Steven Joyce has announced his departure from parliament. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Steven Joyce: the art of winning elections

Following his failed bid for the National Party leadership, Steven Joyce has announced his retirement from politics after almost nine years as an MP. He served as finance minister under Bill English but probably his most critical role was as the party’s chief strategist and longstanding campaign manager. In this revealing contribution to the Victoria University Press collection Moments of Truth: The New Zealand General Election of 2014, he details the way John Key’s team overcame the Dirty Politics scandal, the ‘devil beast’ attacks and the disruptions of Kim Dotcom to return to power

The 2014 election campaign was my fourth political campaign and my fourth as chair of the National Party campaign operation. During this period the National Party has probably had its most settled campaign team since the 1970s. We have different individuals coming into and out of the team at each election but we have been lucky enough to have consistent organisational ‘scaffolding’ in place for each campaign. As a result we have a reasonably well-oiled organisational plan, which saves a lot of time when preparing for a campaign.

Even so, the team spends months preparing for the last six weeks or so prior to the election. We spend time developing, tuning and refining campaign messages. We spend time on volunteer training and diary planning and so on. A particular focus this election was in lifting our ‘get out the vote’ capability, as we knew we’d need a strong performance in that area of the campaign to keep our party vote as high as possible.

In my experience it is only when you have a strong clear plan that you have the clarity and flexibility to move from that as required. That may sound a little counter-intuitive but when your blueprint is clear, it is easy to then adjust it when the heat goes on, and the heat always does go on during a campaign.

It is also important not to confuse a settled organisational plan with a settled political environment. Every election is different and fought on different grounds and on different issues. Across the party we regularly remind ourselves of the need to look to the future and not fight the last war. They are all different. And so it proved again in 2014.

Campaign strategy

The strategy for our campaigns is driven firstly by our assessment of where the voting public is at in regard to the electoral cycle, and their view of the state of New Zealand politics. Our analysis is informed primarily by our research and the direct feedback we receive from voters and party members It is interesting exactly how often those three sources are in sync.

Our strategy is never set at a point in time, but continues to evolve in response to events. In this election it was centred on three things. The first was that the New Zealand economy was strengthening in a way that was quite unique in its recent history, and in a way that compared well with other developed countries across the OECD. People generally wanted that trend to continue, and wanted to see us continue with the same plan. The second point was that we had a record as a competent government that was managing issues well, and that appeared to be acknowledged by voters. And thirdly, we had a strong plan for the future.

One area of divergence between the views of some of our party faithful and the voting public was how much we should focus on what New Zealand had achieved over the past six years. There is an understandable desire amongst insiders to remind people how far the country had come in the party’s period of government. And indeed that is a useful context for an election campaign. However, voters more generally are not interested so much in the road the country has already travelled and what you as a government have achieved. They are more interested in what you plan to achieve next. And that is where laying out the plan for the future is very important.

Of course, as always in any election campaign, no strategy is laid out in isolation. Each election is a story of competing visions and competing policy directions, and the contrast between them. The contrast in 2014 was stark. What was proposed by the opposition parties was a quite radical shift in economic direction. These included fundamental changes to monetary policy, significant plans for government to move into sectors of the economy which it had previously not been involved in, such as house building, and significant moves away from orthodox economic policy. They also proposed quite big increases in government spending, not perhaps as big as in 2005 or 2008, but big in the context of where New Zealand and the world are at today. They also proposed significant changes in tax policy. We were not unhappy with this contrast in approach, because we did not believe the public would see the need for a big change in direction just as the New Zealand economy was gaining speed and doing reasonably well in the world context.

In order for the Opposition to sell their need for radical change, they had to start from a position of denying what was actually happening and what New Zealanders were actually experiencing. They had to concoct a view of the country and its prospects which was much darker than the public mood. The Opposition’s declared view was ‘oh, things are terrible, everything’s hopeless and these guys have done an appalling job’ while at the same time the public could see quite a bit of progress. Nobody was arguing that things were perfect but it was clear that as a country we had been having a much stronger period since the Global Financial Crisis than most other countries. Unfortunately for Labour and the Greens, that disconnect with the public created problems for them right through until election day.

