The campaign role of the big idea

Next month Don Brash is due to launch the third of his king hits, on welfare. Two more are to follow, on education and the economy. By the end he will have a sort of “credit card” of five slogans National will take to the 2005 election.

This is in the tradition of modern election campaigning: embed in the minds of winnable voters a few simple big ideas which trigger an emotional or sentimental response. Labour did it in 1999.

Government, of course, is not slogans. Government requires complex responses to events and problems. To see what goes wrong when slogans rule, look at the trouble George Bush has got himself into round the world — and probably, to come, in the United States economy.

Slogans also are not Brash. Before he entered politics Brash was a thoughtful economist turned central banker at ease with complexity and subtlety.

And, as you would expect, there has actually been more to his two “big-idea” speeches than the big ideas. The law and order speech in July talked a lot about fixing up dysfunctional families, giving first-time offenders a second chance and increasing help to prisoners to readjust to life outside near the end of their sentence, for example, The Orewa speech on the Treaty of Waitangi in January said past injustices must be redressed, spiritual beliefs respected, social deprivation addressed and alternative schools and health agencies allowed on grounds of choice.

But the Orewa speech was intended to convey to voters — and seems to have succeeded spectacularly — the big idea that special treatment, and particularly special funding, for Maori based on race was wrong and would end. And the public was intended to from the law and order speech a simple message: abolish parole. Actually, the speech said “parole as we know it” and allowed that it would still be available to some first-time and low-level convicts. But the press release was blunter and the message most voters will have got is the abolition of parole fullstop.

So what does the outline look like? National will do something to end the disturbance Maori have caused with their demands over the past 30 years. And it will do something that stops criminal killing, child beating and drugs.

What exactly those “somethings” will be is not important in this sort of campaigning, as New Zealand First has demonstrated, most notably in its 2002 campaign with its three unachievable pledges on immigration, race and crime. The public fear or anger on which big-idea campaigning works is generated by insecurities, cultural and personal. The slogans promise security.

Two down from Brash; three to go.

The easy and obvious big idea in welfare is time limits on benefits: make beneficiaries work. In education it is to instil the 3 Rs. In the economy it is “tax cuts for hardworking New Zealanders”.

All three would look strong on a credit card and hoardings. But they are not an accurate guide to what a National-led government would do.

Set aside the adjustments needed to accommodate coalition partners or supporters. National itself would make allowances and exceptions. For example, Maori Television is obvious special treatment but is excused because it promotes Maori language. Maori customary rights to the foreshore and seabed would be protected. The parole slogan belies the many qualifications in the law and order policy.

Labour’s response will be to wait until Brash’s first flush fades and then pick holes and point out inconsistencies, trumpet what it is doing itself and thereby (it hopes) dampen the fire in the slogans.

But that is not the real point. Add up the big ideas and you get an even bigger one: that Labour is too PC — too deferential to Maori, too eager to legislate for prostitutes and homosexuals, too easygoing on beneficiaries, too ready to make excuses for criminals.

This works in two main ways. It cements bonds between conservatives and the National party and so solidifies base support, which has been soft for some time. And it pitches to what used to be Labour’s core vote, “working people” in the suburbs, especially those who are socially conservative.

Can Labour get off that hook? It wants the foreshore/seabed and civil union bills passed by Christmas so it has its hands free to re-pitch to the suburbs on other fronts such as health care, education and tax rebates in the hand.

It might be too late by then. If so, National’s slogans will work a treat.