Who has the best dance moves for NZ's general election?

Opinion: Politicians are doing the dance of political management ahead of the New Zealand general election, writes Associate Professor Jennifer Lees-Marshment.

Jennifer Lees-Marshment is an expert in political marketing and describes politicians' moves ahead of the 19 September election using four words beginning with D.
Jennifer Lees-Marshment describes politicians' moves ahead of the 19 September election using four words beginning with D. Photo: Elise Manahan

Given the close election result in 2017, no party has a safe path to victory in this year's election. Each party’s ability to manage their candidates and campaign, as well as seem like they could manage our government, is under scrutiny and in the run-up to the election wasn’t looking good.

Political management requires four Ds: deliberating, designing, dancing and discharging. Deliberating is about reviewing and reflecting; designing is concerned with planning, thinking and strategising; dancing requires being artful and adaptive to any situation; and discharging is about implementing plans and managing people – it’s the more functional ‘getting things done’ aspect of political management.

Although Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is riding high in polls, the Labour Party has clear weakness in political management. The party didn’t really have time to deliberate on its vision, having been thrown into government somewhat unexpectedly. Ardern’s elevation to leader was premature, given she’d seemed happy waiting in the wings, but that’s turned out well for them.

However, the Covid-19 crisis has made it even harder to create a vision for the future. We don’t really know what Ardern’s New Zealand is supposed to look like so it’s hard to know if we agree with that vision. Labour had suggested a design for economic recovery with some key policies, mostly focused on jobs, but there is still a sense of a lack of an overall recovery plan, let alone the path to get there. But Ardern is a skilful dancer and has proven an effective leader of a complex coalition government, although that doesn’t mean there haven’t been questions over her ability to ensure government policies, such as KiwiBuild, actually work.

This leads us to the ‘discharge’ – Ardern and Labour’s big weakness. Despite efforts to deliver their 100-day plan, they have had policies, such as the capital gains tax, thwarted by their coalition partners. Will voters blame them for this? It’s up to Labour to convince us it can do so much more if they get more of our votes and become the transformational, visionary government for the new normal ahead of us.

Opposition parties are usually great at the deliberating side of political management, as they get more time to review and reflect. Under Simon Bridges, National created a lot of discussion documents, but it is only under the new leadership of Judith Collins that the party has started to communicate its policy design. The transport infrastructure plan offers a long-term vision for Auckland, in particular, and responds to increasing concerns about the impact of traffic on the quality of life. However it is vulnerable to the same attacks National often hurl at Labour, such as a lack of costings and detail to ensure it can be discharged. Collins’ ability to produce both visionary and practical proposals in a short time during a global crisis is extremely constrained.

But her ability to dance on the spot, drawing on her vast experience and strength of character, makes the election more competitive. Collins can also dance to her own tune at times and if she can harness her entrepreneurial side in response to the challenges New Zealand faces, we may see new thinking from National that offers ideas beyond just returning to business as usual.

Judith Collins' ability to dance on the spot, drawing on her vast experience and strength of character, makes the election more competitive.

Associate Professor Jennifer Lees-Marshment Politics and International Relations, Faculty of Arts

In the minor parties, Winston Peters is a renowned dancer, so expect the unexpected. New Zealand First can certainly point to preventing policies being discharged that their supporters did not like, but they also need to communicate what they did actually get done and convey what new design is on offer for 2020 and beyond. Their first policy was to offer the return of a universal family benefit, putting them in direct competition with their Labour/Green coalition partners.

A more sensible approach would be to devise their own dance to suit their distinctive supporters. The Greens’ political management so far is promising. They have taken time out to think of new ideas and talked about now being the time to be ambitious by investing in projects that provide jobs the post-Covid economy needs and which create social and environmental benefits. They’ve also proposed policies on nature-related jobs. Having been in government, they can call on a new reputation for ‘discharging’ with key achievements such as the Zero Carbon Bill. But will they have satisfied their traditional supporters who may seek more vision and innovative design than the party has had the chance to devise and promote while in a coalition?

As for ACT, they have skilfully completed a difficult dance with their new deputy party leader, Brooke van Velden (a former student of this University), and getting the End-of-Life Choice Bill passed to enable a referendum on euthanasia. They can at least claim to have given us all the chance to express our views on this issue, and build off this achievement to attract more votes.

Another way for the public to express their views is by using TVNZ’s Vote Compass 2020 engagement tool being launched this month. It’s a great way for the public to understand how party policies align to their own views.

The key is for people to make sure they vote. Because even if the dance moves are dodgy and the partnerships seem a little out of step, we still need a winner in the dance-off.

Jennifer Lees-Marshment is an associate professor in Politics and International Relations in the Faculty of Arts. She is an expert in political marketing and political management and academic adviser to TVNZ’s Vote Compass. Her 16th book, Political Management: The Dance of Government and Politics, is out this month.

This article reflects personal opinion and is not necessarily that of the University of Auckland.

This article first appeared in the August 2020 issue of UniNews