John Key

Leaders who bring out the worst in their opposition

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If there's one thing that becoming Leader of the National Party for Simon Bridges has achieved, it's been bringing out the worst in his opposition online. Bridges seems to be, like Jacinda Ardern and Helen Clark for Labour, or John Key for National before him, a figure who provokes the very worst out of some very vocal people.

The hot takes on Simon Bridges have oscillated from just plan bad, to completely abhorrent and devoid of any rational thought. Whether it's been people criticising his Westie working class accent - a critique that comes off as little more as snobby elitism - or those mocking his hair style - shall we recall the howls of protest over other politicians being judged on aspects of their physical appearance? - a large portion of the opinions being shared aren't based on any substance about Simon Bridges the politician, but are little more than petty personal attacks against Simon Bridges the person.

Perhaps the worst I've seen since the announcement have been from people who should know a damned sight better, that both Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett aren't Māori enough to claim Māori heritage.

This absurd like of attack seems to draw on two equally as stupid measures: one being what percentage of Māori ancestry they have, and the other being whether they're either fluent in te reo or able to recite a mihi.

What makes these lines of argument absurd, and essentially racist, is that they completely ignore the fact that both Bridges and Bennett's experience of being urban Māori are largely representative of urban Māori in general over the past century. The migration of Māori from rural New Zealand to urban centres over the past century, combined with backwards policies towards Māori culture for much of that time, saw many Māori separated from their cultural identity.

Bridges and Bennett are very much part of this wider issue facing urban Māori, in that their disconnect from their cultural heritage has been created by time, geographic, socio-economics, government policy, and circumstances beyond their immediate control. These same factors have also acted as barriers towards urban Māori who seek to reconnect with their culture. It's one part of the reason why the percentage of Māori who speak fluent te reo has been stuck between 20-25%.

While that is gradually changing, with more and more urban Māori reconnecting with Tikanga Māori, it's also important to acknowledge that it's not always possible or easy for urban Māori to do this. Judging one's command of either te reo or Tikanga Māori as a an artificial measure of their "Māori-ness" is a perspective which simply holds no merit.

Much like the arbitrary standards being demanded by some for knowledge and practicing of te reo and Tikanga Māori, the notion that there's a specific percentage or fraction of ancestry that must be Māori for someone to be able to say they're Māori is an idea I had hoped we had abandoned some 30 or 40 years ago.

As I indicated at the start, the plethora of bad takes based on superficial rather than substantive issues directed at Bridges coming from the Left are eerily similar to those directed at Jacinda Ardern from the Right.

Whether it's people opining on what Ardern is wearing, her relationship with Clarke Gayford, her pregnancy, or her age, or her media appearances (which are fundamentally no different to those done by John Key) the Right has been guilty of exactly the same behaviour throughout Ardern's career, and even more so since she became first Leader of Labour, and then Prime Minister.

Interestingly, Bill English never seemed to attract quite the same level of bizarrely bad or offensive reckons on his personal attributes.

Of course, none of this is anything new. The Right and Left both suffered from what's been termed as Clark/Key-Derangement-Syndrome in the past. Yet as both Clark and Key demonstrate, petty personal attacks against politicians achieve nothing.

Unfortunately I suspect the people who most need to learn that lesson, those who continue to spout this nonsense, are also the ones least likely to ever change their ways.

In part it seems that much of this could be down to social media contributing to an increasingly partisan element to online discussion of politics, and in part giving trolls a platform to spout their nonsense that they've never had before. But it also seems that some leaders tend to polarise opinion about them based on largely on superficial elements rather than substantive issues.

Forget a new Cold War, Great Power rivalry is back instead

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Talk of a new Cold War has been popular in the last few years, primarily pitched as China's rising military, political, and economic might against the dwindling power and influence of the United States. More broadly, it often gets seen as a conflict between the liberal democracy and free market values of the West, and the authoritarian, state controlled economies of the East.