Campaign advertising

Advertising and marketing are important components of any election campaign, and in my view they are becoming even more important as the news media gets more and more wrapped up in the ‘game’ of politics or, if you like, the description of the horse race. People looking for a reason to vote a particular way are less and less likely to find it on their newspaper website or as part of television or radio news. That is not a criticism so much as a description of what is happening, and political parties need to adapt to that reality. Parties need to set out a clear plan in their advertising and marketing, because the traditional media is no longer going to help to do it for them.

We settled on the rowing crew metaphor for summarising our plans and New Zealand’s progress quite early on in the election cycle. In fact, unusually early. I’ve been involved in campaigns where you have a number of options and settle on one quite late in the piece, but this one presented itself months ahead of the campaign launch. We wanted a symbol that showed how New Zealand was a team that was working together and really starting to get somewhere. New Zealand’s success in rowing as a sport would also assist to engender pride in what the country was starting to achieve.

And then we added the ‘Laboureens’ boat to that, to symbolise the confusion and loss of momentum that would ensue if there was a change of government. The ‘Laboureens’ boat was a two-ended boat with people dressed in green and red on it, arguing with each other. At least that is how it was when the ads were filmed. Then Kim Dotcom came along with the Internet Mana Party, so we thought in order to be authentic we had to get them in the boat as well. However, we did not have the time or money to record the ads again, so a very patient colour key person coloured in one of the people on the boat as wearing purple.

The ‘Laboureens’ boat ended up being used in our advertising much more than we intended, as the Opposition campaign steadily appeared more and more like that boat. There was the debate about the Greens wanting Labour’s fiscal numbers checked, there was no coordination on policy announcements, there was no agreement on key portfolios, and no consistent answer from Labour about whether they could work with Kim Dotcom or not. It truly became a case of life imitating art. The ‘Laboureens’ boat and the ‘Laboureens’ campaign became steadily more in sync, so we steadily lifted its weight in the campaign.

Other key elements of our campaign advertising were the ‘Working for New Zealand’ caption and the use of Prime Minister John Key front and centre once again. I have stopped being surprised at the number of pundits that are critical about the regular use of John Key as the face of the national campaign. They studiously ignore that in the modern age, a time-poor public puts more and more emphasis on the leader of each team. Modern political campaigns simply reflect that reality. Our prime minister is a great asset for our campaign. The only recent campaigns I have seen anywhere that didn’t place emphasis on the team leader were the New Zealand Labour Party campaigns of 2011 and 2014.

Once again we adopted a consistent brand style and approach across all media. This is more important than ever in a fragmented media environment. We have also stepped up our engagement in social media, which can be a superb tool for laying out policy information and campaign information for different people seeking different levels of engagement. However, it does also demand a higher level of discipline from every member of the team. For the first time we aggregated our social media into one hub or channel. That channel harvested Facebook, policy announcements, Twitter feeds and so on, and people could download an app which brought the campaign to them in real time. The app was helpful for both partisans and people who have a high level of curiosity and wanted to make a more informed decision.

So far so good, and then of course the election campaign ended up being about a whole lot of other things besides what we had planned.

Dirty politics

One of them was the book from Mr Nicky Hager: Dirty Politics. I do not think there is any doubt that Mr Hager’s book was designed to influence the outcome of the election. In my view it suffered from what I would call Mr Hager’s Achilles heel, which is that the material he obtains comes always from nefarious sources, and is never checked for accuracy or context. That modus operandi creates at least two ironies in the publishing of this particular book that Mr Hager seems determined to be oblivious to.

The first irony was him writing a book called Dirty Politics, which was horrified about what he calls ‘dirty politics’ but was in fact based on material gained by what can only be called ‘dirty politics’. The second irony was his approach of selectively using information to make his case, and not checking with the people who are the subject of the information, so they are not given the opportunity to present their perspective or fill out the facts. He instead put a very negative spin on the information and published it. That sounds like ‘dirty politics’ to me.

