Best of all possible worlds? Stephen Levine

Promises Promises: 80 Years Of Wooing New Zealand Voters
Claire Robinson
Massey University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9780995109544

When Jacinda Ardern stated in 2017 that, if elected, Labour would move to “abolish child poverty”, this resonated as an ambitious goal, enlightened, compassionate and long overdue. It is among the many strengths of Claire Robinson’s book that we are able, with perspective (and evidence), to see that the first Labour government had accomplished this task – and more – over 70 years earlier.

Labour’s first prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage, promised in 1938 to “abolish Poverty” – a mission declared “accomplished” two general elections later (in 1946). Reflecting on its record, the Labour Party stated that it had “abolished poverty in New Zealand”, having “freed the people from want”, making “our nation and its people the happiest on earth” – a Shangri-la found, not as a lost kingdom in the Himalayas, but at an almost equally remote location, deep in the South Pacific.

The party’s 1949 message extended this vision: “Yes! The Labour Government has made New Zealand The World’s Best Place to Live in!” – a wonderful tribute to the party’s legacy and to the country which it served, though one not sufficient to keep the party in power.

It is a vision – New Zealand as “the world’s best” – that lives on, establishing a basis for judging government performance, echoed in Ardern’s 2017 pledge that a Labour government “will not rest until [we can] say that this is the best place in the world to grow up as a child”.

Describing this in many ways admirable view – New Zealand as “the world’s best” – as a perspective “deeply embedded in the national consciousness”, Robinson observes how New Zealand parties and prime ministers nevertheless set themselves up to fail, a byproduct of this excess of proud ambition. Not content merely to promise security, prosperity and domestic harmony, parties and politicians find ways to assure voters that, by casting the right ballot, outcomes will be achieved that will find their country “leading the world”, in a variety of ways, inevitably raising the bar higher than New Zealand (or any country) is liable regularly to achieve.

Promises Promises reproduces well over 500 largely forgotten images from 27 New Zealand general election campaigns, taken from flyers, posters, billboards, pamphlets, newspaper ads, party manifestos and clips from television broadcasts, offering a brilliantly illustrated political history of New Zealand electoral competition from 1938 (with Labour seeking re-election following its 1935 victory) through to 2017: the entire period of National-Labour rivalry as the country’s two main parties.

Not that the book’s imagery and analysis neglects New Zealand’s numerous smaller parties: few, if any, are overlooked. While many will recall, in some cases fondly, the McGillicuddy Serious Party – a Monty Pythonesque affair, provided with broadcast time courtesy of the country’s policy giving political parties access – the book also manages (in the spirit of inclusiveness) to find space for the Natural Law Party – the New Zealand segment of an international movement dedicated to propagating Transcendental Meditation as a means of producing more enlightened polices, from more tranquil and focused MPs – with the author, noting the party’s miniscule support from voters, speculating that having more “police on the streets was regarded as a less painful alternative for those who found it hard to strike a lotus pose”.

This book’s release coincides with the government and education authorities agreeing (somewhat belatedly) that there is a need for more exposure to New Zealand political history in the school curriculum. What this book brings to this effort is a treasure trove of campaign images, arguments and slogans, its artwork and photographs giving glimpses of the design of New Zealand politics at work – an exercise forever unfolding – providing a cultural history as much as a political or electoral one. Those with an interest in how our country’s politics have come to be as they are – how political messages have developed and evolved over the past 80 years – will find much to fascinate. And with pictures worth a thousand words, this is a volume of over 500,000 words (in images alone), organised thematically – with chapters on prosperity, the pursuit of happiness, the economy, law and order, Treaty issues, international relations (and internal security) and trustworthiness – supplemented by Robinson’s insights and wry observations.

While no doubt a daunting research effort, meticulously carried out, Promises Promises must at the same time have been enjoyable to produce. To examine and select from amongst thousands of images – of leaders (both winners and losers); of parties (and their programmes); of campaign messages (both stunning and startling) – would have been both challenge and entertainment, with the author – Massey University’s Professor of Communication Design, expert in media studies and, by virtue of upbringing as well as inclination, an experienced political commentator – well-suited to the task.

The book’s title hints at elements of its broader message, for much of the commentary (and some of the images) underscores a perhaps inevitable feature of promises: some of them are destined to be broken. Much the same can be said of dreams – for this is, in effect, a book of dreams: the most beguiling often go unfulfilled.

Robinson’s text, accompanying the campaign messages, chronicles change as well as continuity. A “political advertising and media channel timeline” tracks developments in political communication, from parties’ initial broadcasts of election messages (1938) and the widespread ownership of radios (four out of five New Zealand households in 1940) and televisions (three out of five New Zealand households in 1966) to the establishment of party websites (1999) and the use of Facebook and Twitter in more recent years.

Distorted electoral messages are highlighted, among them parties’ use of fear as a mobilising tactic, as well as periods when Māori and Pacific Islanders were virtually invisible, electorally, with images of New Zealand family life exclusively ones of white middle-class families, everyone “neatly groomed”. Over time, social changes overtake traditional campaign scenes, as more diverse images – women, Māori, Pacific Islanders and young people – transform the selling of New Zealand parties and prime ministers.

Some of the cultural continuities prove striking, as pictures and prose promote a variety of themes in the quest for votes: New Zealand as a beautiful country; the need for “an economy for people”, and for  governments (of whichever party) to assist in creating prosperity; the realisation that, while the poor may not always be with us, a housing shortage will be.

In 1949, Labour declared that “315,000 people live in homes provided through the Labour Government”, the party stating, eight years later, that it “guarantees homes for all” – an unequivocal commitment. For its part, National stated (in 1949) that “We will house All the people – Quickly!”, the new National government proclaiming, two years later, “16,400 New Homes Built”, “a Record of Achievement”, summing things up: “We Promised More Homes, They Have Been Built”. The concept of promises as merely “aspirational” was to come later.

Other preoccupations likewise linger on. For those obsessed with Brexit it can be salutary to observe how it was Britain’s entry into Europe (the EEC, as it was then known), rather than its exit, that so preoccupied earlier policy-makers, concerned at the potential damage this might inflict on the New Zealand economy.

Promises Promises draws attention both to what New Zealanders have been promised over the years – by parties and political figures all across the spectrum – and how these promises have been designed, promoted and propagated. While a country is more than its politics, this well-produced volume (a credit to the publisher as well as the author) offers a thought-provoking and splendidly packaged look back at New Zealand’s political past, valuable for its own sake, and appropriate background reading for the next release of promises, now less than 12 months away.

Victoria University of Wellington political scientist Professor Stephen Levine has been writing about New Zealand election campaigns since 1972, his most recent publication being Stardust And Substance: The New Zealand General Election Of 2017 (Victoria University Press), launched in September 2018 by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
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