While the end of the Cold War left the United States as the sole superpower, it also led many to search for a new rival to US hegemony. From the early 2000s China has largely been seen to fit this bill.

If you were looking through the lens of economic power alone, China would fill that role well, with its GDP having grown to be the third biggest in the world. While only around 60% of the GDP of the United States, China's economic growth has, up until recently, greatly outstripped US growth.

In the political sphere, China has been assiduously cultivating its influence, using access to its immense domestic market and deep pockets as an incentive to either stifle criticism or garner support across the world. On the military front, China is also accelerating the development of weapon platforms and bases that would allow it to project its military power beyond the South China Sea, as far as Africa and deep into the Pacific.

As a result of China's rise the United States has, over the past decade, been putting more and more emphasis on its Pacific theatre of operations, which in turn has fed the narrative of a new Cold War centred on a Beijing-Washington axis.

However it's readily becoming apparent that a return to a world dominated by two duelling superpowers isn't what's happening.

The recently released 2018 National Defense Strategy sees this new paradigm in terms of China, Russia, and the US competing on the world stage. The new US strategy sees China continuing to grow its influence in Asia, Russia putting more pressure on Europe and NATO, and the United States needing to step back from the Middle East in order to contain its new strategic rivals.

I'd go further than this, and argue that we appear to be entering a new era of Great Power competition that shares more with the period 1871 - 1945 than it does with 1945 to 1991.

Where the Cold War was dominated by the duelling superpowers of the US and USSR, 1871 to 1914 was dominated by multipolar rivalry between the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Russia. Towards the end of that period they were joined by the United States and Japan. Just below that top tier of Great Powers sat Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Italy. While right at the end of that period, China began to show signs that it was starting on the path that would eventually lead it to where it is today.

The situation we find ourselves in today mirrors that of 1871. Whereas the United Kingdom and France had been the primary world powers for nearly two centuries - with Russia lurking in the background with the potential to dwarf them both - first the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and then the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 changed that world order. In first asserting its primacy in Central Europe over Austria-Hungary, then breaking up the superpower duopoly by humbling France, Germany's rise saw the world enter an era of Great Power rivalry that would last until 1945.

Fast forward to today and we have the United States' political, military, and economic supremacy being simultaneously challenged by China's rising strength, a militarily resurgent Russia, the growing economic and political influence of India, and the European Union looking more and more like a single federal entity than a loose cooperative of different states (despite the United Kingdom's impending departure) that's set to take its own spot on the world stage.

Just below this top tier of new Great Powers, are countries like Brazil and Indonesia, where it seems a question of when, rather than if, they'll become economic powerhouses in their own right. There's also the question of what role Japan will take as they wrestle with their place in this new world, trapped as they are in the middle of geopolitical competition between Beijing and Washington.

For New Zealand, this new Great Power geopolitical environment offers challenges and opportunities. The biggest challenge for us will be staying on side with the three largest economic Great Powers - the United States, China, and the European Union - which isn't always an easy thing to do, as has been illustrated in recent months. For example, Foreign Minister Winston Peters' pet project of a free trade agreement with Russia earned New Zealand a strong rebuke from the EU, offering a cautionary lesson on what's in store for us - pursuing one course of action could lead to other, potentially more lucrative, opportunities being shut to us.

For much of the past 20 years New Zealand has managed to navigate the China/US divide very well. Helen Clark and John Key fostered positive and productive relationships with both Beijing and Washington. The China FTA delivered by Helen Clark was a huge economic win for New Zealand, while the visit of the USS Sampson in 2016 marked a high point in US/NZ political and military relations in the nuclear-free NZ era. Despite being ultimately unsuccessful due to Donald Trump, the Trans-Pacific Partnership also seemed poised to be a big win for New Zealand too in the economic side of our relationship with the US.

