Fiscal hole? Hit the havoc button

6:51 pm on 6 September 2017

Opinion - What were Steven Joyce and Bill English thinking? Why on earth did a politician who prides himself on his image as a safe pair of hands for the economy make such an outrageous and intemperate call?

Finance Minister Steven Joyce at Printlink for the printing of the 2017 Budget.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Those are the kinds of questions I've been hearing since Mr Joyce accused his Labour opponents of an $11.7 billion dollar "fiscal hole" in their budget plan over the weekend, and then doubled down on even after his assessment was refuted by a small army of independent economists.

The reason is that this debate was never about the facts. It's what we are beginning to call in political science a 'havoc-claim'.

This is a claim that is designed to be so outrageous that it grabs media headlines and temporarily derails opponents, attracting startled media attention in a 24/7 news cycle and confusing voters.

By the time the dust has settled and everyone has read the fine print, it doesn't matter that the claim didn't stack up, because from a political strategist's point of view, the issue was never really about the facts.

The aim was to take the air space from a leading opponent and to sow a seed of doubt in the minds of voters, and hopefully do just enough damage to your opponent that you can sway small but significant margins of voters choosing between parties.

However, there two big risks with this kind of strategy. The first is a real risk that our democracy itself becomes the collateral damage of a take-no-prisoners, havoc-claim strategy. In the confusion of the argument and counter-argument, potential voters can switch off, withdraw and disengage. In effect, the tactic actually starts to suppress the vote.

The other risk of a havoc-claim strategy is that it can rebound on the party making the claim, diminishing its reputation and reducing its own core vote. There are early signs this may have happened to Mr Joyce and, if so, we can probably identify three reasons why the technique did not go according to the usual plan.

Firstly, National appears to have underestimated its opponent, Jacinda Ardern, who deflected much of the power of the original claim during the second leaders debate.

She simply called it out, and explained that the nature of the attack was intended to derail and tarnish her party and frustrate voters with petty "bickering". She also produced independent economic assessments that confirmed there was no gaping budget "hole" in her party's plan.

Second, the electorate itself has become a bit more campaign-savvy. Watching the USA election and the Australian election campaigns unfold has meant more voters understand the wider strategies of dissembling and the risks.

And finally - and probably most importantly - professional journalism and editorial judgment also kicked in. Experienced news professionals tested the claims against economic analysis and refused to play the electoral game of tit-for-tat argument.

But if this general election was a test match for democracy, the National Party and Mr Joyce deserve a red card.

As it is, the attempt has proved something of an own-goal for National, and so let's hope the tactic is dropped by all parties for the rest of this election season.

Bronwyn Hayward is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Canterbury.

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