Labour puts its chips on ‘positive politics’ in election year

Jacinda Ardern has kicked off the political year with a pledge to continue her “relentless positivity” in this year’s election campaign – but how much will it actually influence voters?

COMMENT: With summer now closer to an end than a beginning, it’s no surprise Labour MPs again chose Martinborough’s microclimate as the setting for their annual caucus retreat.

The weather duly delivered, the sun beating down as politicians planned for the year ahead in their casual attire (among the exceptions was suit-clad Health Minister David Clark, who received a light sledging from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for showing up his colleagues).

There was an abundance of toys for the children of MPs and staffers to play with, including a giant red inflatable obstacle course.

Sadly, none of the adults could be goaded into trying it out, at least not in front of the media – but perhaps the MPs could have done with some practice ahead of what is set to be a bruising election year with little in the way of padding or protection.

Last year’s Martinborough retreat was the birthplace of Ardern’s now-infamous pledge to make 2019 a year of delivery, a line rivalled only by Clare Curran’s promise to be “the most open, most transparent government that New Zealand has ever had” as the most ill-advised (and swiftly weaponised) quote made this term.

Such remarks have fed into the perception that the Government over-promises and under-delivers; the counter-argument from supporters, that the coalition is being held to an unfairly high standard, loses some of its heft when you consider it is Ardern and her team who have set the bar so high with such sweeping statements.

Unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister’s opening address this year was more modest in scope, setting the scene for election year with a pledge to run “a positive campaign, a factual campaign, a robust campaign” as it did in 2017.

New Zealanders “deserve a factual campaign”, Ardern said, “one that is free from misinformation, where people can make honest reflections for themselves about what they want for the future of New Zealand”.

“New Zealanders deserve that kind of election campaign, and I believe we can deliver that kind of election campaign.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Labour Party president Claire Szabo admire the inflatable obstacle course and slide at the party's annual retreat. The party argues most Kiwis believe things are looking up for the country. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

That is an entirely reasonable, even inarguable position to take.

But it also serves as a veiled dig at the National Party, whose social media advertising and attack lines have been slammed by Government MPs as misleading or even misinformation.

That has been vociferously contested by the Opposition, and it is inevitable that most parties will bend or break the truth at points as the campaign gets into full swing.

But Labour is betting that Ardern’s brand of “relentless positivity” will trump National leader Simon Bridges’ more confrontational approach.

In 2018, Stuff reported on internal research from Labour’s pollsters claiming voters used words like “untrustworthy”, “unsure” and “dodgy” to describe Bridges,

That, coupled with Bridges’ continued failure to rise in the preferred prime minister polls, may give Labour confidence it can triumph again if the election turns into a presidential-style contest.

In a background briefing provided by the party at this year’s retreat, media were told that Bridges’ favourability ratings, while recovered somewhat from his nadir of mid-2018, still remain in the negative thirties according to internal polling.

The party also argues Kiwis are less receptive to negative campaigning than other countries, with “right track/wrong track” polling showing New Zealand well ahead of nations like the United States and the United Kingdom in public confidence about their own country’s direction.

Labour MPs Kieran McAnulty and Iain Lees-Galloway play backyard cricket - will the party adhere to Jacinda Ardern's pledge to let negative politics go through to the keeper? Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

To bolster its claims to the moral high ground, the party has signed up to Facebook’s transparency measures for political advertising on the social media platform, which provide information on an ad’s potential reach, price range, and target audience demographics among other data.

The measures are not mandatory in New Zealand, unlike in the United States and the United Kingdom, but with the Greens signing on last year and ACT following suit, pressure will come on National and New Zealand First – the last two parliamentary holdouts – to join as well.

However, the initiative does not cover whether a political ad is truthful or not, with resolving claims of falsehoods left to the parties, the media, and ultimately the public.

Bridges and National are unlikely to be swayed from their current approach, with the former’s harder-edged approach coinciding with reduced speculation about a leadership spill (responding to Labour's Facebook commitment, the National leader said the party was still considering whether to take part but told Ardern to "look in the mirror" regarding claims of negativity).

The Coalition’s triumph against the odds in Australia and the Conservatives’ big win in the UK both came on the back of attack ads – albeit while already holding the reins of power – and National will hope it can repeat the same trick from opposition.

But Ardern is more popular than both Bill Shorten and Jeremy Corbyn, meaning lopping off Labour’s head will be a more difficult task.

The focus may be on targeting the weaker ministers around her, as National has done successfully on a number of occasions this term.

The political year has now begun in earnest, with MPs heading to Ratana on Friday, National’s own caucus retreat in Havelock North next week and Waitangi commemorations just around the corner. Ardern also teased the Government's impending $12 billion infrastructure announcement, although with little in the way of new detail.

We don’t yet know the policies or controversies on which this election will be fought – but whether Ardern’s attempt to set the ground rules proves successful may play a critical role in the eventual outcome.

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