Frames, Narratives, and the John Key Government: Election Strategy Ideas from Australia and the UK

In thinking about the fortunes of the Opposition in New Zealand, it’s interesting to ask why support for the Liberal-led Government in Australia has dipped six months after the election. Sure, the poll changes haven’t been massive. But there has been a noticeable return in support for Labor and a drop in the popularity of the Abbott-led Liberal Party, during what is usually a Government’s honeymoon period.

I think the answer is to do with the framing of the Abbott Government. There have been some obvious policy clangers and ill-judged moves (for instance, Abbott’s axing of three public service department heads soon after coming into Government, and his reinstatement of knights and dames). But the Opposition in Australia has also managed to put together a narrative about a Government that’s over-reached. The media has latched on to this perception, creating a groundswell of anger at the Government’s actions.

It’s a story specific to Australia, a new Government, and a Prime Minister who seems in many ways old-fashioned. But there are lessons for the New Zealand Opposition in this. One is that as well as putting together an alternative, constructive vision, the Opposition (which I see as Labour, the Greens, Mana, and NZ First) needs to tell a convincing, pithy story about the failings of the Government. On top of policy criticism (for example, claims that this Government hasn’t been as fiscally responsible as it’s claimed to be), the Opposition needs a well-packaged account of why the Government’s going in the wrong direction. And it needs to be convincing enough for the media and the public.

So what frames have the Opposition tried already?

  1. The ‘no plan’ frame: former Labour leaders Phil Goff and David Shearer liked to use this, claiming that the Government was muddling through and had no long-term vision for the New Zealand economy. We’ve heard less of the line from Cunliffe.
  2. The ‘crony government’ frame: Goff and Shearer used this (with Goff using the nice angle that government should be for “the many, not the few”), and Cunliffe has continued the story.

So why haven’t these stuck? The ‘no plan’ frame is attractive: New Zealand does need a bolder vision. But it seems – from my limited vantage point, trying to follow developments from the UK in the last 18 months – that the Key Government may have provided just enough vision for New Zealanders. Key has drip-fed the vision (by periodically announcing slightly more statesperson-like policy ideas, such as proposing a referendum on the flag), and has also conveyed the impression that he and Deputy Prime Minister Bill English do have a plan for managing the economy. That story resonates with New Zealanders, and will likely chime with the positive budget the National-led Government announces in May.

As for the ‘crony government’ frame, scraps of information – around Oravida and SkyCity – have started to stick, and the story has gained some prominence. But the evidence needs to be compelling, given that most people perceive New Zealand to be transparent, and given that New Zealand does well in global corruption measures. So it’s a promising approach, but not one that appears like it’s going to win over the public on current information.

What other strategic opposition frames could be used? I think there are four:

  1. The ‘incompetence’ frame: the story that the government doesn’t really know what it’s doing. There are echoes of this in the Green Party-led criticisms of Simon Bridges’ botched dealing with the opening up of Victoria Forest Park for oil and gas exploration and the message has been strong in Opposition attacks on Hekia Parata’s management of the Education portfolio. But this, also, will need more evidence if it’s a frame that the public is going to be drawn to.
  2. The ‘out-of-touch’ frame, which Key used quite effectively against Helen Clark’s third-term Labour government. So far, the Opposition in New Zealand hasn’t tried this much (bar a few comments by Grant Robertson), and there haven’t been many examples of truly ‘out-of-touch’ policies, though it might be a claim that starts to resonate, as the Government gets comfortable in its sixth year at the helm.
  3. The ‘over-reaching’ frame, used in Australia against Abbott. The reason this frame doesn’t have an easy hook in New Zealand is that Key and his Government have been quite astute in moving incrementally and moderating in response to public feedback, on issues like mining in national parks.
  4. The ‘internal division’ frame – the line that the government is falling apart. There has been some evidence of this – the departure of Peter Dunne as Minister, the resignation of John Banks as Minister – but the Opposition does not seem to have targeted this weakness, perhaps because the evidence points to ineffective coalition partners rather than an unstable government. It may be that more focus on this frame could be effective, especially as the Government begins to scare-monger about how the Opposition will be a government of multiple parties.

All this suggests two things.

First, the Opposition needs to do more thinking and work on frames. It needs more digging into stories that will make these accounts real for people; more disciplined, repeated use of frames in speeches and media coverage; more combining of them in an appealing way.

Secondly, given that some of these frames may not work for this election and this Government, there will have to be more creative thinking about new approaches to criticizing the Government.

One option is telling a story about how “we can be so much more” – a story not so much about the failings of the Government, but about missed opportunities and potential as a country that is not being realised. Another way to express this might be: “New Zealanders deserve better”; a line that chimes with New Zealanders’ sense of fairness and desert. The Labour Opposition in the United Kingdom, where I am currently living, has been invoking a variation on this theme, in saying repeatedly “Britain can do better than this”. It’s a positive story that could mesh with constructive policy proposals in Opposition.

This focus on frames and communication does not, of course, mean that policy debates are irrelevant. Inequality is likely to be a crucial issue in this year’s election, as many commentators have noted: in particular, the Opposition could underscore inaction on long-term inequality trends. The Opposition will have to think strategically about how to frame inequality in a relatable way – perhaps as a growing distance between New Zealanders. Economic management will also, predictably, be central to the campaign, and the National Government is already trying to focus on what it sees as the shortcomings of the previous Labour Government’s economic management, highlighting high interest rates and house prices under Helen Clark. The Opposition will have to be strategic here, too – focusing on the fact that only 1 out of 6 budgets will have been surpluses under this Government, and focusing on areas that should be of ongoing concern, such as Maori and Pacific unemployment.

But the important point is that, beyond the policy detail, frames matter. And if the Opposition can think hard about effective messaging along with thoughtful policy, they may well be in with a fighting chance come September.

(Thanks to Lewis Mills and Andrew Dean for conversations that prompted this post, and comments on it.)

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2 Responses to Frames, Narratives, and the John Key Government: Election Strategy Ideas from Australia and the UK

  1. rikkym says:

    Brilliant post, really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for writing and sharing!

  2. mxharris says:

    Thanks for reading, Rikky!

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