This is shaping up as a very unusual election indeed.
Elections are usually the opportunity to debate the future direction of the country and where alternative governments might lead it. This election, at least based on the evidence of the phony-campaign to date, seems to be an almost policy-free zone. What policies have been announced have been either a reiteration of what has been released already, or so bold and grandiose to defy the reality of being implementable, leaving the suspicion that their real purpose has been as a rallying call to shore up the wavering party faithful.
The lure of the dog-whistle seems to have been more important – the use of selective comment to persuade voters that a particular party is on their side. That is why New Zealand First is playing the race card so blatantly. In the just ended Parliament one or two of its MPs frequently looked and sounded like misplaced members of the Ku Klux Klan, and now that appeal to the extreme red-neck portion of the electorate has been legitimised through the racist overtones of the party’s campaign launch last weekend. And the Conservatives, long suspected to be really “hang ‘em and birch ‘em” proponents on law and order have reinforced that sentiment by the recruitment of Sensible Sentencing’s leader as a candidate.
In their own ways, the two main parties are also blowing the dog-whistle. National’s emphasis on protecting the fledgling Budget surplus is as much about sending signals of its reliability and credibility as an economic manager, as it is about enhancing the reputation of the Minister of Finance. Labour’s apparent willingness to appear looser with the purse strings serves the dual purpose of sending the signal it is more warm and caring, but not as fiscally irresponsible as the Greens, who, if they do well enough, will be tapping on Labour’s shoulder for the role of lead party of the left.
While this is all good fun, especially for the salivating commentariat who love to analyse and re-analyse such signs to the point of extinction, it is not doing much to inform voters of what the parties really stand for, or what new ideas they might be ready to spring upon an unsuspecting electorate a little way down the track.
In previous elections the party manifesto has fulfilled this role. In 1987, there was shock and horror when Labour did not release its manifesto to the public until a week after it had been safely re-elected. Nowadays, the same shock and horror seems reserved for the suggestion that a party might actually have a detailed manifesto at all!
For its part, UnitedFuture has never been too worried about the political norm. A few years ago, we campaigned on the central role of families, at a time when all our advice was that to do so would be divisive, because families came in so many shapes and forms. Now, every party prides itself on being family friendly. In 2004, we argued that the foreshore and seabed was public domain that should be vested in all New Zealanders. No, that could never be, the other parties said – yet that was precisely the solution the present government adopted in 2010, to general public approval.
Well, we are about to break the mould again. Early next week we will release a detailed on-line manifesto which every voter will have access to, as they consider their voting options. Maybe, that will be another case of being first to set a new trend!