Just as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is neither democratic, or for the people, so it is the same with Andrew Little's Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill. The Waka Jumping Bill isn't anything to do with the electoral system, or its integrity, rather it's an undemocratic move to abolish one of the key checks on the power of political parties and their leaders.
I suppose the use of the word "integrity" in the title could have been placed there ironically by Little. As the reality is that his bill does undermine the integrity of our Parliamentary system, effectively muzzling the ability of MPs to oppose their parties on issues other than conscious votes.
In the past, most famously with Marilyn Waring, an MP could cross the floor to oppose a policy of their party that they fundamentally disagreed with. They were able to do so safely in the knowledge that doing so wouldn't immediately cost them their seat in Parliament, meaning that their action wouldn't simply be a delaying action until their party was able to replace them. It was on this basis that Marilyn Waring famously informed Robert Muldoon in 1984 that she would cross the floor on the issue of a nuclear free New Zealand, a move that helped push Muldoon into calling the 1984 snap election.
Should Andrew Little's bill come to pass, that type of moment, where an MP has the ability to defy their party on an issue they feel strongly about, will become a thing of the past. If Little's bill had been law in 1984, it's foreseeable that Muldoon and the National Party could have just sacked Waring from Parliament, ensured a pliable replacement was picked in the by-election, and passed the legislation anyway.
Because that's what's fundamentally at stake here. As things stand, there's a balance of power between Parliamentary parties and their MPs. Parties obviously have a range of policies they want to enact should they get into government, they also usually have a broad range of MPs who usually agree with most of those policies, but possibly not all of them.
The ability of an individual MP to vote against their party acts as a counterweight to the bulk of the party simply steamrolling through whatever they want. MPs are only able to act as that counterweight if they're able to remain in Parliament having defied the wishes of their party.
Andrew Little's bill would kill off that ability quite spectacularly.
The "concessions" Little has included in the bill, such as requiring two thirds of a caucus to agree to get rid of the dissenting member, are not concessions at all. Marilyn Waring would have struggled to get two thirds of her colleagues to support her in 1984, and as a result, would have seen her tossed out of Parliament by Muldoon and replaced.
The reality is that Little's bill is kowtowing to Winston Peters. Rather than acting in a collaborative and cooperative manner with his MPs, Peters is hellbent on carrying on in exactly the same way that caused the 1998 split in New Zealand First. Peters' inflexible stance on policy, erratic behaviour, and propensity to play his cards so close to his chest that his caucus and staff don't know what he's planning to do until he actually does it, has frequently put him and his MPs at odds with each other.
As I pointed out earlier, in other parties the check against this type of behaviour from the leader or leadership group, is the threat that should those decisions be ones that an MP couldn't support, then they would be able to cross the floor, and remain in Parliament. That nuclear option for an MP to resort to if their back is against the wall, however drastic it may be, is a fundamental check on political parties.
Andrew Little, Labour, and the Green Party (should they support the passage of this bill), are doing New Zealand's Parliament and democracy a massive disservice by eroding one of the few check on power that we have.
Yesterday I said that Jacinda Ardern becoming leader of the Labour Party could be the circuit breaker the party so badly needs to get its campaign back on track. Now that it's happened, it's time to look at what Jacinda offers that could give her the ability to succeed where Andrew Little failed.
I've already covered off how much more popular Jacinda is on social media than Andrew was (essentially twice as popular on Facebook and four times as popular on Twitter), and in the last 24 hours she's already added an extra 4,000 new likes which is a fantastic result. As I mentioned yesterday, this gives her a significant advantage over her predecessor in reaching more people organically without having to spend money on promoting posts.
I think what's more important though are the personal brands of both Bill English and Jacinda Ardern and how they contrast to each other.
Looking back to 2008, one thing that worked very well for John Key was the contrast between his personal brand of ambition, charisma and confidence, and Helen Clark's brand of stability, experience and stoicism, and this year we're finally seeing a contrast between the two party leaders, something that Andrew Little wasn't able to achieve.
The problem for Little was that his personal brand was remarkably similar to Bill English's. Both were effectively competing for the mantle of being a traditional Kiwi bloke, with the primary difference being that English traded on his rural farming background, while Little traded on his urban union background. Unfortunately for Little, John Key had been so good at occupying this position that a significant part of his brand goodwill rubbed off on Bill English, meaning Little's personal brand was trying to compete in a marketplace already dominated by an established player. In many respects, trying to "out bloke" either Key or English was always going to be a losing strategy for Andrew Little.
This is where Jacinda Ardern's personal brand comes into play. She's not trying to compete with Bill English on the traditional bloke front, rather she has her own, very successful, personal brand as an ambitious and compassionate urban liberal. Whereas Andrew Little's brand was too close to that of Bill English's, and thus struggled to get noticed, Ardern's personal brand is a stark contrast, and that's going to help it instantly get traction.
