Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Why do the Greens get such an easy ride? Part One
With so much going on in the world (Syria, Eurozone, Egypt), it is unsurprising that I have seen no coverage in foreign media about the NZ election. It is National's election to lose. The Nats have played the traditional role they always have done well - upset no one - look confident, even though the record in Christchurch alone should send fears down the spines of any business owner, the mainstream media (MSM) has been absymal in confronting this issue. The performance there has been an utter disgrace, to the point where I think anyone who ticks National who thinks she is supporting a pro-business, less government, is at best naive, at worst wilfully blind.
Labour is, understandably, lacking fire under Phil Goff. A man who I think was probably too good to be leader of the Labour Party, as he didn't feed the vile envy laden, nasty bullying streak that has characterised the Party under Clark - until the latest round of campaign leaflets, which are a shadow of what is now seen in the repulsive self-indulgent and deliberately self-serving nihilism of Sam Mahon. Imagine if a similar image had been painted of Helen Clark. Yet, he has been unable to attack the Nats convincingly because most of his team are waiting to do to him what was done to Mike Moore after the 1993 election. Goff is on the right of the Labour Party, an anomaly at best as the last inheritor of those who had their fingers coloured by participating in Rogernomics. He can't convincingly argue against asset sales, especially since he was in the Cabinet that sold 100% of Air New Zealand, Telecom and Postbank originally.
Beyond the two horse race, most of the attention on ACT has been about the John Key/John Banks meeting and a recording of it - trivia par excellence - and the loud campaign by ACT and National to promote support of Banks in Epsom, and the equally loud call by Labour and the Greens to back, the National candidate in Epsom. I've already said I believe ACT should also have pushed for electorate votes for Don Brash in North Shore, given Wayne Mapp has retired from the seat. ACT has fumbled this campaign and faces a media hostile to it on an almost tribal basis. Compared to National, ACT could offer a change, but not one the media is interested in telling.
The Mana Party/Maori Party show is not getting that much national/non-Maori media attention, although there is a surfeit of material on the Mana Party mob that should render them unelectable (and frighten people if they are not). However, beyond that the media loves giving Winston Peters the oxygen of publicity to try to bring him down and he loves that the media does it. It is like a pantomine show, where he gets portrayed almost as a villain, and thrives on it with his shrinking geriatric racist Muldoonist voting base. Nothing Winston likes more than proving the media wrong, and casting his supporters as heroes for rejecting what the media says of him.
Yet the real winner in all of this looks like being the Greens. The Greens have, once again, become media darlings. It's not because the environment is really an issue that would explain the "brand attractiveness". After all, the words nuclear, GE or even global warming are not exactly important to most voters at the moment. What it looks like is that the Greens have targeted disgruntled and uninspired Labour voters, on the basis that Labour looks almost certain not to lead the next government. However, what is also shows is that the mainstream media is giving the Greens a very easy run - topped off most recently by TV3 broadcasting a documentary on child poverty in New Zealand, most certainly presented from a strong leftwing point of view. Indeed, had TV3 broadcast a documentary that was how high taxation and regulation stymied growth (like John Stossel's series comparing Hong Kong with India) it would be accused of being in the pocket of ACT.
However, all is fair in politics if it is your side doing it. Yet according to research by the University of Canterbury on the election media coverage up till the halfway point, the media coverage of the Greens has been more positive than for any other party. 51.5% of its total coverage has been positive. On top of that, coverage of the Greens has been higher than for any other minor party at 9.7%.
Why is that and is it justified?
On the why, it is rather easy to see. Party names are potent brands, and only some of the parties have names that lend themselves to instantly reflecting the image they want. Greens, NZ First, Maori and Mana are the clearest. Labour is less obvious, but still fairly clear. National is meaningless (there are no regional parties after all), and the acronym ACT means little to most. So the Greens start off with a name that is instantly linked to trees, pastures, rivers, lakes and wide open spaces - the types of things many New Zealanders have affection for. On top of that, it is the only party name that can also be used as a collective noun for its caucus and membership. Nobody says the Nationals or the Labours or the ACTs.
So "brand Green" is pretty special, this potency was seen in 1990 when the Greens got 6.85% of the vote under First Past the Post, with relatively little publicity, beating New Labour under Jim Anderton (who still won his own seat).
The images that brand cogitates with reporters are instantly positive, indeed so positive it seems almost counter-intuitive to go against them. How can one oppose or attack people who love clean air, oceans, rivers, and animals? It's not just emotive, it can even be seen as rational, given the love of the outdoors and the obvious value of unpolluted air and water. I think for many reporters that is enough, and to be seen to attacking the Greens may be like attacking parks, pets, home cooking, grandparents and so many things that are "good".
Beyond the brand, the Greens themselves carefully nurture policies and principles that at a high level can appeal to many. Besides being against pollution (who isn't?) and supporting endangered species (who argues against endangered species?), the Greens carry simple, easy to understand messages that are difficult, on the face of it, to fight.
Who wants to be against peace and peaceful dispute resolution? The Greens are against war, it takes a hardy soul to be in favour of war when necessary. Statements like "we shouldn't be involved in other countries' wars" require some effort to claim "what about our allies" and then rebut the string of questions around "What did the Afghans ever do to New Zealand". Most reporters aren't up to that or delve into a foreign policy agenda that is decidedly apart from Australia and the Western world.