To highlight just how careful New Zealand has to be in this new multipolar world, here's just some of the current free trade agreement activities on New Zealand's plate:

  • An upgrade to the China FTA,
  • Getting the finishing touches on the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership which will cover Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, and Viet Nam,
  • Negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which covers Brunei-Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Viet Nam, Australia, China, India, Japan, and Korea,
  • Starting negotiations on a European Union FTA,
  • Finishing up the PACER Plus agreement,
  • Pushing the Golf Cooperation Council FTA towards conclusion, having been stalled for nine years.

Throw in the suspended Russia-Belarus Kazakhstan Customs Union FTA on top of that, and there are a heap of competing geopolitical rivalries that New Zealand somehow has to thread its way through.

The above list is only the economic side of things. We also have defence relationships with Australia, Singapore, and the United States that are generally in New Zealand's interest to keep going (as one day Donald Trump won't be the President of the United States), as well as intelligence relationships through the Five Eyes network that may well prove to be crucial in the coming years in light of growing cyber threats from rival Great Powers.

What I don't see yet on the immediate horizon is this new era of Great Power rivalry descending into widespread armed conflict like we saw during the period of 1871 to 1945. There's always the potential for it further down the track in times of economic and political turmoil, potentially brought on by competition for resources such as rare metals. For the time being though, we're likely to see things play out more like they did in the closing decades of the 19th century, with the new Great Powers jostling for influence throughout the rest of the world, but still being prepared to retreat back from the brink relatively easily.

All that being said, that prediction comes with the caveat that you can never discount the impact rogue actors might have. Just as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that led Europe to war in 1914, there's always the potential that North Korea, Iran, or some other random event - be it a cyber attack or something else - could light a powder keg that causes the new Great Powers to go from competition, to open conflict.

John Key was Emmanuel Macron before it was cool

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While everyone was gushing about how unique and innovative new French President Emmanuel Macron's approach to politics was, and contrasted it to the protectionist currents flowing through Britain and the U.S., I noticed something very familiar about Macorn's personal style and policy platform - it was fundamentally the same as John Key's.

At an initial glance the two might not seem to have much in common other than a background that traversed finance (Key more so than Macron) and a natural charisma both in front of the camera and face-to-face with people.

That changes when you start to look at the political situations when each rose to power. Both Key and Macron faced a political situation where a gap had been created between right and left wing parties. For Key, Don Brash had taken National sharply to the right through a combination of aggressive economic liberalisation, social conservatism, and that Orwea speech that badly inflamed race relations. Helen Clark would, from 2004 to 2008, take Labour down a much more left wing path via economic intervention and income redistribution such as Working for Families and KiwiSaver, but characterised by the Labour-led Government going on a spending splurge between 2005 and 2008.

Macron faced a similar situation with François Hollande taking the Socialists further to the left, highlighted best by his plan to increase the top tax rate on France's wealthiest individuals to 75%, and the Republicans losing out to Marine Le Pen and the ultra-right wing National Front.

From here both leaders aggressively claimed the centre ground. Key did it by dragging the National Party there, with the colourful story that one of the first things he did was utterly crushing any plans or talk of repealing New Zealand's nuclear free legislation, an idea that had apparently been floated under Brash. Key would go on to adopt a policy platform that balanced fiscal conservatism, notably through tax cuts, employment law reform, controlling government spending, and partial privatisation of some government owned assets, with a social liberal approach including support for civil unions, same sex marriage, maintaining Working for Families, creating a successful detente with the Māori Party, and promoting an open economy through new and expanded free trade deals, and relatively open immigration settings. He also, unsuccessfully, championed changing New Zealand's flag, a cause usually associated with New Zealand's progressive movement and one that put him directly at odds with the National Party's conservative wing.

Key's time as Prime Minister was widely noted for not only being centrist, but also almost veering into Labour's centre-left wing, with large government building programmes and increasing benefit rates for the first time in 43 years being hailed as squeezing Labour out of the centre ground.

Macron took a slightly different approach. Instead of claiming leadership of the Socialists and doing what Key did and pulling them back to the centre, he seized on the gulf to ultimately create his own party - En Marche! - and effectively pushed both the Socialists and Republicans out of the centre ground.