Out of interest, I did an exercise where I listed the brand qualities I attached to each leader:
- Youth focused
- Urban liberal
- Media savvy
- Values driven
- Strong work ethic
- Kiwi bloke
- Rural conservative
- Values driven
What struck me is that both leaders' brands share several traits. They're both intelligent, they're both motivated by values that are important to them, they're both ambitious, and these are all attributes that mark them out as leaders. Where they differ, as I've alluded to earlier, is the very publicly visible parts of their brands, it's Bill's experience against Jacinda's youth focus and energy, it's Jacinda's urban liberalism against Bill's rural conservatism, it's Bill's competence and strong work ethic against Jacinda's sublime media skills and fresh face.
Jacinda Ardern absolutely offers a circuit breaker for Labour, but it's important to keep in mind that Labour's problems do go much deeper than just the leadership. The party does have fundamental structural issues that have gotten them into this mess. For instance, the leadership primary process that delivered them both David Cunliffe, Andrew Little, and all the subsequent staffing and policy disasters that have followed it. Unfortunately for Labour, seven and a half weeks away from an election isn't enough time to fix those underlying problems.
But at the very least, with Jacinda as leader, they've turned a significant corner and will make this year's election a knife-edge result
If, as half of the Press Gallery is predicting, Labour has a new leader by the end of their caucus meeting today, replacing their campaign billboards featuring Andrew Little won't be their only challenge. A change of leadership can have significant impact on your digital channels, so today I'm sparing a thought for Labour's digital team who may have a pretty massive day of work ahead of them. I should know, I've been there with the change from Sir John Key to Bill English.
Assuming there is a change, and depending who that new leader is, Labour might actually find it as a blessing in disguise on their social media channels. With Jacinda Ardern being the leading contender at the moment, despite her Shermanesque denials, she presents an unusual opportunity for Labour in that she already has a far larger following than Andrew Little is on social media.
On Facebook Jacinda leads Andrew by 58,335 page likes to Little's 33,909. The difference is even more pronounced on Twitter with Jacinda having 67,636 to Andrew's 14,087. Other than helping Jacinda reach more people without spending money on digital advertising, it also reflects something far more important - Jacinda is simply much more popular a public figure with New Zealand than her current leader. In an MMP system, where so much of the party vote component is driven by the popularity of your party's leader, this is potentially a game changer for Labour.
At the very least it's the circuit breaker that the party so badly needs. As much as National might try to portray Jacinda as a lightweight on policy, I don't think that she is. Rather, she's been more focused on the values and identity messaging that resonates with Middle New Zealand. As a result, she's built up a very successful personal brand which gets her a foot in the door with voters who will actually give her a chance and listen to what she has to say. In politics, especially in opposition, getting people's attention is half of the battle and it's something that Andrew Little has fundamentally struggled with during his tenure.
What I imagine Labour's digital team will be doing right now is working on two possibilities. One is that Andrew Little remains and they spend the next day or two trying to play up the unity in their team and how they're getting back to being focused on their key election issues. The other is that a new leader is appointed and that things need to change online.
The process they'll go through for a leadership change will look something like this:
- Audit all your online channels, identify what needs to change and in what order.
- Identify who the possible new leader might be and get content ready to go as soon as any announcement is made. What this will most likely be is a static graphic for their social media channels congratulating the new leader, or if they're really game they'll try to Facebook Live the new leader's first media stand up, though given Facebook Live can be a tricky beast at time with poor mobile signals in the depths of Parliament, and dubious Wi-Fi bandwidth, this can often be very hazardous.
- Switch off any digital advertising just before caucus to avoid any awkward situations of the old leader being served up in ads.
- Once the new leader is announced and the graphic/Facebook Live is posted, they'll have bought themselves an hour or two to make key changes. These include updating the social media profiles of the former and new leader to reflect the change, updating websites, and getting a lightning quick new digital ad campaign sorted to promote the new leader.
- They'll also need to talk to the new leader or their staff to get access to their social media profiles so that they can start posting content on behalf of them.
- Later today and tomorrow they'll then need to review their existing digital strategy and identify opportunities to change it based on the new leader.
- Throughout the rest of the week they'll work through progressively updating lower level online content to reflect the change. Nobody expects them to change everything on the first day, but by the end of this week would seem reasonable.
All of this is happening very quickly, especially when, unlike the leadership change for the National Party in December where the leadership contenders were identified early and, by the weekend before the caucus meeting, there was only one contender for the top job. The lead in time back then made it so much easier to identify what needed to change, get content ready for multiple eventualities, and agree a plan of action to make the change happen.
Labour's challenge is that they've had all of 48 hours notice, it's not 100 per cent clear who a new leader might be - though Jacinda is top of the list right now - and unlike National in December, their leader hasn't resigned so they have to be very careful about working on any content for a replacement as not to rock the boat or torpedo morale.
I honestly don't envy what they're going through. It's a hugely tough time. It was busy enough for me with a three week old baby at home leaving me sleep deprived. In the white hot heat of an election campaign, when things are already not going well for your party, I do feel for them and wish them all the best for the next few days.