Most of the media attention on the New Zealand election has been on new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and supposed Jacindamania. This attention has been by both fans and critics of her policy agenda. It would appear that New Zealanders are voting for whether they like Jacinda or not.
But there are two main candidates in this election, the other is the current National Party Prime Minister Bill English. He’s been in the top job for less than a year after the sudden resignation of John Key. Key was one of New Zealand’s most successful and charismatic leaders and any candidate who took over was going to have big shoes to fill.
Bill English had been the Finance Minister for 8 years under John Key and had overseen the recovery of the New Zealand economy and the budget return to surplus after the Global Financial Crisis. He was seen as the most experienced and capable candidate which is why he convincingly won the subsequent leadership ballot after Key’s resignation.
English had been National Party leader once before while they were Opposition. He was leader from 2001 to 2003 and led the National Party to its worst ever defeat at the 2002 general election against Labour’s Helen Clark. Despite this he remained in Parliament and now a decade later he now holds job he had always coveted.
However he is now in the battle of his political life. The election looked like it would be another landslide National victory against a Labour Party that had been in disarray for nine years. Andrew Little was a dull and uninspiring leader, but then only two months from election day Labour brought in Ardern and the game changed.
Now that he was pitted against Ardern English was viewed as boring, lacking warmth and engagement. Even though he and his government had a strong record of responsible economic management personality still matters to the voters, despite the obvious hollowness of her policies Ardern came across has having vision and a desire to tackle the many social problems New Zealand has.
The National Party campaign HQ were aware of this and decided to do a political version of extreme makeover. They made sure plenty of lighter pieces appeared in the media to allow the voters to get to know English on a more personal level. He played mini-golf on TVNZ1, even his wife Mary wrote an op-ed piece talking about his warm and caring personality.
The Nationals have started the twitter hashtag #BackingBill as a means to spread their agenda throughout social media to reach more people in the digital age, as well as build up English’s personal brand. The Young Nats have also played their part with their cheeky engagement in the election meme war exposing all the holes in Labour’s policies.
Bill English has also tried to raise his own energy levels. He tries to be as enthusiastic as he can in his campaign advertisements and public events. He has done a serious of live Facebook videos to attempt to communicate more intimately with the public. He has also made sure to be feisty in the leader’s debate, not afraid to press Ardern about how she aims to deliver on her bold commitments.
Bill English is also doing his best to address the social problems that people are raising. He appears to agree with the voters that now the economic work has been done we can move to other challenges, therefore he has announced extra funding for health, welfare and infrastructure which is highly unusual platform for a centre-right party. Although he is stressing that these can only be funded by a responsible lean government, not one that promises to introduce a whole lot of new taxes.
Probably his biggest failing in the campaign is National’s lack of comprehensive policy on housing affordability and defending the high levels of immigration to the nation. These areas of policy are something that Labour has been able to accuse National of being inactive on in their nine years of government.
So why back Bill? Although New Zealand has its problems, the National Government over the past nine years has delivered a stable economy which can take on the challenges going forward. Although Jacinda Ardern’s rhetoric and promises sound attractive, Labour governments cannot be trusted to be responsible.
Bill has had to engage the politics of superficiality to communicate this message, but if you want your message heard you need to be engaging. If Bill is able to hang on Saturday night it will be this reboot of his personal brand that will have delivered it.