The first thing to say of the opening TV commercials from the two main parties in the 2011 New Zealand election campaign is that clearly the governing National party are terrified about the appeal of their leader. While Labour’s man is the superstar of their ad, John Key is nowhere to be seen in National’s. NOWHERE TO BE SEEN.
Obviously, that’s not really the case – a glance at the stacks of billboards around New Zealand, with Key’s face everywhere and Goff’s almost entirely absent, will tell you that. But, deliberately perhaps, to forestall that characterisation, Labour have put their leader front and centre in the first of their efforts.
Here it is:
Phil Goff, dressed in open collar shirt and jeans, is variously seated and wandering about on the shore of Lake Benmore. Alone in the world, with only an artificial lake, a solitary boat and a giant state-owned hydro-dam for company. There is no stone skimming, sadly. There is a lot of conspicuously noisy birdsong in the background.
Towards the end a giant “Not For Sale – Labour” banner is unfurled down the dam. Impressive, but I wasn’t sure anyone was suggesting the Labour party was for sale.
This is what Goff says:
November the 26th isn’t a popularity contest. It’s when the country decides how to pay back debt and create a better future. Labour doesn’t believe that a fire sale of our country’s assets is in our country’s interests. You paid for them, you own them, and you can’t buy them back. And we lose the money they make.
There is an alternative: a fairer tax system, where the wealthy pay their share, and we don’t put our children’s birthright on the block. ‘Cause when you’re in a hole, you don’t sell your ladder.
Except it is a popularity contest, isn’t it? It’s a great big poll, a test of the preferences of the, yknow, populace. I guess he means it’s not a personality contest. Or that it shouldn’t be about personalities. Or something.
Goff has been part of a cabinet that has hawked a few state assets in the past, so it’s difficult to entirely take him seriously on this one, but that notwithstanding, it’s not a bad opening salvo. Clearly they’re going for the calm-and-reasonable critique, and while it’s one hell of an uphill battle, they could yet make some headway.
And National? Their opening number is bright, simple and snappy, clocking in at only 15 seconds.
You can almost hear the party’s campaign strategist, Steven “slip-cordon” Joyce, alighting on the theme. “ROADS! Let’s make this bloody thing about ROADS! Every decent bugger loves a good bloody ROAD!”
The voiceover from the ad, in case you want to relive it:
Despite one of the toughest periods in New Zealand’s history we’re starting to see the promising signs of recovery. Make no mistake, this year we have a very clear choice to make. John Key and National: building a brighter future.
Yes, it’s “John Key and National”, which makes up a bit for the lack of his actual real actual gurny face in the ad itself.
Just look at those two blokes with the signs: the Roadworks action figure equivalents of the two leaders, or at least the two parties.
Stop and Go: Yup, this effort has all the complexity of one of those shaping items we were forced to make in fifth form to help us understand books and that. But complexity is not what they’re after here.
Red STOP Labour sign-guy looks a bit tense, uncomfortable, slouchily off-centre. His fist is closed, zip sloppily undone, and look at the state of those shoes.
He looks like he might just call in sick tomorrow because he feels like it, even though the country’s economy will suffer, while he just lies around, stuffing his face all day.
Green-blue GO National sign-guy looks comfortable but focused. Shoes are good. Sensible. He’s a little unshaven, but that’s because he’s a bit like the All Blacks, don’t you think? Like John Key is a bit like the All Blacks.
Check out the clouds, too. Fluffy, familiar things above Green-blue GO sign-guy; grey, foreboding, riskier bastards above that Red STOP man.
It can be no coincidence, what’s more, that the shadow GO Blue Green GO sign GO the All Blacks sign guy casts a shadow pointing where? The centre, people, the centre of the road.
And as the camera tracks back, what tune is that? Why it’s the Feelers, exhorting people in song to – or so it sounds to my ear – “Stand up and be counted on”. Be counted on? Whatever: we know where to stand up and be counted, and counted on, and counted up. This is the Feelers, how could we be more in the middle of the road?
As to the more explicit message, the crucial and, for some, controvertible line is “we’re starting to see the promising signs of recovery”. Labour’s task will be to disprove that claim.
Worth noting in passing, too, that the faces of New Zealand in the telly advertising so far from the two main parties come in at three white blokes and nothing else. Plenty more ads to come, of course, but fear not, we’ll keep a tally.
P.S. We’ll soon be launching a new Listener blog following the 2011 election campaign. More details soon – in the meantime, if you’re on Twitter, follow @listenerlive.