14 Nov
2011

Key messages for New Zealand referendum campaigners

After news of our latest Green Words Workshop report (nz_ref_gww_1) on the New Zealand referendum made it to the South Pacific I’ve been asked by Kiwi campaigner Benjamin Knight to add some specific recommendations for ways in which the pro-MMP campaign could reframe their arguments to counter each of the six myths listed by the Campaign for MMP.

In the British referendum on the Alternative Vote, I ended up recommending five key pro-AV messages that should be gotten across by whatever wording:

  • AV is a British answer
  • AV is simple
  • AV is honest and allows you to vote with your heart
  • AV lets you take your power back from the politicians
  • AV keeps fascists out

I don’t know the New Zealand context as well for obvious reasons, but I would recommend, having seen some of the “Vote for Change” messages and the short-comings of the current “Campaign for MMP” messages, something like this:

  • MMP has been good for NZ. It’s a Kiwi answer.
  • Keeping MMP is a moral point of principle, not a political position.

These are not slogans. They are the messages that any slogan or statement needs to communicate. There needs also to be a branding of the anti position, like this:

  • The alternatives to MMP rob people of the representation they deserve

If you’ve seen the report you’ll realise that the word “deserve” is designed to counteract the Vote for Change message that List MPs don’t “deserve” their seats. But these are messages about MMP itself, and I don’t want all the messages to focus on MMP: as I’ve said in the report, the Vote for Change campaign has prevailed in making even the Campaign for MMP focus on MMP as an issue in itself, which begs the question “what’s wrong with MMP?”: a very unhelpful frame!

Instead I want to move the issue off of MMP and onto the political context:

  • The people arguing against MMP are only the ones who stand to gain from its rejection. They are shanghai-ing New Zealand’s political process.

This is already a popular narrative, as seen in the New Zealand Herald. For our money it’s important to do this always bearing in mind how it makes you look. This is not to say not to do it and not to “go negative” (something that progressives are routinely scared of and conservatives never hesitate in doing), but it’s impmortant to always bear in mind the emotional character of yourself that you want to be projecting. As Drew Westen concludes in The Political Brain, show “strength, warmth, leadership and emanate comfort and trust”. But in that context, go negative, and name the beast for what it is; speak your truth.

The above messages counter quite well the Vote for Change subconscious messages, which I summarised as:

  • List MPs are morally bankrupt, unpopular, unmandated, unprincipled, tricking you, getting something for nothing and don’t deserve to be in Parliament. 
  • Parliament is being corrupted, distorted, dragged-down.
  • Politics is becoming about cheap talk, haggling, bureaucracy and selling-out, not about principle. Political ideas are being turned into commodities to be traded.
  • MMP allows all this and pampers, protects and encourages bad, unworthy politicians.

At the moment, with messages such as “MMP is fair” and “You get more voting choice”, the Campaign for MMP are falling into the “Transactional Politics” trap, of listing not even necessarily benefits to the voter, but features, when they should be arguing by moral principle. I summarised the unsucessful use of this approach by the progressives in the British referendum in my article “The No campaign is appealing to deep principles of natural justice. The Yes side list AV’s interesting features”.

Notice that my recommended messages don’t tackle the six “myths” directly at all. You can change and oppose a negative existing frame by using positive branding, but it’s not a good idea to approach the argument from a rational head-on point of view. Remember: the message behind any statement is NOT the words of the statement itself! It is always the feelings and values that it prompts in the reader. It’s those that need changing, or even better, inoculating against, disrupting and inhibiting.

So, here once again are the messages I recommend. They can and should be worded in different ways, as long as the core message is the same:

  • MMP has been good for NZ. It’s a Kiwi answer.
  • Keeping MMP is a moral point of principle, not a political position.
  • The alternatives to MMP rob people of the representation they deserve
  • The people arguing against MMP are only the ones who stand to gain from its rejection. They are shanghai-ing New Zealand’s political process.

Those interested in George Lakoff’s work on Authoritarian/Nurturing values will notice that all of these messages appeal both to conservative, Authoritarian-minded people and to progressive, Nurturing-minded people. In fact they use Authoritarian words: “moral, rob, deserve” but for Nurturing ends and in language that won’t alienate Nurturing thinkers either.

In comparison with the New Zealand situation, my message analysis of the British referendum can be found half-way into the article “AV is …[blank]… The Yes campaign are still missing the answer to “What is AV?”

Remember, you can read the full original Green Words Workshop report that precedes these recommendations nz_ref_gww_1. I’ve updated the report itself to include these recommendations.