POLITICS Watch the Big Idea

National’s leader, Don Brash, is due to deliver the third of his king hits next month. His target is welfare.
Two more will follow, on education and the economy. After that he will have “credit card” of five slogans that his party will take to the 2005 election.
This is in the tradition of modern election campaigning: embed in the minds of winnable voters few simple, big ideas that trigger an emotional or sentimental response. Labour did it in 1999.
Government, of course, is not slogans. Government requires complex responses to events and problems. To see what goes wrong when slogans rule, look at the trouble George Bush has got himself into around the world and, probably to come, in the United States economy.
And slogans are not Brash. Before he entered politics he was thoughtful economist turned central banker, at ease with complexity and subtlety.

More than ‘big ideas’
There has, as you would expect, actually been more to his two “big-idea” speeches than just the big ideas.
For example, his law and order speech last month talked about fixing up dysfunctional families, giving first-time offenders second chance and increasing help to prisoners to readjust to life outside as they approach the end of their sentence.
His Orewa speech on the Treaty of Waitangi in January said past injustices must be redressed, spiritual beliefs respected, social deprivation addressed and alternative schools and health agencies allowed on grounds of choice.
But the Orewa speech was intended to convey to voters – and seemingly succeeded spectacularly – the big idea that special treatment, and particularly special funding, for Maori based on race was wrong and would end. And the public was intended to hear simple message from the law and order speech: abolish parole. Actually, the speech said “parole as we know it” and allowed that it would remain available to some first-time and low-level convicts.
But the press release was more blunt and the message probably most voters got is the abolition of parole, full stop.
So what does the outline look like?
National will do something to end the disturbance Maori have caused with their demands of the past 30 years. And it will do something that stops criminals killing, child beating and doing drugs.
What those “somethings” will be exactly is not important in this sort of campaigning, as New Zealand First has demonstrated, most notably in its 2002 campaign with its three unachievable pledges on immigration, race and crime.
The public fear or anger on which big idea campaigning works is generated by insecurities, either cultural or personal.
The slogans promise security.
Two down from Brash; three to go.
The easy and obvious big idea in welfare is time limits on benefits: make beneficiaries work. In education it is to instil the 3 Rs. In the economy it is “tax cuts for hardworking New Zealanders”.
All three would look strong on credit card and hoardings. But they are not an accurate guide to what National-led government would do.
Set aside the adjustments needed to accommodate coalition partners or supporters.
National itself would make allowances and exceptions. For example, Maori Television is obvious special treatment but is excused because it promotes Maori language. Maori customary rights to the foreshore and seabed would be protected.
The parole slogan belies the many qualifications in the law and order policy.

Labour’s response
Labour’s response will be to wait until Brash’s first flush fades and then pick holes and point out inconsistencies, trumpet what it is doing itself and thereby, hopefully, dampen the fire embedded in the slogans.
But that is not the real point. Add up the big ideas and you get an even bigger one: that Labour is too PC – too deferential to Maori, too eager to legislate for prostitutes and homosexuals, too easygoing on beneficiaries, too ready to make excuses for criminals.
This works in two main ways. It cements bonds between conservatives and the National party and so solidifies its base support, which has been soft for some time. And it pitches to what used to be Labour’s core vote, “working people” in the suburbs, especially those who are socially conservative. M

Colin James is Management’s regular political writer.
Email: [email protected]

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