The policies Macron and En Marche! campaigned on also bare a striking similarity to those of Key and the National-led Government. Macron is pro-European Union, he's in favour of free trade, he's largely in favour of open immigration through the EU, he's been France's leading advocate for the El Khormi labour reform laws, and he campaigned on reducing corporate and wealth taxes. Like Key, Macron is also a social liberal and on environmental issues shares a similar pragmatism, with both advocating a pragmatic and gradual switch towards a more sustainable economy than Green movements in their country would like.

Where Macron and Key may well differ over time is that Macron's popularity has already taken a major hit that Key's never did. In pushing through the badly necessary El Khormi labour reform laws through France's National Assembly and Senate, Macron has expended a significant amount of his political capital. Key was much more reserved in spending his political capital, and took a much slower and more incremental approach to implementing the reforms that he did to New Zealand's economy.

That being said, Macron does face a very different political system to Key. The division and balance of power in France is such that a President can be very powerful, or utterly useless, depending on their control of the National Assembly and Senate. Macron has been fortunate that En Marche! secured a decent majority in the National Assembly, and the Socialists and Republicans in the Senate are so terrified of the En Marche! machine consuming them that they've acquiescenced to Macron's policy platform so far. Macron potentially doesn't necessarily have the luxury of time that Key had to take his time with reforms.

The most important graphs you'll see today

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As of 20 August 2017 the Labour Party overtook the National Party in terms of Facebook likes, a position they hadn't been in since 22 September 2014. At it's height, the gap between the two parties was around 18,000 page likes, as at the time of writing Labour is now approximately 400 likes ahead. Having been 200 ahead overnight.

National has enjoyed two significant boosts in the past year, in September of 2016 and from December through to January 2017 following Sir John Key's resignation and Bill English becoming leader and Prime Minister.

Labour's two boosts are from Parliamentary paid advertising just before the three month Regulated Period kicked in, and then from Jacinda Ardern becoming Labour leader at the start of this month.

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When you look at party leaders over a similar period (unfortunately my analytics tool can only pull data from September 2015 for most of them) you can clearly see the moments Bill English became Prime Minister and Jacinda Ardern became leader of the Labour Party.

Jacinda's rate of growth is now trailing off from the initial boost she received, but she's still growing by about 3,200 page likes more than Bill English each week. Assuming the rate of growth over the past week is more indicative of the campaign period itself, Jacinda will be just shy of 100,000 page likes by the election, while Bill will be around 107,000. Looking back at 2014's data, neither John Key or David Cunliffe seemed to enjoy a bounce from debates, but then again those debates didn't set the world alight, so a clear debate win for Jacinda could make a big difference for her.

As I've mentioned before, Facebook page likes aren't going to win you an election, but insofar that the more you have, the more people you can reach, and the morale boosting effect of knowing you are more popular than your opposition will have some impact on how you perform.

If you're curious where we sourced our data and graphs from from check out Quintly. It's an easy to use social media analytics tool that takes a lot of the hassle out of visualising your social media data.

A quick comparison - Bill English vs Jacinda Ardern's first days as leader on Facebook

Blogger Patrick Leyland this week wrote a very interesting piece Jacinda Ardern's and the Labour Party's sudden social media rise which, while extremely impressive, does need some context put around it. So I thought I'd do a quick bit of analysis myself by comparing her first five days as leader with Bill English's first five days back in December of 2016.

Even this doesn't tell the full story. While Bill English's page grew by 121.7% over those five days vs 19.6%, the relative interaction rate (that is the number of interactions by number of posts by average page like size) was much closer, with Bill English hitting 5.2% of his fan base engaging with his posts over those first five days versus 6.9% for Jacinda Ardern. With all this in mind, it's useful to think of the bigger picture around each leadership change:

Jacinda Ardern's rise

  • Replaced an unpopular Labour leader
  • Speculation about change occurring in media for months  before hand
  • Change occurred two months before an election
  • Had the largest Facebook page of any sitting Labour MP (58,400) 
  • Labour Party Facebook fans historically interact with content at a much higher rate (Online Activists)

Bill English's rise

  • Replaced a popular National Party leader and Prime Minister
  • John Key's resignation completely unexpected
  • Change occurred two weeks before Christmas
  • Had a very small Facebook page prior to John Key's resignation (12,800 fans)
  • National Party Facebook fans historically interact at a much lower rate with content (Quiet Tories)

 

It's important to understand this context when comparing the two leaders as it helps provide a much more useful comprehension of what's going on.

