the accumulating evidence of New Zealand’s obscene social deficit has left the Government deservedly defenceless in the face of problems that have, to its horror, entered their acute phase at precisely the wrong political moment. Already bereft of their magic man, John Key, they have also been robbed of the other politician upon whose qualities they were planning to capitalise – Andrew Little. With the “Jacinda Train” bearing down on them with terrifying speed, what could they do?
Clearly, the Nats have done what the Australian, Canadian and British right-wing parties did when they found themselves staring down the barrel of defeat. They picked up the phone and called Crosby-Textor. A smart move, because if there’s one outfit capable of turning aside the electoral thrusts of the centre-left it’s the highly successful pairing of Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor.
Their most important talent has always been the ability to tease out of the words, the repeated phrases, and even the facial tics of focus group participants, and then use them to create the bare bones of a political narrative upon which their clients can assemble the flesh of a winning electoral campaign.
Presented with the fresh face of Jacinda Ardern their search would have been for the challenges and responses required to expose her most easily exploited vulnerabilities. That the trigger-words extracted from this process turned out to be “Tax” and “Trust” strongly suggests that the focus groups responded most forcefully to a narrative that goes something like this:
Jacinda’s a warm and lovely person, but she’s very young and quite inexperienced. What’s more, when pressured on the big economic issues – especially those having to do with taxation – she comes across as uncertain and ill-prepared. She tells us that Labour has an economic plan, and that its been costed by “experts” – who we are, apparently, expected to take on trust. She is similarly relying on a “working group” of experts when it comes to Labour’s tax policy – which means she can’t tell us what our taxes will be until after the election. That strikes us as a bit suspect, a bit dodgy. We like Jacinda, but we’re not sure she knows what she’s doing economically-speaking. We might be persuaded to trust her. But, the people around Jacinda: the people behind her; we’re not yet ready to trust them. There are still a great many unanswered questions.
Crafting a campaign strategy out of these sentiments isn’t all that difficult.
First you go after Jacinda on taxes – all manner of taxes. You expose her uncertainty and you attribute it not simply to her inexperience, but to something more sinister.
Labour’s hiding its true intentions, you say, because it’s got a “hidden agenda” to tax New Zealanders within an inch of their lives. You inform the country that their economic plan has an $11 billion “hole” in it. Of course, they’ll wheel out all sorts of “experts” to tell the voters that it’s a wonderful plan. But, then, experts are ten-a-penny, aren’t they? New Zealanders will find out how it all works when, in the awful event that Labour wins the election, the membership of its all-important Tax Working Group is announced. (What’s the bet they turn out to be the same people who have just told us that Labour’s plan really does add up!)
This is the narrative that National will build and amplify over the next 17 days. It doesn’t have to be true and it doesn’t matter what the media and their “experts” say. Who trusts the “lying media” and its “fake news” these days? And, seriously, what do “experts” really know about anything? No. The only thing that matters is that enough voters begin to question whether or not Jacinda really is experienced enough to run the country. And, whether she can truly be trusted to keep her “tax and spend” Labour Party in check.
If they can convince the waverers; the voters on the point of climbing aboard the “Jacinda Train”; that Labour’s numbers just don’t add up. If they can make them feel that if they’re not very careful, then a bunch of so-called “experts” are going to advise Labour to tax their land, their batch, their business, their petrol, their water, their financial transactions, and even their inheritance. If they can inflame suspicion and build mistrust, then – dammit – they just might win.