Party conferences so predictable
To an almost comical extent, the National Party’s annual conference last weekend was a game of two halves.
The Saturday sessions seemed to be devoted to terrifying the party faithful about the folly of treating victory in September’s election as being already in the bag.
Party strategist and Minister of Everything Steven Joyce warned the conference that National’s poll ratings were currently two points lower on average than at the same stage of the 2011 campaign, which had turned out to be a pretty tight contest.
If that wasn’t motivation enough, the dreadful nature of a centre left coalition was also spelled out to delegates.
Could New Zealand survive a ruling cabal of David Cunliffe, Russel Norman, Metiria Turei, Hone Harawira and Laila Harre …? Apparently not.
Yet as surely as day follows night, the Sunday sessions offered a deep, relaxing bath of reassurance.
‘‘Doesn’t it feel good to be a member of the National Party?’’ Prime Minister John Key asked delegates, before running through a litany of his government’s achievements.
Austerity notwithstanding, there was still room for a blatant election handout in the shape of an extra $212 million in roading projects (paid for from last year’s asset sales) to sweeten National’s image in regional electorates.
Such is the dubious nature of party conferences.
After six years in office and with an estimated 280,000 children living in poverty, does National’s claimed removal of 30,000 children from the ranks of the welfare-dependent – their current wellbeing unknown - really count as an ‘‘unsung story’’ of the current government, as claimed by Key?
Like any corporate bonding session, party conferences are usually more about motivating the sales team than in proving the value of the product.
This coming weekend, Labour’s conference will be similarly trying to demonise National’s own mot- ley coalition team: Key, Joyce, Colin Craig, the Act Party, the Maori Party etc.
Labour’s leader can also be expected to tout the significance of a plumped-up capital gains tax, and the blessings that a 3 point difference in tax rates for people earning over $150,000 will allegedly deliver.
In other words, the election campaign is moving into a loud, Harvey Norman phase of political advertising. Voter turnout is unlikely to respond well to the rise in decibels.
In social democracies around the world, voter apathy is on the increase, because voters have learned from experience that the brand differentiation in political advertising is rarely matched by better performance - regardless of the election outcome.
Scepticism is a real problem for Labour and its allies, who have pinned their hopes on mobilising hundreds of thousands of new voters – some young, some previously alienated – to bridge the 10-point gap that currently exists between National and the centreleft bloc.
Party leadership may not be the only factor that drives voter turnout, but National has an obvious edge in this department.
Labour knows it only too well. As yet, it hasn’t been able to convince even a third of the electorate of its merits.
Somehow, if election 2014 is to be a genuine contest and not a rout, David Cunliffe has to become more widely viewed as a credible agent of change.
His speech to this weekend’s Labour Party conference isn’t Cunliffe’s last chance to close that deal, but time is running out.