Friday 28 October 2011

Eating Crow

It's The Feathers That I Hate: Having misjudged the nature of Labour's election strategy, and heaped premature scorn on her strategists, it's only fair that I eat my due portion of that most ill-omened of birds - the Crow. 

WELL, I’VE EATEN CROW before and, really, it’s not that bad – tastes like chicken. Even so, I’m pretty sure Labour’s strategists will derive considerably more enjoyment from the experience than I will. They’ve had to endure some pretty harsh criticism from this particular commentator over the past few months, so the sight of Chris Trotter with grease and feathers on his chin is likely to be a very pleasing one.

I can’t deny that it’s been a surprise. The apparent passivity of the Labour Opposition over the past few months had me well and truly fooled. All I could assume was that they’d given away this year’s contest, and that those best-placed to make a difference were more concerned with “succession planning” than winning the election.

Clearly, appearances have been deceptive.

Labour’s strategy recalls Napoleon’s strategy at the Battle of the Pyramids. The French general’s opponents were Egypt’s warrior-rulers, the Marmluks. Mounted on Arab horses, gloriously arrayed, they were supremely confident of victory. And, had Napoleon chosen to meet them on their own terms, he and his army would have been cut to pieces.

But Napoleon was not about to make that mistake. What he saw before him were lightly armed horsemen imbued with an indefatigable belief in their own superiority and a hunger for personal glory. Decimated by thirst and dysentery though they may have been, Napoleon knew that his men still constituted the most formidable fighting force of the Eighteenth Century. They were a highly disciplined army of experienced veterans, fully conversant with the most effective weapons and tactics of their day.

Napoleon configured his army into vast hollow “squares” of infantry, placed his artillery at the corners, and his cavalry in the middle. Then he sat back and waited for the Marmluks to come to him.

Their charge was a sight to behold. In a vast crescent formation they galloped straight for the French lines. Napoleon waited. On came the wave of horsemen. Still the French waited. It was only when the Marmluk warriors were almost upon them that the front ranks of French infantry coolly raised their muskets and fired. The artillery joined them, firing grapeshot and canister rounds into the horsemen at point-blank range. The splendid horses and their even more splendid riders were cut to ribbons. The speed with which the Napoleonic infantryman was able to fire, reload, and fire again was legendary. The Marmluks ornate muskets could be fired once from horseback and were then next to useless. As wave after wave of cavalry hurled themselves against the French formations the slaughter escalated. By the time the smoke cleared, the warrior ruling-class of Egypt was in headlong retreat.

The Battle of the Pyramids, 21 July 1798

Labour’s strategic insight is identical to Napoleon’s. National may look invincible, but, in policy terms, it is only lightly armed. Prime Minister John Key’s popularity and the Government’s soaring poll numbers are the equivalent of the Marmluks’ splendid armour and eager stallions: they look impressive, but in the cut-and-thrust of modern political warfare they are actually rather useless. What counts for much more, once battle is joined, is the quality of the contending parties’ policies; how they are presented; and when they are released.

National’s fatal assumption was that Labour would attempt to fight them on the ground where their man was strongest. That Floundering Phil Goff, wearing nothing but his low preferred prime minister scores, would ride out against John Key, the resplendent Pasha of the Polls, and get slaughtered.

This is where Labour’s experience and discipline have been so effective. They know that big policies, announced during the campaign can produce startling changes in the balance of political forces. (Grant Robertson, in particular, has experience of this; it was his policy of removing the interest from student loans that made such a difference during the 2005 campaign.)

By holding back their announcements on Superannuation and Kiwisaver until the campaign got underway, they have succeeded in inflicting maximum damage on the Government. Key can offer nothing substantial in return. Like a hapless Marmluk warrior he can brandish his rhetorical scimitar and fire-off the occasional (largely ineffectual) round from his ornate musket – and that’s about it.

Key will close with Phil Goff in the Leaders’ Debate on Monday, 31 October. His only hope of evening up the growing imbalance in “serious” policy releases will be to unveil National’s welfare plans to the party faithful at the Government’s official campaign launch on Sunday.

But even this may not be enough. Goff’s and Labour’s achievement has been to re-frame the electoral debate by offering policies which may not be immediately popular but which are unquestionably in the nation’s long-term interest. A punitive, “beneficiary-bashing” welfare policy runs the risk of being dismissed as pandering to the most disreputable elements of the electorate, but contributing nothing useful to the “big issue” discussions which Labour has forced on to the political agenda.

