Comment

Yesterdaze: NZ First’s ‘trope-a-dope’ election strategy

James Elliott takes us through the three steps of NZ First's strategy of firing up their base, and why coronavirus is Labour's fault

Most of the news this week, both domestic and international, has been dominated by the coronavirus. There’s been no shortage of advice as to what coronavirus is and does and what you need to do to be prepared for its inevitable spread within New Zealand. And some of us are more prepared than others.

For instance, the National Party have already had their flu jabs, jabbing all week at what they claim is the Government’s inadequate coronavirus response. And they have been quick to point out that they are not politicising coronavirus. It seems that it’s just a coincidence that they have made several of what one commentator has described as “easily falsifiable claims” about the Government’s coronavirus response that line up neatly with National’s key campaign theme. That theme is that Labour are poor managers of pretty much anything and everything, and it’s just another coincidence that it’s the same campaign theme that National ran with in 2017, 2014 and every other general election before that.

And it’s yet another coincidence, or not a coincidence at all, that this week NZ First faced criticisms of racism and xenophobia in election year. This week it was NZ First’s Shane Jones, claiming Indian students had ruined academic institutions and there were too many immigrants coming to New Zealand from New Delhi. Jones said most people would not describe his comments as racist. I’m not most people. And neither is Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, who labelled Jones’ comments as both racist and irresponsible.

I also recognise NZ First’s well-worn three-step trope-a-dope strategy aimed at firing up their base. Step 1 - Shane Jones says something controversial preferably encompassing a racist trope, garnering headlines for NZ First. Step 2 – Jacinda Ardern issues a lame criticism of Shane Jones’ controversial comments, preferably encompassing a racist trope, garnering more headlines for NZ First. Step 3 – Winston Peters defends Shane Jones and repeats his controversial comments, preferably encompassing a racist trope, garnering yet more headlines for NZ First. You may or may not be a dope if you’re drawn in by this strategy but you’re definitely a dope if you don’t recognise it as such, particularly when Shane Jones gave the game away. He defended his controversial comments preferably encompassing a racist trope, with this frank albeit coded admission, “I speak on behalf of NZ First, in an MMP environment in an election year”. Or as decoded – “nudge nudge, wink wink, don’t judge or even think, just help us get over the five percent brink”.

The net result of all of this was a NZ First “policy announcement” delivered to the NZ First base via three news headlines, all without having to put pen to paper or even needing a pen, paper or an actual policy. And if the reference to firing up the NZ First base sounds somewhat Trumpist to you that’s no coincidence either. NZ First is the party you vote for if you really want to vote for Donald Trump but can’t because you’re a New Zealander.

There’s no doubt that Jacinda Ardern would have recognised this new instalment of NZ First’s trope-a-dope strategy because she’s seen it several times before from this particular Cabinet Minister. And several times before she’s struggled to deal with it effectively. This week proved to be no exception. Her first effort was to describe Jones’ comments as “loose and wrong”, see Step 2 above. Obviously there are lots of adjectives that could be used to describe Jones’ controversial comments preferably encompassing a racist trope (see Step 1 above) but “loose” wouldn’t be in my top 10, or even my top 100. “Loose” is the adjective you would use to describe Labour’s Kiwibuild targets, Labour’s timetable for building a light rail link from central Auckland to the airport and Labour’s child poverty statistics. All of which might explain why “loose” was already front of mind for the Prime Minister when she was asked about Jones’ comments.

Perhaps recognising that her first response to Jones’ comments was itself a bit loose, the Prime Minister had another crack later in the week. She took the somewhat unusual and irrelevant hypothetical step of addressing what actions she could and/or would take if Shane Jones was in the Labour Party, including possible reprimand and demotion. The only problem with that approach is that Shane Jones isn’t currently a member of the Labour Party. However, he was a Labour MP from 2005 to 2014 meaning the Prime Minister would need a time machine to be able to go back and reprimand him in, say, 2014. That is of course completely unrealistic because the current Labour Party hasn’t even started building a time machine yet (see above regarding KiwiBuild and light rail in Auckland.)

Finally, as we’re heading into the weekend I thought I’d sign off in the same style that the NZ Herald greeted us all last Saturday morning:

HAVE A PEACEFUL WEEKEND BUT DON’T FORGET TO PANIC AND STOCK UP ON TOILET PAPER. LOTS AND LOTS OF TOILET PAPER.

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