However, Mr Hager seems completely unable to see that he is as guilty of the so-called dark arts of politics as the people he sought to accuse. The net result was a highly partisan book that simply served to reinforce a lot of people’s impressions of Mr Hager. Either they believe him or they do not believe him. He is either a saint for the left-wing cause or an out and out conspiracy theorist. Either way he certainly is not an investigative journalist. Whatever your perspective on the book, there was no doubt from the moment it was released that it was going to be the sort of thing the media loved, and would take up a lot of air time in the election campaign.

In terms of handling these sorts of issues when they are thrown at you in the middle of a campaign, it is ultimately about how you respond. Initially I stepped up, as campaign chair, on behalf of the campaign. Our first job was to put the book and its author into context. And then the approach had to be to answer all the questions on the book in the coming weeks. We had to accept that Mr Hager’s book was going to have quite an influence on the media agenda and not get frustrated and upset about it cutting across the real issues of the election. The Prime Minister was just going to answer the questions and then as much as possible focus on the election campaign.

Interestingly, the feedback we had suggested that approach did come across for most New Zealanders. Our research showed many people were impressed with how focused the Prime Minister had remained on the election campaign despite what was a pretty aggressive attack. For many people that reinforced their positive views of him.

The politics of personal attack

Which brings me to this whole concept of personal attacks, and how little they generally work.

The left-wing parties continually run what I will paraphrase as the ‘John Key is a devil beast’ campaigns. This goes along the lines that ‘the John Key you know is not John Key at all, there’s some sort of secret nasty John Key who comes out of a crypt each night and does awful things to New Zealand while you’re not watching’. The trouble with that approach is that the public have got to know the Prime Minister over the past eight years: two years in opposition and six years as prime minister. He is on their television most nights and on the radio and in print all the time. They know him better than any other public figure. And they believe that on the whole he is a pretty good guy making good decisions for their country. The evidence, as against the hype, is good. Not perfect, but good.

And yet the ‘devil beast’ approach has dominated Opposition strategies against John Key for three elections now. And each time the public has received that information from the Opposition, processed it, and still voted for him and the National Party. In 2008 they voted for him. In 2011 they were told that they were wrong and that they shouldn’t have voted for him, and they voted for him again. Then in the lead-up to the 2014 election they were told ‘no, no, you are still wrong, you shouldn’t have voted for him in 2008, you shouldn’t have voted for him in 2011, you’d be mad to vote for him in 2014’.

Political attacks are of course legitimate. Anybody can do what they like. But surely there is a point where you would start to say to yourself, ‘we are trying to sell the public the concept that they have made a grave misjudgement on someone, not once, not twice, but three times’. And every time the tools and techniques are more colourful, the lines used are more exotic, more of the campaign is devoted to the strategy. And every time it has failed because the public have the temerity to make their own decisions.

I cannot think who the master political strategist was who thought of that approach in 2014 but that is for others to be concerned about. The good news is the approach seems to be continuing, so I say I am keen to see more of it and if the Left want to continue down that path until 2017, they should knock themselves out.

Support partners

One of the major challenges for us, and for any major party under MMP, is the whole issue of identifying support partners and campaigning on the subject of support partners. It is a fraught process because you are trying your best to say that your supporters should vote for you, but then on the other hand say that you can work with others, so it is okay to vote for them.

That can get to be quite an interesting and confusing message.

The Prime Minister and our leadership team had a number of discussions towards the end of 2013 and early in 2014 about how to handle this issue in the 2014 election. It was decided that we would make it clear at the start of the year which parties we could work with, and then by the end of July we would announce in which electorates we would encourage our supporters to vote for another party’s candidate. Part of the plan was to deal with the issue early so it did not take up too much of the campaign oxygen, and voters would be clear about who we could work with so they could park that and start assessing who they wanted to vote for. We successfully executed our plan and maintained the same position all the way to election day. However, there was no way of knowing ahead of time whether it would be a successful approach. That would depend on how big a vote we looked like getting and, of course, the size of the vote we actually received.

Both of the major parties, National and Labour, prefer to have more than one option of partner or partners to obtain a majority in Parliament following an election. If you have only one option to be your support partner then that party has a lot of leverage, and the big party is going to end up looking a lot like the smaller party in terms of the decisions it makes. That often frustrates the public (‘we voted for the big partner not the small partner’). It is a particularly likely outcome for third-term governments and can lead to fraying stability and a greater appetite for change at the next election.