As Labour’s campaign unfolds, we should expect to see more television ads featuring the friendly-but-firm Phil Goff we met in the party’s first sally on asset sales. These will play to Goff’s strengths – his competency, his experience, his safe-pair-of-hands reputation. In all likelihood John Key and his government will barely rate a mention. The focus will be on what has to be done to secure New Zealand’s future, and on Labour’s willingness to take the hard decisions required to make it happen.

Phil Goff and his advisers are betting everything on the voters’ willingness to concede the need to make such difficult choices; and on their readiness to reward the Opposition for its courage in grasping so many stinging policy nettles.

If they’re right, and the voters respond as Labour hopes they will, then National will suffer the same fate as the Marmluks.

“Forward!”, cried Napoleon, as he ordered his troops into position on the melon fields adjoining the distant Pyramids of Giza. “Remember that from those monuments yonder forty centuries look down upon you.”

Phil Goff’s appeal is not to monuments of stone looking down, but to future generations of New Zealanders looking back. The test that lies ahead of us now is no longer just a test of Labour’s leader, it has become a test of ourselves.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Gem said...

Chris – “Like a hapless Marmluk warrior [John Key] can brandish his rhetorical scimitar and fire-off the occasional (largely ineffectual) round from his ornate musket – and that’s about it” is the best sentence I've read in a long time.

I have been critical of Labour’s election hoardings. I contacted Labour personnel to express my concerns and wrote comments on blogs and the New Zealand Herald website about this matter. I maintain my position – I think the hoardings fail for several reasons. See

However, Labour have certainly surprised with this bold move. They are finally grabbing the headlines that they have fruitlessly sought for so long. Naturally, the prospect of the pension age rising to 67 has ignited debate – articles on and have hundreds of replies. By sparking healthy discussion, Labour has refocused the 2011 election and put the emphasis on intelligent dialogue. Whatever people’s political views, surely anyone who is interested in our country’s future can recognise the value of having the population conversing and thinking about important issues; as Phil Goff said on Close Up last night (27 October), “(the election campaign) is not New Zealand’s Next Top Model.”

What was notable about last night’s episode of Close Up was Key’s absence. Mark Sainsbury advised viewers that Key had been invited to appear and debate with Goff about Labour’s pension policy. Key opted out and offered to send Bill English in his place. Sainsbury rightly said that he values matching like for like i.e. leader to leader, not leader to substitute. It is interesting that Key is prepared to insult Labour (specifically Goff) yet Key is not man enough to front up and debate with Goff on national television. This evasiveness from a Prime Minister is unacceptable at any time, particularly a few weeks before the general election.

Speaking of debating, are you aware that Winston Peters has been excluded from an upcoming (30 October) leaders’ debate on Q+A? According to, in 2008 New Zealand First got 95,356 party votes. That is more than United Future, Jim Anderton’s Progressives, the Maori Party, and ACT New Zealand. It’s true that New Zealand First didn’t win electorate seats in 2008. However, as the aforementioned figures show, New Zealand First evidently had significantly more popular support than several other minor parties that won seats. As Gordon Campbell notes,

“Luckily, the mechanism for fixing MMP is already on the rails. The Key government …has already signed off on an independent review of MMP to be conducted next year, with a view to addressing aspects of the system in need of fine-tuning. This review is likely to focus for instance on such issues as the one seat threshold – whereby if a party wins an electorate seat, it gets the bonus of extra seats according to the percentage of its vote, nationwide. Currently, that bonus kicks in even if the percentage is less than the 5% threshold that disqualifies those parties that fall below the threshold ( and don’t win an electorate seat) from getting any seats at all.” (, 20 October)

It is anti-democratic to exclude Peters from the leaders’ debate. Or, let’s be specific: It is anti-democratic for National party cheerleader Guyon “ra ra ra” Espiner to exclude Peters from the leaders’ debate. Such oppressive conduct from the state broadcaster should disturb anyone who wants professional, unbiased coverage from the state broadcaster. I have contacted TVNZ and Q+A to voice my disgust. I encourage other people to do the same, whatever their political views. As the saying goes, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

Gem said...