Looking at the data and thinking about the background of it all, it's made me realise is that Andrew Little's brand wasn't just toxic in terms of his own popularity and ability to reach out to voters, but that he was collectively dragging down the Labour Party and its MPs too. His stepping down has effectively removed that burden from the Labour Party and its seeing the benefits now.

Because if there was one thing that did strike me over my three years at Parliament, it was how poorly the Labour Party did online post the 2014 election. Whereas the Greens and Winston Peters both did well - Winston Peters in particular - Labour and Andrew Little seemed to be stuck firmly in neutral.

As to whether this first week spike translates into sustained momentum for Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party remains to be seen. As I wrote back in Brand Bill vs Brand Jacinda, getting the right leader is only half the battle for Labour. Beyond that there are serious structural and personnel issues that they won't be able to address prior to the election, so the extent to which she can reverse the damage that's already been done is difficult to judge.

Election 2017 Facebook stocktake - or how Labour abandoned Brand Little

Facebook is the social media channel of choice for politicians and political parties. The reasons are pretty simple:

  • A more representative audience of New Zealand
  • Superior audience reach
  • Comprehensive content tools
  • More mature advertising platform
  • Better ability to convert post engagement to political engagement
  • Ties into Instagram.

Facebook's user base in New Zealand has reached 2.9 million active users per month, with around two-thirds of those using it every day. Twitter usage statistics are much harder to come by, but seem to indicate around 500,000 accounts in New Zealand, but the number who are active on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis is much harder to find. Judging by international trends, it's likely to be as little as 5% - 10% of that number are online on a daily basis, with even fewer bothering to tweet (leading to discussions being dominated by just a handful of very vocal users). Not all is lost for Twitter, as its usage does seem to be dramatically improving in Australia.

So with that in mind, the first thing that needs to be addressed is the massive impact that John Key's resignation had on the social media playing field. In an instant the National-led Government went from having the largest political Facebook page for the country's most popular Prime Minister in living memory, to not having it.

Comparison of major political Facebook pages in New Zealand as at 4 December 2016, the day before John Key resigned as Prime Minister.

Comparison of major political Facebook pages in New Zealand as at 4 December 2016, the day before John Key resigned as Prime Minister.

As you can see from the above, John Key's Facebook page dwarfed all others in the country, bringing with it an ability to organically (non-paid) reach a pretty massive audience.

The raw numbers were:

  • John Key 248,890
  • Greens 90,332
  • Winston Peters 69,660
  • National 64,048
  • Labour 52,283
  • Andrew Little 28,866
  • Bill English 13,361

The net result though is that losing John Key as the major Facebook presence was always going to leave a massive hole that needed filling. I knew from the successful election 2014 just how important Facebook was in terms of reaching voters (more on that in the future), so the challenge was set to minimise the loss of the John Key page and build the new Prime Minister's page up to be as large as possible while still maximising opportunities to get targeted content in front of relevant audiences.

Comparison of political Facebook pages as of the commencement of the Regulated Period, three months out from polling day.

Comparison of political Facebook pages as of the commencement of the Regulated Period, three months out from polling day.

What you can see here is a pretty incredible turnaround in little more than six months. It was always going to be a challenge to overhaul the Green Party within that time, but to come within a whisker of being the largest political page in the country in such a short period of time took a pretty amazing effort to achieve.

