The Winston Peters playbook must have earned some fairly tatty dogears over the 65 consecutive elections where the NZ First leader has deployed it.
Yet again, Peters has eased himself to the deadset centre of the maelstrom at precisely the right moment. Partly this comes about simply because of NZ First's likely kingmaker status — it clearly raises the stakes — but Winston's strategy of keeping his powder dry for long stretches during off-years, effectively relaunching his brand every third winter, keeps his image fresher, and his schtick far more impactful, than it ought to be.
Competing with Peters in full swing for a share of the spotlight is an unenviable task at thie best of times. For Labour in particular, this deprivation of media oxygen, coming at worst possible time, could be fatal. Even his biggest defender would concede Little has far from closed the deal with voters. As polls make wince-inducingly clear, Kiwis are yet to be persuaded he has what it takes to be Prime Minister. They prefer Bill, Winston and Jacinda to Andrew — and no doubt plenty of others too if given the option.
So what can Labour do?
Bluntly, they have a rubbish hand.
The rollout of their impressive family tax policy package shows how tough it is.
Within days, each in their way, ACT and the Greens leapt on the issue in far more colourful ways — ACT went Ban Poor Babies, while the Greens' co-leader confessed to benefit fraud. Meanwhile, Peters promised a gold card for people with disabilities, an adroit positioning between ACT's cold, and the Greens' bleeding, hearts.
As this shows, even in the rare case when Labour sets the agenda, it is criminally easy for minor parties to hijack it within hours. This is not all Labour's fault: as a major party with aspirations to govern, they don't have the luxury of engaging in the kind of sabre-rattling, base-rousing and hyperbole that comes so naturally to smaller parties. They are also far less flexible when it comes to making policy on the hoof.
So, while I don't envy them the task Labour faces in a campaign that risks getting away from them, there are some simple things they could fix today.
Here's one. Hire some writers.
At some point over the past couple of decades, the malignancy of corporate-speak began to infect the language of politics and public policy, metastasising horribly, and in full public view, ever since. And for some reason, while politicians of all sides are guilty of speaking in this empty, polysyllabic jargon, those of the left seem to be more susceptible. To illustrate this point, I looked no further than the first link that caught my eye in their website: a statement from frontbencher David Clark on hospital funding in Christchurch — at least that's what I think it was about. Here's the excerpt from Clark's statement featured on Labour's homepage, presumably because it was the catchiest line:
I challenge you.
Go on, make that sentence worse.
People just don't talk like that. Or think like it. It's the language used by consultants and bureaucrats, petrified anyone might infer clear meaning from anything they write.
Pick any statement on the Labour site, and you'll find the party is committed to ensuring that accountability and transparency, supported by diverse stakeholder engagement, underpin their core values. Or something.
So, yeah, stop doing that.