As a follow up to my earlier post, this might be of interest. It is up to you whether you publish it in your comments section. I'm aware it digresses from your original post:

Dear Gemma

I understand you are concerned that New Zealand First leader Winston Peters will not be included in Sunday morning’s Q & A show on TV ONE, which will feature a multi-party debate.

Paul Holmes will moderate the live multi-party debate that includes the following leaders: Metiria Turei from the Greens, Don Brash from ACT, Pita Sharples from the Maori Party, Peter Dunne from United Future and Hone Harawira from Mana.

To be clear: the Q & A debate on Sunday 30 October will be on a smaller scale than the major 90 minute election debate planned for primetime on Wednesday 16 November on TV ONE.

The 16 November multi-party debate is open to parties represented in Parliament or parties that achieve 3% or more in one of the two ONE News Colmar Brunton polls before the debate. The two qualifying polls are scheduled for broadcast by ONE News on 3 November and 10 November. ONE News stands by its Colmar Brunton polls, which are robust and scientific.

The New Zealand First leader is not excluded from that debate. He is invited subject to meeting the criteria.

Q & A has sought to apply the same criteria for this Sunday’s multi-party debate, but using the last two ONE News Colmar Brunton polls from September and October. New Zealand First did not achieve the 3% threshold in either of these polls.

As the national broadcaster, TVNZ is very mindful of its election coverage responsibilities. The criteria is in place to ensure there is a manageable number of participants, given the constraints of the debate format in a live studio setting. The criteria has been made widely available and will be applied with an even hand.

Yours sincerely,

Georgie Hills

TVNZ Corporate Affairs

Anonymous said...

Labours opening on tv was impressive. This was probably reinforced by the poor performance of National and the absolutely cringe inducing Green attempt at communication.
Doesn't really matter though because Labour has lost every thinking working class voter with their pension plan - a thinly disguised handout to the crooks and theives in the financial sector.

Unknown said...

Good comment Chris

I have been most impressed with Labour's strategic analysis. I can with justification be accused of bias but I agree that Labour's campaign decisions have been exquisitely good so far.

If they chose to engage in a "my personality cult is bigger than your personality cult" type campaign Labour would lose.

But by conceding this advantage and by concentrating on policy Labour has highlighted National's achilles heel. Essentially National has no policy apart from selling state assets, and this is deeply unpopular.

There has been a recent health policy release, Tony Ryall is going to put $6m towards paying for under 6 medical treatment in hospitals. The money will be funded by cuts to other areas and is not a new spend. This represents a minuscule amount of the health budget but is designed to pluck at the heart strings.

But if this is the extent of National's policy releases then they run the danger of being considered to being totally irrelevant.

Labour's launch tonight was stunningly good and drew on decades of good will built up because of the humanity and decency of previous Labour administrations.

National's effort in comparison was really bad. I wanted to turn it off but hung on in the hope that there would be something to get upset about. The only thing I was upset about was that part of my life had been wasted watching it.

Despite previous expectations this Election campaign is not over, not by a long shot.

Anonymous said...

All this talking up of "hard decisions" to be made is simply rubbish... hard decisions are made all the time in politics, but hello.... labour just woke up to this? C'Mon,... all to do about nothing in my view. i used to vote Labour - no matter what policy they announce now, i refuse to vote for that lack-lustre leader.

Gem said...

Further to my last post about TVNZ's email to me regarding Peters' exclusion from the upcoming leaders' debate on Q+A, below is my reply to TVNZ. Again, I acknowledge that this digresses from your original post, Chris. But it is important for people to be aware of the state broadcaster's bias, especially given the upcoming election.

Dear Georgie

Thank you for your prompt response. I do appreciate you replying to me so quickly and in such depth.

With reference to your comments about polling: please refer to (Saturday 29 October)

Evidently, New Zealand First has growing support. As the article notes,

The Horizon poll shows the strongest minor parties are still the Greens at 11.6 percent, with New Zealand First gaining support at 6.2 percent.

Of the other minor parties, the poll lists Act at 3.4 percent, with Mana at 2.3 percent and the Maori Party sitting at just 1.7 percent.

I understand that Guyon Espiner has a disproportionate amount of sway with regard to political coverage on TVNZ. It is evident that TVNZ is determined to deny New Zealand First and Winston Peters fair coverage. Mr. Peters' Media Liaison person advises me that over recent months, Mr. Peters has given numerous presentations to packed venues around New Zealand. TVNZ's silence about these presentations is deafening.

