If Bill’s passion plus experience were both on show he could rise above Jacinda quite easily. However, our Prime Minister is suffering from a case of literal tunnel vision, writes the University of Auckland’s Jennifer Lees-Marshment 

Political marketing research consistently shows that parties lose touch in government. Despite constant market research analysis, teams of professional advisors and more resources than ever, politicians at the top of the tree lose their ability to show they still understand and care about ordinary voters.

We saw this clearly in the TV3 debate.

Bill English lacked vision, announced a poverty target that copied Labour’s positions (suggesting a lack of leadership) and, when asked what would get him to march on the streets, he said it would be for the right to govern. As Paddy Gower rightly said ‘So you’d march for yourself?!’ And he couldn’t even look at Jacinda Ardern.

Now we’ve been seeing the decline of responsiveness within National for a while. The denial of the housing crisis, ignorance of traffic and other infrastructure issues, and a general lack of empathy for people doing it tough. National’s ministers are competent and experienced, but like governments before them, they have started to sound out of touch. They spiel off numbers, boast about their record and launch more statistic-laden promises of future spending plans as if they were kindly bestowing their hard-earned money on us, when they are, in fact, spending the public’s money. Launching a review of Labour’s fiscal plans as they did this week, as if they are the independent experts who should get to exercise final judgment, just further reinforces a sense of elitism and entitlement.

That they let this happen is, of itself, indicative of an inward-focused, tunnel vision. Bill English is an incredibly experienced and highly expert political leader. More importantly, when he is allowed or lets himself, he shows great passion about ensuring all children have the opportunity to succeed – a position conceptually embodied by his social investment approach. Buried in an otherwise ineffective speech at National’s campaign launch, he spoke passionately about the need for governments to care about every child, not just the easy ones; and how children at low decile schools feel burdened by a perception they cannot succeed because of a ranking. There was a genuine sense of desire to take action in this area, on the grounds it is both morally right and economically beneficial to do so.

Failing to engage with your opposition comes across as arrogant and patronising. Does he think if he doesn’t look at her she will go away?

But we have rarely been allowed to see this passion and there has been little discussion of the social investment approach since Bill took over as leader. I don’t know if National’s advisors consciously decided to hide his genuine commitment and ignore social investment, but if they did it was a mistake. Whatever their market research is telling them, they have misinterpreted it. Political marketing is an art not just a science so it relies on those designing the strategy to remain in touch. However, political marketing research has shown that advisors also become part of the government bubble over time and lose touch. Failing to focus on Bill’s core strengths is a silly error. If Bill’s passion plus experience were both on show he could rise above Jacinda quite easily.

Instead, we have been treated to his tunnel vision. Literally. During both debates so far he has failed to look at Jacinda Ardern. He has stared steadfastly ahead most of the time and spoken about her as if she was not there. Even when he criticised Jacinda’s refusal to raise the age of entitlement for pensions he said “isn’t that letting down her generation” instead of “your generation”.

Attacking Labour’s pension policy is perfectly legitimate, but why not look at and speak to her when saying that? Time and time again I saw Jacinda looking at and speaking to him, but he never looked at her at all. Failing to engage with your opposition comes across as arrogant and patronising. Does he think if he doesn’t look at her she will go away?

Added to this was the general suggestion that everything was fine and good because he said it was fine and good. But like Helen Clark in 2008, you can’t just tell people you are right; you can’t just shout out lots of numbers and assume everyone will be convinced.

National is praising Bill for being a rock. At the end of one ad, he is pictured in the Waterview tunnel. By himself. Smiling or even laughing. As one of my graduate students said: “Is the rock in the tunnel?!” This would symbolise blocking progress, rather than letting it flow. I understand rocks are hard, but they can also be unmovable. Solid, but a block to progress. Pragmatic perhaps, but inflexible. National would be better off getting out of the tunnel and showing their vision instead of asking for another three years to address Labour’s poverty targets.

Associate Professor Jennifer Lees-Marshment specialises in political marketing and management at the University of Auckland. She is the author of 'Political Management: The Dance of Government and Politics'.

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