Gordon Campbell on National’s fraught journey back to the centre

d3edf08cab97839685bdEver since Christopher Luxon became leader, National has adopted a “small target” strategy. This consists of offering nothing to distract the media from its focus on the government’s shortcomings and the public’s discontent with its performance. In particular, the strategy involves releasing no policy alternatives whose own failings might then be picked apart, and become the story. It assumes the media will largely shrug and accept the stonewalling on policy and move on. Here’s how the comms experts define how the strategy should be used by corporates facing unwelcome media scrutiny:

… There’s barely a story that doesn’t pass. They all do. So I think it’s really important- if you’re able – to implement ‘small target’ to put off the press, so they go and chase another element of the story, they go and chase another organisation or the regulator or whatever it is. [If] you can satisfy [the media] that that’s all you’re going to say and it’s going to be minimal, they will probably report that. That’s boring, so they’re gonna go chase a different aspect of [the story].

Works like a charm. So here we are in election year, over 12 months after National changed leaders and we still have no idea what – for example- Luxon’s alternative (if any) to Three Waters would look like, or even what is the ballpark size of his promised tax cut package. Nor do we have any inkling of how National would pay for said tax package, what infrastructure spending he would prioritise, what debt levels he would accept, and what services Luxon would cut to make it all affordable etc.etc. In a similar vein, the impact of what Luxon has said on superannuation lies decades in the future. His key social policy – “social investment” – is a holdover from the Bill English era, with no clues as to how Luxon would address the failings detected in it at the time.

Interestingly, Luxon’s basic message: ‘We’ll give you the details later at a time of our own choosing’ is one that the media has by and large, accepted. That’s one reason why National is ahead in the polls. As of now, it is a policy vacuum, in which anyone with a beef against the Ardern government is free to fill in the blanks as they see fit.

National, of course, didn’t invent the “small target” strategy. In the run-up to the Australian election last year, Team Albanese used the ‘small target” approach to deny and frustrate the Murdoch press’s attempts to make the Labor opposition the prime focus of the election campaign. As a result, the last election in Oz was won and lost over the Aussie public’s displeasure with Scott Morrison.

That’s not what this column is about though. At this point, National is gambling that it can delay showing its policy hand right up to the brink of the campaign proper. By then it won’t matter overly much if Jacinda Ardern does end up demolishing Luxon in the campaign’s television debates.

By then, and to many voters, that would only confirm the stereotype of Ardern as the Mean Lady, a woman who is unnaturally smart. Even against Judith Collins last time around, there was a sense that Ardern was holding her fire at times in recognition of the fact that television debates are mainly a battle for Likeability, not Capability. The classic example: during his presidential debates with Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan defused Carter’s superior grasp of policy (and reality) by turning to the camera, sighing theatrically and saying “There he goes again.” Local version, 2023: Ardern is a policy wonk, Luxon is a fount of faux bonhomie. Problem being: is there ever a likeable way for a woman to demonstrate that a man is out of his depth?

Shout to the TOP

For National in 2023, the trickier strategic problem will be how to put daylight between itself and the far right policies of David Seymour and the ACT Party. When stripped of their recently acquired populist trappings, ACT’s socio-economic policies enjoy very little public support. Back when ACT was preaching its purist gospel on tax and welfare, it was clocking up barely 1-3% in the polls for the best part of a decade, despite the support it enjoyed from its corporate sponsors.

Once moderate voters realise there is a genuine risk that ACT may soon be at the Cabinet table (a) dictating the levels of spending on public services, and (b) setting the rules for welfare entitlements, this realisation could punch a significant hole in National’s facade of being a moderate, sensible party of compassionate conservatism.

In brief – how will National manage ACT? Which of its policies will it declare to be beyond the pale and when will it do so? And how much will National need to rely on the ACT Party to govern? All last year, Luxon and Seymour managed to co-exist pretty happily as the Butch and Sundance of the centre-right. That state of harmony can’t last forever. Last year, National didn’t dare to query ACT’s extremism for fear of losing further support to the upstart. This year, it will need to (a) distance itself from ACT and/or (b) lessen its dependence on it, if it wants to look like a sane and competent alternative government. At some point, it will need to clarify whether (and why) it thinks ACT’s recipe of warmed-over Thatcherism has passed its use-by date.

How might it do so? The following speculation is not being offered as political advice – in a Jessica Mutch sense – or with any pretence to insider knowledge that this is what will happen, or may be happening already. The following is nothing much more than a thought experiment. With that caveat in mind, let’s now put on our Matthew Hooton hats for a minute – not for too long, because that stuff can be addictive – and consider how National might contrive to look centrist, without actually changing its policy spots.

Suggestion: Directly or indirectly, it could offer an electorate deal to Raf Manji and TOP in Gerry Brownlee’s old seat in Ilam, much as it did years ago to the ACT Party in Epsom. On current polling that would get three TOP MPs into Parliament. They would be considerably to the left of where National and ACT currently sit on the political spectrum. Bingo! National suddenly looks centrist, with potential partners on either wing.

This outcome would have the bonus effect of reducing any lingering need to rely on Winston Peters post-election. Plus, it would pull across some “soft left’ votes to boot. In some ways, TOP is the ideal package: Reliably conservative on the economy, but fetchingly liberal on social issues. In short, it is the ‘blue green’ combo that National has strived so hard before to grow in a barn but which, in the shape of TOP, has grown up all by itself, free range. Could TOP now be ripe for an investment in its future that might enable it to significantly expand its market reach? ACT is electoral poison, even though it may take a term in government to make that perfectly clear. TOP looks like a more palatable prospect, longer term.