The Greens talk passionately about addressing child poverty. Children suffering, who will openly attack policies aimed at that, without having to be seriously armed on the philosophical and economic fronts? The Greens wont say loud that this is resolved by taxpayers spending more on social welfare benefits and giving poor people who breed more money from others.
The Greens talk of full employment, about meaningful jobs, about increased incomes, about better health and education, about communities, about all of the things that most people find it hard to disagree with at a high level. What reporter dares think that unemployment is good, that health and education should be worse or that communities aren't important? However, the Greens don't emphasise the need for much more government spending, and tax revenue to pay for it, nor how they would regulate employment and employers.
The Greens talk of "fairness" "equity" and other carefully honed words that describe and define little, but are general phrases that are again difficult to confront directly for most reporters. Pushing lower taxes for the poor (and higher taxes for the rich), looks fair to those raised on a basic diet of believing in egalitarianism. The idea that the poor should be helped, and that society should be "fairer" is powerfully simple to promote, it is rather more difficult to dig underneath that to see what it really means. Again, the Greens are clever to talk about their goals much more than the means, the goals are more generally accepted than the means - increasing welfare payments.
The Greens talk about "investing" taxpayers money (but they never mention that part) on things that are also hard for reporters to criticise, like "renewable energy", railway lines, schools and the rather amorphous "jobs" in "green industries" and "green businesses". The Greens are less loud about cutting spending on road maintenance (they will happily talk about a handful of big road projects that would be stopped, as if that would save enough money), or the need to spend more on subsidies for renewable energy and trains, or exactly who or where these "green industries" are, or what happens to the other industries in an environment of much more regulation and tax.
Beyond that, the Greens also seem nationalistic, playing on some of the strings Winston Peters is happy to pluck. They paint foreign ownership, foreign investors and imports as negative, dark, pernicious and taking "our" jobs, and taking "our" money away to go overseas - that distant, unfamiliar place where we can't protect, regulate or look after our interests. This is caught in the word "sovereignty". Who argues against having sovereignty? Yet, do the Greens ever face a challenge to their rather fanciful notion that has malignant notions of "them" (foreign investors) and "us" (New Zealanders), or that an exporting trading nation can hardly close itself to the world, or it faces not being able to afford what it produces?
The "non-violence" label is one they use themselves, but it never gets challenged that this belief in non-violence doesn't extend to violently breaking and entering property and occupying it, and the violence of the state regulating and taxing, is not seen as violence at all, but as the people exercising their democratic sovereignty. The image very deliberately put out by the likes of Jeanette Fitzsimons, but now Metiria Turei and Russel Norman is one of friendly, smiling, thoughtful, engaging people, people who wouldn't hurt a fly - not people eager to get their hands on power and to use the state to be as interventionist as Rob Muldoon was in his heyday.
Finally, the Greens are keen to call out labels of negativity to support those they claim are oppressed by the major parties. "Racist", "sexist", "blaming victims" is how the Greens respond to policies that they disagree with, if the impacts appear to be higher on certain groups. Criticising such points takes some effort. However, the Greens are very strongly supportive of government spending, institutions and authorities that are race based. The Greens tend not to emphasise any of this, for they probably know that this doesn't go down well with most voters.
The easy ride is something the Greens have masterfully managed to manufacture. It is obvious to anyone with some political nous that the Greens are far to the left of the Labour Party, yet the mainstream media persists in discussing the idea that there could be some accommodation between the Greens and the National Party. Not that both parties wouldn't think about it on some level, the Nats will negotiate with anyone except Winston, and the Greens would argue that if they can make some progress on a major issue for them (e.g. RMA or transport), it would be worth it.
Yet a look at Green press releases, commentary and policies over the past few years should have induced investigative journalism into exactly what the party means by certain statements, it should have put all sorts of claims of fact under scrutiny and it should have resulted in the Green brand not looking as unsullied as it is - especially compared to other parties. Take simple points such as how the Greens advocate non violence and democracy, yet fought to deny university students the right to decide whether they wanted to join a student union. The Green policy of having a new state regulatory institution for print and broadcast (and presumably online) media that could "impose appropriate sanctions against media outlets in cases where it can be clearly demonstrated that it has exhibited wilful or negligent abuse of power and by doing so has either visited material harm on another party or pursued its own self-interest at the expense of the public interest" should have been highlighted, as it literally means a state bureaucracy censoring the press. What is "abuse of power"? The right to decide what you broadcast or print? What is "material harm"? Reduced the reputation and membership of a voluntary organisation? What is "the public interest"? Whatever the government of the day thinks it is?
So it is time a long list of questions were asked of the Green Party. Questions voters should see, and that Green MPs and candidates should respond to, and be expected to be questioned about. For a party that looks like having its best ever result in a general election, and looking to be a serious coalition partner for a future government, the "public interest" demands no less. It would also be a welcome shift in attention from the childish side-shows around Winston Peters and the Johns' "cup of coffee". The fact that papers and broadcast media haven't done so, doesn't surprise me, but it is no excuse for it. Traditional Labour supporters who think they are getting a friendlier, cuddlier version of Labour may think twice, and first time voters might learn that, as in advertising private businesses, marketing does not mean all is as it seems. I will attempt to raise some of these questions in the coming days...