As well as working out who we could work with we also needed to set a party vote target which signalled internally and externally what we needed to achieve. We knew of course that our most reliable support partners were likely to have quite small numbers in Parliament. We realised that we actually had to target 47 per cent of the vote, which if we could achieve it would be a phenomenal result – equalling what we achieved in 2011, which was in itself the highest vote in New Zealand MMP elections ever.

So that was our challenge, and we were constantly measuring ourselves against it as we moved through the campaign. The scary part was that quite regularly the polls were showing that we weren’t going to make 47 per cent. The same polls showed that the only smaller party on the centre right that would have sufficient numbers to get us over the line was New Zealand First.

Given the notorious pre-election unreliability of New Zealand First and their historic tendency to damage third-term governments, pressure was bound to come on to find other partners, to ensure we did have a choice if our numbers turned out to be insufficient to take us to 51 per cent with the help of our traditional small partners, ACT, United Future and the Māori Party. ‘Other partners’ could only really mean dealing with Colin Craig and the Conservatives. And the difficulty with that option was that any late-stage signal to support the Conservative Party would mean some of our voters would shift their vote to the Conservatives to ‘help’, while others might move to New Zealand First or even Labour to help in a different way because they didn’t like the idea of National forming a coalition with the Conservatives.

In short, we would be giving a license to some of our loyal supporters to use their vote to go and design a coalition. And many were looking for that license. We were getting regular feedback from our own supporters, saying ‘oh maybe we could help you by doing this’, or ‘how can we vote strategically’ and of course that would have been very risky. There was potential for any signal to lead to a breaking of the dam, with our party vote support dropping four or five points overnight.

Helen Clark was confronted with a similar quandary back in 2002 and she gave the nod to voters to support their preferred partner for Labour. That sent a whole lot of voters off in all directions, and while National’s vote collapsed, Labour also lost votes through the campaign and finished in a weaker position than when they started. We could not afford a similar outcome in 2014, and in our view, neither could the country. So there was no additional nod to the Conservatives or anyone else. We would stay staunch on securing the maximum party vote for National in order to provide strong and stable government, and go flat out to achieve the necessary 47 per cent. As a result, our final week vote message was much stronger and more direct than it had been in any previous campaign. We spelt out that any vote for a small party would likely lead to political instability, and that only a vote for National would ensure the continuation of strong and stable government. The only problem was that at the beginning of the last week, our public and private polling numbers were indicating more like a 44 per cent result than a 47 per cent one.

The moment of strewth

So we come to the last week, and the ‘Moment of Truth’, where the ‘great and the good’ got together at the Auckland Town Hall on the Monday night to tell New Zealanders what was ‘really happening’. We were of course concerned about the impact it might have. Despite Dirty Politics not achieving what its protagonists had sought in terms of influence over the campaign, it had provided a wearing effect on our poll numbers as the weeks went by. Voters were understandably frustrated that so much airtime was being given to ‘the game’ of politics rather than issues important to them, and they were frustrated we could not ‘get above it’. We were too. We knew if we had the opportunity to campaign on issues like the economy and public services we would be able to lift our numbers, but that opportunity rarely arose outside the paid advertising.

The whole idea of the ‘Moment of Truth’ was fascinating. I was in Hawke’s Bay and watched a bit of it at my hotel. However, I had not been watching for long when it dawned on me that this was going to go down badly with the New Zealand public. What we had on screen was a group of people, mostly from overseas, brought in and beamed in to tell New Zealanders how they should vote in just five days’ time. They were there to reveal to New Zealanders they had apparently been duped by the governing party, and they needed to remove the scales from their eyes if they knew what was good for them. It had overtones of the dumb locals being lectured by international types who knew best. And the ringmaster was a German immigrant trying to avoid extradition, supported by a group of obvious left-wingers who had signed on because they could not win an election any other way.

And if you are still reading this and thinking what is wrong with that, can we consider an alternative scenario? Imagine if a couple of centre-right think tanks had turned up in New Zealand four or five days before an election, held a televised public meeting and said ‘if you know what’s good for you, you will vote National’. How would that go down? Very badly, and rightly so.

