03 November 2011

Look behind the mask

The trouble with TV-driven presidential-style election campaigns is that they rely too heavily on imagery and affect – rather than on analysis of parties’ substantial policies and the values and interests that election pledges are intended to give effect to. Voters are prone to being persuaded by candidates’ ‘looks’ and by how well they present on TV; and so they may unknowingly vote for real-world policies that work against their material interests and social values.

The excessive production of an image of ‘the leader’ for TV-audiences’ consumption creates very fickle reactions. For instance, once the adjective ‘arrogant’ got stuck to Helen Clark’s name in the minds of enough of the public, it signified that things were more or less over for her leadership. She who had once seemed so accessible and caring came to be seen as arrogant and controlling. Never mind the policies.

For many grumpy voters in 2008, the last straw was what they called the ‘anti-smacking’ Bill. They ‘blamed’ Helen for it, even though that was a member’s Bill introduced by Sue Bradford (of the Green Party) and, in its final form, passed with the help of the National Party. Sometimes in politics, perception really is everything!

Today, equally fickle perceptions sustain the image of John Key as relaxed, liberal and down to earth, just like one of us.

Phil Goff, by contrast, was paradoxically described by one of my students as ‘nondescript’: the description you use when you’re not describing someone! It would be a danger, after all, to attribute real qualities to the man right now, as that would upset our pre-election illusions – although he has startled observers by beginning the campaign on some strong notes.

If National gain a one-party majority in the House after the Election, then they could govern New Zealand with the ‘unbridled power’ that Muldoon used to enjoy. MMP makes it hard to reach that goal, but the opinion polls suggest that Key might be close to that – and yet he has to deny that it’s a goal of his, for fear that voters might be put off by such over-weaning ambition.

But would people then see a flip-side to Key’s present nice, liberal, aspirational image?

In any case, I don’t believe we should ever allow any political party to gain a majority of seats in the House. Given the shallowness of our parliamentary institutions, that gives too much power to the executive.


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