The 'dead cat' masterstroke that may just win National the election
ANALYSIS: National's dead cat has worked a treat. A smelly, distracting $11.7 billion treat.
It worked so well, it looked like it didn't work. It looked like National copped a hiding in the media and from the experts over its claim that Labour's fiscal plan had an $11.7b hole in it, but somehow managed to escape with 46 per cent of the vote on election night. In fact, it was perhaps the single biggest factor in why National did as well as it did.
Some context. During the election campaign, National employed the services of Crosby Textor, a political advisory firm that has masterminded victories for the Liberal party in Australia and the Conservative party in the UK. One of its founders, Sir Lynton Crosby, had a pet theory for how to change the direction of a debate. Here it is described in the Telegraph newspaper by one of his clients, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson:
"Let us suppose you are losing an argument. The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case. Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as "throwing a dead cat on the table, mate".
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"That is because there is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don't mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend [Crosby is Australian], is that everyone will shout "Jeez, mate, there's a dead cat on the table!"; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief."
Apply this to National's situation. In August, Jacinda-mania was sucking up all the oxygen in the campaign. The more airtime and column inches the new Labour leader got, the more voters were going to hear about things Ardern wanted to talk about, like health and housing.
National wanted the opposite of that. They wanted health and housing locked under the stairs. They wanted to talk about the economy and Labour's taxes. Enter finance spokesman Steven Joyce, with his claim of Labour's $11.7b budget hole.
This was Crosby's dead cat. A National spokesman said Crosby Textor had nothing to do with the party's announcements or messaging during the campaign, but it was right out of the firm's playbook.
It was a bulls... number based on a selective interpretation of Labour's accounting [cue outrage, alarm, disgust] and Labour fell for it big time.
"There's the rule about your area of light," a source with knowledge of the situation said.
"You have your area of light. Your job is to pull the discussion into your light and your orbit, your messaging. Don't get into theirs. What they did was they went into Joyce's. They started to say, 'He's not right, he's made a mistake' and then the journalists ask 'Well, what's wrong?' Then you're in a discussion.
"What they should have said was, 'Bill English needs to sack this guy'. Just turn it around and fight. But what they did was go into his circle of light and started to answer his questions and explain themselves."
It was exactly what National wanted. There was a little bit of squirming as questions from journalists and debate moderators ran through the list of economists who dismissed Joyce's claim, but Prime Minister Bill English talked right through it.
When he was asked at the Stuff Leaders Debate if he backed Joyce the entirety of his answer was 'Yes I do'.
Everything after that was an attack on Labour's finances.
Ardern tried in vain to interject and call him a liar, but by the end of the exchange even she was asking English set-up questions and defending the costings in her own plan. There is no way National could have shifted the debate this profoundly without its $11.7b red herring.
"They had to go for a big one," the source said, "If you're going to tell a lie you tell a big lie."
What's surprising is it seems Labour knew this and still took the bait.
The same source said that under former leader Andrew Little, Labour bumped its tax agenda till after 2020 to avoid giving National the chance to make this election about its favourite subject. When Ardern brought that forward and made her "captain's call" to consider the bogeyman of a capital gains tax, the party became vulnerable.
That clouded its judgment when the dead cat got plonked on the table.
"They knew [about National's tactic]," the source said, "but when it happened they went off their own script. Because they got panicked about the capital gains tax they then panicked about [the fiscal plan]. It became a defensive thing about the finances."
"They never recovered from it. They were defensive about tax from there on in. After that we were talking about National's strengths, not Labour's strengths, which were health and housing.
"Quite frankly, it was amateur hour."