Yes, National could take a chance, and hope that Manji/TOP can win Ilam all by themselves. Brownlee had a strong personal following but in 2017, Manji ran in Ilam as an independent and still clocked up 8,321 votes, second only to Brownlee’s 16,577 and comfortably ahead of Labour’s tally of 7,662. Could Manji win outright in 2023 – without a nudge and a wink (or more) from National ? That would still only be a maybe.

Keep in mind that National need not explicitly reach an Epsom-style arrangement. The public do not like overt electorate deals. But here’s the thing: Personally I think of Ilam as being a pale blue seat that with gentrification is getting even bluer. The 2020 swing that went to Labour was an aberration that’s not going to be repeated. Yet for some reason, the Ilam seat didn’t attract big name candidates, with no disrespect intended to a final slate that consisted of James Christmas, Dale Stephens, Tracy Summerfield , Hamish Campbell and Vanessa Weenink. Campbell ended up getting the nod.

Personally, I was surprised that city councillor Sam MacDonald – Brownlee’s campaign manager at the last election – had chosen not to throw his hat in the ring. MacDonald’s explanation for why he was putting his Parliamentary ambitions “on hold for now” had something to do with broadening his local council experience and avoiding a council-by-election in his ward. However one reads that, the reality is that National’s (arguably) strongest local candidate for Ilam had pulled out of contention by mid 2022. Fascinating.

Hamish Campbell of course could surprise everyone and turn out to be a crackerjack candidate. Or not. And one can imagine that there would be no real need for a stern head office directive to centre-right voters in Ilam to vote for Manji. Such signals can be sent discreetly. Voters in Ilam, you might be surprised to be told at some point later this year, are very, very smart people who know all about the wisdom of tactical voting.

Footnote One: If elected in Ilam, Raf Manji of course, could – theoretically – then go with either Labour or National. Centre-left voters thinking of having a fling with TOP should keep the possibility in mind that Manji could be the next Peter Dunne. Yet chances are, we won’t know for sure until after the votes have been cast. In the past, that approach worked pretty well for Winston Peters.

Footnote Two: To repeat… The above speculation about TOP’s potential role in Ilam and within the next government is just that: A thought experiment, with no real world aspersions cast, or intended. Will Hamish Campbell win the day in Ilam for the blue team, or will he end up being another in the honour roll of National Party candidates – Paul Goldsmith (Epsom,2011) and Mark Thomas (Wellington Central, 1996) who ended up getting less than whole-hearted support from head office, for the greater good.

Yo La Tengo, a brief history

Forty years ago, when ACT’s economic policies were new and dinosaurs like Thatcher and Reagan walked the earth in their prime, Yo La Tengo began taking their first baby steps as a band. But it wasn’t until 1992 that the current line-up (Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew) finally took shape. Reportedly, the band’s name is derived from this baseball anecdote:

….During the 1962 season, New York Mets center fielder Richie Ashburn and shortstop Elio Chacón found themselves colliding in the outfield. When Ashburn went for a catch, he would scream, “I got it! I got it!” only to run into Chacón, a Venezuelan who spoke only Spanish. Ashburn learned to yell, “Yo la tengo! Yo la tengo!” instead. In a later game, Ashburn happily saw Chacón backing off. He relaxed, positioned himself to catch the ball, and was instead run over by left fielder Frank Thomas, who understood no Spanish and had missed a team meeting that proposed using the words “Yo la tengo!” as a way to avoid outfield collisions. After getting up, Thomas asked Ashburn, “What the hell is a yellow tango?

At the dawn 2023, they’re still at it. Anyone who saw Yo La Tengo’s set at the International Arts Festival in Wellington in 2014 will have marvelled at their staying power, and their stylistic range. During the first half the band did quasi-ambient, almost choral music of rare beauty and then emerged after the interval to do noise pop and experimental stuff that was equally impressive.

So far, the first couple of tracks from their new album have displayed much the same range. Georgia Hubley’s vocal on “Aselestine” cast a melancholy spell not dissimilar to the magically reworked version of “Barnaby Hardly Working” that the band released on 1990’s Fakebook album, for many people their breakthrough moment.

“Fallout “on the other hand, sounds like a distant cousin to “Sugarcube” from 1996’s When The Heart Is Beating As One album, which is still the closest thing that Yo La Tengo have ever had to a chart success, or a hit album.

Fun facts: Drummer/vocalist Georgia Hubley is the daughter of John Hubley, the guy who founded the UPA cartoon studio. In the 1940s and early 1950s, UPA became a home for those workers who had lost the company-defining strike at Disney Studios in 1941. In the end, it was the initially-derided Dumbo project that saved Disney, by rescuing it from the losses incurred on Snow White and Fantasia, and during the strike.

UPA was always suspected during the McCarthy era of harbouring left wingers blacklisted by Disney. UPA itself finally achieved financial stability with its Mr Magoo cartoons, featuring the short-sighted but endlessly optimistic title character. The UPA staff included P.D. Eastman, a friend of Ted Geisel ( aka Dr Suess) who, after urging by Geisel, eventually carved out a successful career for himself by writing children’s books, including classics like Go Dog,Go, and Are You My Moher?

Hubley, Geisel and Eastman were all strong supporters of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. While heading an early incarnation of UPA, Hubley produced a cartoon in 1944 called “Hellbent for Election” (directed by Chuck Jones) in support of the Roosevelt re-election campaign that year against the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey.

That’s Yo La Tengo’s socio-political lineage. Their musical lineage is something else again. Among other things, I’m grateful for them indirectly recently steering me towards this compilation of Iranian garage rock from the 1960s.