During last year’s election campaign I was struck by just how few people actually care; the cynicism and distrust of politicians, no-one expects honesty. More and more often I hear people talking about just not bothering â€” “It doesnâ€™t matter who you vote for, itâ€™s always a politician who wins.â€ The reality is that if you donâ€™t vote the politicians win too.
Overseas negative and attack campaigning to suppress the vote is a common tactic. It may not be possible to persuade your oppositionâ€™s supporters to vote for you, but you might be able to put them off voting altogether. In our context, National may not be able to get many working class women to vote for them, but if they can stop them voting at all, thatâ€™s nearly as good.
In a fascinating public lecture Therese Arseneau talks about what she learned from the use of consultants in US elections
their aim is to actually to suppress the vote. The aim of negative campaigning was to keep particular people away from the polls.
A study of US Senate races shows just how effective this tactic is at suppressing not only the targeted voters but the electorate as a whole. They found that in largely negative races turnouts were 4.5 percentage points lowers than in ones that were largely positive. In New Zealand a 4.5 percentage point drop is about 130,000 people.
Both major parties publicly stated they ran positive campaigns, yet the tenor was negative all the way. This is true of political parties, the media, the net and the whispering campaigns.
There has always been some negativity from the two main political parties, but volumes seems to have increased over the last two campaigns. From the National Party we see the increase in the build up to the 2005 election, with the Crosby/Textor strategy of targeting Helen Clark â€” arrogant, out of touch, childless â€” along with divisive rhetoric against traditionally Labour supporting segments of society. Labourâ€™s negativity showed in some of the 2005 campaign â€” for example their anti-National mocked-up eviction notices. This time we saw attacks on Key, which didnâ€™t looked well co-ordinated or thought through, but sure were negative.
The media run negative messages with enthusiasm, cover negative and attack politics, and put a negative spin on potentially neutral topics. Perhaps theyâ€™re simply following the scripts given to them, or perhaps it is easier to write negative â€” but either way their constant negative framing is turning people off.
The net… â€˜nuff said.
The question, I guess, is whether it matters. If one or more of the political parties decides to use negative and attack tactics, to deliberately or accidentally lower the turnout, does it matter?
In terms of New Zealand as a representative democracy, but our turnout rate is not uniform across the country â€” traditionally MÄori, Pacific Island peoples and the young have the lowest turnout rates. Lowering the turnout rate will only further marginalise those communities, weakening their representation and voice.
Even more importantly, participating in an election is not an isolated act: it is part of being a member of a community, a society, a country. It is the act of someone who knows that they matter, that they have power, that they can create change. If we allow and encourage politics to be run and discussed along negative lines we will allow powerlessness to flourish in the most needy parts of our society.
I was born to two immigrants
Who knew why they were here
They were happy to pay taxes
For the schools and roads
Happy to be here
They took it seriously
The second job of citizenry
My mother went campaigning door to door
And holding to her hand was me
I was just a girl in a room full of women
Licking stamps and laughing
I remember the feeling of community brewing
Of democracy happening
Ani Difranco â€” Paradigm