Flirting with the truth

00:56, Nov 22 2011

Journalists have a term for advertisements that have a skerrick of truth in them, but are misleading. They call them "flirting with the truth".

We saw two examples of these emerge yesterday. Stuff highlighted the letter sent by Labour to mothers telling them that "Under National you won't be around to celebrate her 1st birthday".

Some of those who received it took it to be a threat, and it was clearly designed to scare mothers into thinking that something very bad would happen to them under National.

The truth is that the vast majority of mothers will be unaffected by National's welfare reforms, and in fact will arguably benefit from the record $1.4 billion being spent on early childhood education. The only mothers who will be affected are those who are already on welfare when they have a second or third or fourth child.

Currently sole parents on the DPB face part-time work testing when their youngest turns six, and fulltime when 14. The problem has been that some DPB recepients never ever get into the workforce because they keep having more children, while on the DPB. The latest estimate is that 52 per cent of those on the DPB went on to it while a teenager.

So it is only those mothers already on welfare, who have further children, who are affected and all they have to do is be available for work of 15 hours a week, once their latest child turns one. I think it is an insult to the hundreds and thousands of working parents out there who balance work and children to imply they are bad parents who are not there for their children.


The second advertisement is also from Labour and targeted at state house tenants. It is equally scary to the recipient as it warns them National may evict them from their state house and force them to pay market rents in a private tenancy. They say only a vote for Labour can save their family home.

To say this advertisement flirts with the truth is to put it mildly. National has been increasing the state housing stock and has renovated 50,000 existing state houses. Its policy to review state house tenancies is again very finely targeted, and something not mentioned in the scare pamphlet.

Only those tenants whose income has risen so much that they are no longer receiving a subsidised rental for their state house will have the possibility of their tenancy being reviewed, to allow a more needy family to receive the benefit of having a lower rent.

So no tenant will be evicted who has a subsidised rental, and forced on to a market rental. Only those already paying a market rental (because they are comparatively wealthy) will face a review, so that the house might go to a more needy family. And even then, those who are over 65 will never have their tenancy reviewed even if they are now wealthy.

So you can see how the term "flirting with the truth" is very apt for these sort of advertisements. They have a skerrick of truth, but actually deceive people about what the policy really is.

They are a calculated risk for a political party. Their hope is that enough people who receive it will be scared by it, and vote without checking the actual facts out. This happened in 2005 when Labour did a similiar pamphlet to state house tenants. The State Services Commission admonished Labour for its fake eviction notices, as they resulted in a huge number of calls to Housing NZ from concerned tenants.

The downside for a party in using such tactics is that they can backfire. Most New Zealanders, I think, don't like such scare tactics. They want the pros and cons of a policy to be fairly, honestly debated. Of course, there will be a degree of spin from all parties, but in my opinion these two pamphlets go well beyond what any other party does in New Zealand. I do not believe that the Greens, or the Maori Party or National would ever do pamphlets like this.

What do you think? Are the pamphlets a good idea or a bad idea for Labour?

David Farrar is a centre-right blogger affiliated to the National Party. His disclosure statement is here.

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