Masterful Evocation: Labour's opening television broadcast recalled its electoral base to their party's history and values, firmly locating its contemporary leadership within a strong and compelling narrative. The work of film-maker Dan Salmond, the broadcast ranks alongside the very best examples of New Zealand political propaganda. Following National's deeply flawed effort, Labour's production gave its campaign an impressive kick-off.
IT’S EASY TO FORGET how little people remember. Scholars call it “political amnesia” – the curious inability of modern voters to keep a coherent historical narrative in their heads. When tested, voters’ political recall closely resembles those “flashback” scenes in movies about people who have lost their memories. The images and the words follow one another in a rapid, disjointed, almost random, stream. The hero knows they mean something, and that buried deep within them is the answer to his or her problems. And the movie’s plot is all about putting the garbled elements of the hero’s story back into their proper order.
Watching the opening broadcasts of the major political parties I was forcefully reminded of how disjointed and decontextualized modern political communication has become, and what a powerful effect the recovery of historical memory can have on people’s political perceptions.
Labour’s opening message demonstrated the latter effect with extraordinary panache. Seldom have I seen the historical record used to such telling political effect. The 20-minute broadcast re-told Labour’s story, from its birth in the trade union movement of the early 1900s, to the watershed elections of 1935 and 1938. It used original newsreel footage to chronicle the creation of the welfare state, and we were reintroduced to the Labour pantheon: Mickey Savage, Peter Fraser, Walter Nash, Norman Kirk, David Lange, Helen Clark.
Most significantly, we were reminded of the anger and division which accompanied the implementation of Rogernomics. For the first time, Labour held a mirror up to this, the most shameful moment in all its long history, and did not flinch or turn away.
A lot of the effectiveness of this technique is due to the fact that our own history, and the history of political parties, are inextricably interwoven. Our parents and grandparents were there during the Great Depression; they remember the difference Labour’s policies made to people’s lives. Just as we recall Rob Muldoon’s trashing of Labour’s superannuation scheme in the 1975 General Election. By putting those images up on the screen, Labour’s film-makers stirred the viewers’ own memories. Theirs become ours, and in a potent demonstration of political alchemy, ours become theirs.
Placing Labour’s leader, Phil Goff, and the party’s spokespeople, into this living historical context allowed them to show us how and why they’d entered politics. Suddenly, they ceased to be “politicians” seeking our vote, and became instead people whose own family and personal histories had led them to embrace the values of the Labour movement.
There was Phil, seated alongside his eighty-seven-year-old Dad, recalling the privations of a working-class family in the 1920s and 30s. We met Damien O’Connor, who seemed to have absorbed the West Coast Labour tradition through the pores of his skin. And David Cunliffe, the parson’s son, imbibing the redemptive message of the Carpenter through the busy spiritual commerce of the Manse. And, most tellingly, we encountered Jacinda Ardern, windswept amidst the remains of the once thriving forestry town of Murapara, recalling the waste and ruin of the 1980s.
It was as stark and evocative as the black-and-white film of its historical newsreels. Labour was no longer running from its past, it had turned and, for better or for worse, embraced it with love and with pride. “This is who we are”, said Labour’s opening broadcast. “We’re as ingrained in the history of this country as coal-dust in a miner’s palm. We fought, both metaphorically and physically, to make this a country the world could admire – and we’re ready to do it again.”
The contrast with National’s opening broadcast could hardly have been greater. Where Labour’s message had been about the many, the Government’s story celebrated just one: John Key. The overwhelming impression was of a political figure stripped of everything but the quality of his suit and the glibness of his tongue.
The Prime Minister stood in the dark, his audience barely more than deferential shadows. Clearly, the production was inspired by the “town hall meetings” so beloved by presidential candidates in the United States. It didn’t take the viewer very long, however, to understand that this, unlike those, was a carefully scripted affair; and that every question “from the floor” had been crafted to show the PM off to best advantage.
And he was alone: his caucus colleagues, his Cabinet team, nowhere to be seen. Our future, our “aspirations” (to use a favourite Key-word) were presented as being in the hands of a single individual. This man who knows the answer to every question that is put to him – but only because, one way or another, he wrote them himself.
But history is never the work of just one man. Every person stitches the thread of their life into the tapestry of their times. Labour’s opening was a celebration of that fact; National’s shrouded it in darkness.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 November 2011.