Tired of the election campaign already? Here's how to make it shorter

Wellington is a place where party leaders don't hang out much any more.

Wellington is a place where party leaders don't hang out much any more.

OPINION: Theresa May is copping it in Britain for announcing an early election, after previously ruling it out with such steely certainty.

You can understand why British voters and the media might feel like they've been led up the garden path.

But there's a certain appeal to the snap election scenario. It's a little like the age-old debate over whether it's more painful to remove a sticking plaster by ripping it off, or peeling it back slowly.

This is how it's done. Winston Peters never left the hustings.
Eleanor Wenman

This is how it's done. Winston Peters never left the hustings.

The conventional wisdom is that voters punish governments that go to the polls early.

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But that was before the digital age and information overload from a dozen-plus news cycles in one day and the 24/7 bombardment of news, views and opinions.

Labour leader Andrew Little in Christchurch with some of his MPs and supporters.

Labour leader Andrew Little in Christchurch with some of his MPs and supporters.

When it comes to election campaigns, short and sharp would be the prayer sent up by many.

That's where there is both risk and opportunity in advanced voting for politicians. The rules were changed to make it easy to vote early in 2010.

Numbers have soared since then. More than 700,000 votes were cast early in 2014. That's out of a total 3.1 million eligible voters (though only 2.4 million actually voted last election).

This year, the polls officially open  on September 11, a full two weeks before election day and half way through the traditional campaign period.

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It's expected there will be an even bigger swing to early voting this year. Having the country lined up at a polling booth for one day every three years already seems like an anachronism. People are busy. Others vote early for different reasons. Some because they already know how they're going to vote and nothing in the campaign will change their minds. And others take the rip-it-off fast view –  they want to vote and move on.

But it turns on its head the traditional idea of campaigns geared around voters who don't make up their mind till they walk into a polling booth.

Two weeks too late

The four-week-long burst of frenetic electioneering – the traditional campaign – used to target that voter. But when half your audience has already voted before polling day rolls around, things are different.

That is forcing some serious rethinking about old-school campaigns. The televised leaders' debates in the final week of the campaign used to be a must-watch. But what if everyone has already voted? Is it worth the leaders even turning up? Ditto for hitting the hustings in the final week of the campaign. They could just be whistling into the wind.

We can already see the way politicians have changed their behaviour in response.

Bill English and Andrew Little are already in campaign mode (Winston Peters always was). Wellington is a place where they spend less and less time. It used to be that the leaders spent two days out of three jousting in Parliament's debating chamber. These days it's one. The rest of the time they are on the road (arguably a good thing).

John Key did everyone a favour when he did away with the usual dance of the seven veils over the election date, which is largely the prerogative of the prime minister (within certain time limits).

But now election year feels like one long campaign.

Bill English named the date in February, a warning of nearly eight months, and we've been in a phony war ever since.

The throat-clearing started with the annual state of the nation addresses, and since then both big parties have been emptying the decks of any potential roadblocks to voters liking them.

It's the small-target strategy and this is how it works. Parties shed themselves of any baggage that might give people a reason not to vote for them.

National did this in 2008 by pledging its allegiance to a nuclear-free New Zealand and committing to a raft of Labour policies like Working for Families, Kiwibank, KiwiSaver and interest free student loans.

The other approach to the small-target strategy is to scratch every political itch. Both strategies are now in play.

Small targets or no targets?

After judging that policy was its downfall at the last election Labour has ditched its usual more-is-more approach and restricted itself instead to a few select policies that are just bereft enough of detail for the party to duck and weave its way out of any argument.

National, in its trademark steamroller style, is mowing over every possible objection to giving it a fourth term.

Policy and spending announcements are being rolled out at a rate of almost one a day, not a lot of it hitting the headlines because much of it is being targeted at regional and provincial level.

It is also attempting to neutralise hot-button issues like law and order (more police), and immigration (tweaking the numbers to stem the flow), that any of its opponents might get traction on.

The deck clearing has been so thorough, in fact, that it's not clear what will be left to fight over come election day.

Maybe just Winston Peters standing in the middle of an empty street shouting "draw" to passing tumbleweed and a chirruping cricket.

 - Stuff


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