The ‘Moment of Truth’ was the straw that broke the camel’s back for dirty politics. All the weeks of frustration about what had been a soap opera of a campaign boiled over and a whole lot of New Zealanders suddenly decided they had had enough and they wanted their election campaign back. It was like they had been mostly happy with the country’s direction, had suddenly found themselves in this whirlwind of an election campaign which was about a lot of stuff they didn’t care much about, and then they were pushed too far and decided that they wanted it to stop, and to resume normal business. Overnight the mood for National became a lot stronger.

And over the next few days, we picked up the mood change, as the Prime Minister said at the time, very strongly. Our voters were energised and determined to vote. I have never seen in four elections such a strong attitude.

Still, it was late, and too late to pick up much of a shift in the polls. We were trying to get as close to 47 per cent as possible, and the polling still suggested we were going to get more like 44 to 44.5, and we tend to end up one or two points below what the numbers say. Running counter to that was this very strong groundswell of people telling our candidates and volunteers that they were going to vote and how they intended to vote for us. It felt really good. So the question for a worried campaign chair at that stage becomes, how much am I kidding myself? I’m meeting all these people, many of them National partisans who are excited to win, and yet the polls say it’s not going to be enough.

On the night the Prime Minister mentioned that I had been more nervous than usual on election day and that was indeed true. However, when I walked in the door of our election night party and the first numbers were up on the screen at 49 per cent, I knew that although the numbers would come back a bit from there, we were probably going to do okay.

Looking back

Every election has a period of ‘coming down’ afterwards for the members of a campaign team, from the frenetic activity of the previous few weeks, where you wonder how much of what you experienced in the campaign really happened. This one was no exception.

However, I think in 2014 the sense of waking from a dream was true for many New Zealanders. The general sense prior to the election campaign was that New Zealand was doing better and going along okay, and then suddenly this election campaign happened which was a frenetic eight-week campaign of some pretty weird stuff that bore no relation to what had come before. My barber described it best to me when I dropped in a few weeks after the election. Her opening line was something like ‘Gosh, what a fantastic election campaign.’ I said ‘What? Why?’ ‘Oh it was the most amazing soap opera. Every day was different, it was so entertaining. I nearly voted Kim Dotcom just to keep it going.’

Entertaining or not, at the end of the campaign the question many people were asking was how do I vote for stability? How do I vote for a continuation of what we had before? The job of our campaign team was to help them make that decision. And on that score, it was a success.

Like all campaigns, the 2014 election campaign was entirely different to how we anticipated it playing out. I have never yet been the one at the end saying ‘yeah that’s pretty much how we expected it’. They just don’t happen that way. But they are amazing and exciting to be involved in and it is always a privilege to have the opportunity to participate in the democratic process.

The 2014 election also highlighted what I believe is the biggest current change in the New Zealand election landscape – the move to wholesale advance voting. In 2014, more than 700,000 voters cast their vote in the two weeks prior to election day, which was more than double that at the previous election. This illustrates a massive shift that political parties, the Electoral Commission and Parliament are still coming to grips with. Advance voting has impacts on things like the timing of advertising, policy announcements, and the relevance of election day rules around election activity. It is likely that the number of people who vote early will keep growing, and parties will need to think much more about what the phenomenon means for traditional campaigning.

I want to place on record my appreciation to all our party members and our MPs for their hard work and strong discipline in the 2014 campaign. Once again we had the absolute minimum of self-generated distractions. It is that hard work and discipline which provides the platform on which a campaign can operate. I particularly want to acknowledge Jo de Joux, who managed our campaign operations for the fourth time, Greg Hamilton, who looks after the National Party machinery, and our President Peter Goodfellow, along with everyone who works for them. Given my other responsibilities, my role has tended to become more one of simply conducting the orchestra. That orchestra performed well in 2014.

Reprinted from Moments of Truth: The New Zealand General Election of 2014, edited by Jon Johansson and Stephen Levine, with permission. The VUP roundup of the 2017 election, Stardust and Substance, is out in September

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