As an aside, I find it extremely odd that TVNZ has opted to use white lettering and a white tick inside blue boxes with a blue background for the election coverage logo. In this country, blue traditionally represents right wing parties, most notably, the National Party. It is inappropriate to use this colour, in the same sense that it would be inappropriate to use red, a left wing colour, for the election coverage logo. TVNZ should have chosen a neutral colour that is not linked to a prominent political party.

After all, contrary to what Mr. Espiner might believe, TVNZ is the national broadcaster, not the National Party broadcaster.

Thank you again for your response.

Kind regards,


Wynton Potters said...

What is it with the left and historical narratives?

It plays well with the base, I'm sure, but to others it makes the left look like they are living in the distant past.

And as relevant....

Tauhei Notts said...

Chris so eloquently put it three years ago;
"They lost Waitakere Man".
This is first step in getting him back.

Anonymous said...

As a left-leaning so-far-uncommitted voter, here is my impression of the opening election addresses.
National’s offering was just plain weird – the setting, the lighting, the stiltedness. It was also strangely claustrophobic.
The Greens’ offering was timid. With their improved performance in the opinion polls, they should have gone for hard-hitting IMO, to show they mean business on environmental matters.
Labour’s offering was spot-on from the start, with Goff sitting in his kitchen. It said, “We’re people like you.”

peterquixote said...

Labour acolytes dreaming in the trenches,

If Napoleon did in fact use the "hollow squares " technique, with superior front line troops, in Africa why was he so convincingly beaten in all his southern ventures. What happened is that Napoleon left his troops to be wiped out in Africa, by the Turks, and he travelled home to arrange the new news and the coup in France .

By the time he came to see Wellington at Waterloo, Napoleon was utterly vanquished by superior military strategy.
It had taken Wellington years to come through Portugal and Spain to meet the ogre.
The ogre was just that, he was a mad general.
The Wellington primary military strategy was better viewpoint. He knew Napoleon was crazy and would fight anywhere anytime.
Wellington arranged "hollow targets' on the downard side of his higher ridge.
Napoleon sent his troops in line formation up the swamp into Wellington's rifles.
Wellington's rifles were long bore ,and they could take out a frog before the french line could reach the top of the ridge .
Napoleon Buonaparte strength was built on the lives of 150,00 young frenchmen, and another few hundred thousand conquered soldiers every year or so.
At Waterloo, "Hollow targets" were waiting for Napoleon in squares, when these morons in french dress reached the that viewpoint.
This was the Wellington strategy, not the Napoleon.
Wellington had prepared for months,
The crow on Chris Trotter plate is a small crow indeed, it is a photoshop crow.
Wellington shot Napoleon's horses and the French ran back down hill.
Wellington picked them off as they ran.
The Prussians were arriving, in support of the allies..
Paris fell immediately afterward.
Napoleon was sent to St. Helena.
He recited many stories on St. Helena but you can't get hold of them, they were so boring.

Victor said...


Wellington could not possibly have prepared his tactics at Waterloo months in advance, as the whole of Napoleon's campaign from leaving Elba onwards took a mere hundred days.

Perhaps I've misunderstood you.

But I agree that Wellington might be a far better exemplar for Goff than Napoleon could ever be.

Wellington was a master at commanding coalitions. He was, moreover, physically indefatigable, cool under fire and incapable of stepping aside from what he conceived of as his duty.

All qualities Goff will need in bucket loads over the next few weeks.

Anonymous said...

That opening address of Labours was so damned good it really made my left wing heart sing and pine. But I'm sorry I've had enough of their refusal to reconnect with their base in any meaningful way. They need to be much bolder before I'll go back.

It's quite sick producing a magical video like that giving the impression their going to save us workers and unemployed and middle.

They will not, they don't have the cojones to stand up to the right and big business. All the social liberal bureaucrat PC tossers that dominate the party cannot be compared to the working class warriors of Labours past.

Victor said...

I was put off by the first few minutes of Labour's Party Political Broadcast.

It seemed to me aimed wholly at people who are tribally Labour and whose ancestors have lived in New Zealand for at least three generations. That's no longer the country we live in.

But once we got into the cut-away interviews, I was highly impressed. Each of the MPs showed a mixture of head and heart that is rare these days.

It was a pleasure and an inspiration to watch.