Relative to 2014 it's a bit of a mixed bag. Around 23 June 2014 (the only statistics I have available) John Key was around 148,000 likes, the Greens around 48,000, Winston and Labour both at 15,000, National at 13,000, and Cunliffe was somewhere in the order of 12,600. The big difference being that at the start of the 2014 Regulated Period, John Key was a dominant Facebook presence, whereas National lagged behind everyone. Fast forward to 2017 and while Key is gone, National is larger than Labour and has significantly closed the gap on the Greens.

There is one difference for Bill English versus John Key though. For John Key many of his page likes were what I referred to as "legacy likes". They were people who had liked his page years earlier, but didn't interact with it at all and, as a result, were unlikely to see his content. Bill English has the advantage now that nearly all of his likes are relatively fresh, meaning there's more of a chance they'll see and engage with what he posts.

One thing did strike me over this period though, and admittedly struck me well before then too, was just how little Labour seemed to invest in Andrew Little. Around the Wellington beltway people suspected for a while that Labour had just decided Andrew Little was never going to be appealing, and so instead focused on their own Party brand and promoting Jacinda Ardern as the face of Labour. The lack of growth in Little's Facebook page lends credence to this.

Facebook page like growth from 4 December 2016 through to 23 June 2017, note Andrew Little off to the right.

Facebook page like growth from 4 December 2016 through to 23 June 2017, note Andrew Little off to the right.

And if you're curious, here's the raw numbers:

  • Bill English 85,691
  • Labour 12,119
  • National 11,350
  • Winston Peters 9,756
  • Greens 9,180
  • Andrew Little 4,720

As to how Bill English did so well? That's a trade secret. Becoming Prime Minister obviously helps. But what's really interesting here is the complete non-performance of Andrew Little. When you delve behind the headline numbers, it's easy to understand why. Over that six month period Andrew Little posted just 156 times, versus 342 for Bill English, 423 for the Labour Party, 262 for the National Party, 350 for the Greens, and 195 for Winston Peters.

It's clear that Labour is putting all their effort into promoting Brand Labour rather than Brand Little. In my mind that approach works when you're the Green Party, when you know that you're not going to supply a Prime Minister, so instead the focus is less on the leader and more on the collective whole. But when you're one of the two main parties, the approach makes next to no sense. On a fundamental level, the Party Vote component of MMP is the closest New Zealand gets to a Presidential style election, where I believe that vote is driven by how much someone likes a Party leader, with the exception of the Greens who have always had a much stronger party brand than individual brand.

Herein lies Labour's problem come 23 September. They simply haven't invested the time, effort, or money into developing Andrew Little's online profile, so they're going into the campaign with one arm very firmly tied behind their back.

Labour's approach was also betrayed in a recent Fairfax story on political social media:

A spokesman for Andrew Little said the party was "very active on twitter, facebook and instagram" as effective platforms "to connect to people of all ages".

"We're really excited by the possibilities that social media offers to help us explain Labour's story to voters.

"We're very happy with the engagement we get from people, but we're continually looking at creative ways to improve the way we communicate to voters and we expect to roll out some innovative approaches in this regard during the election campaign."

What that quote says to me is that they're placing the Labour Party before Andrew Little in their social strategy, and in a campaign where Andrew Little and Bill English are going to be pitted head-to-head on a regular basis, it seems like an odd strategy given the nature of modern campaigns.

Of course, having a large Facebook following isn't ever going to win you the election, but it makes it much easier to get your message out to a much larger audience. Page likes have an element of being a bit of a vanity metric, in that it's nice to have a larger Facebook page than your rivals, but the real benefit is that it enables you to reach more people without spending on ads.

Where that matters in an election campaign is that you can guarantee a relatively large audience will see your daily out and about posts, and instead focus all your paid advertising on the tailored messaging you need to reach specific target audiences.

All of this also begs the question of what position would Labour be in if Jacinda Ardern was the leader. She's more active on Facebook, has a larger number of page likes, and while she hasn't grown that presence as much as Andrew Little over the past six months, she doesn't have control of Labour's Leader's office budget. Yet...