Monday, November 21, 2011


Every three years the institution of the election poster gives us an object lesson in psychogeography, remaking the country into red zones, blue zones, contested zones. A sign erected on a private fence or put up at one’s window makes an uncomplicated political statement: this is a Tory household, a Labour household, a Green household; the sum of many such statements can mark an entire town or suburb, making class visible in a manifest way. As for the posters in public and commercial spaces, they too make concrete the geographical distribution of the parties’ efforts: who concentrates where, pushing which messages; just as importantly, who is absent, and must be assumed to be working to shore up their consensus elsewhere.

But posters aren’t just the equivalent of little coloured flags on a map. They also carry their own meanings, which seldom coincide entirely with the plea to vote for party X or candidate Y. For instance, the inclusion of John Key on most of National’s posters – including the ones in support of individual candidates on the list – makes the Prime Minister’s portrait from the shoulders up the common design feature of the party’s campaign, hence both the leit motif and palimpsest of its core messages. Conversely, the absence of Phil Goff’s from Labour’s posters marks a forced departure from the campaign style of Clark’s era. I think it’s fair to say that Labour scrambled in search of a new approach, going from the horribly wrong

to the horribly, horribly, oh dear god, really?, horribly wrong

before settling for a fairly punchy and consistent design for both the candidate and the party posters, the latter relying largely if not exclusively on propositional statements as opposed to imagery. One message in particular has come to characterise the campaign above all others:

But even looking at Labour’s full complement of posters what is striking is the almost complete absence of the party’s social justice platform, in spite of the fact this is arguably the strongest it has been for some time. Save for the $15 hour minimum wage initiative, even the policies aimed at the most disadvantaged are sold as lifestyle enhancers.

The reason behind this choice may have to be sought in an utterly depressing poll released earlier this month that revealed to what extent centre-left voters support the vindictive Tory approach to beneficiaries, but the discomfiting fact that the New Zealand middle class still won’t forgive the poor for Rogernomics is also an index of the continuing abdication of moral leadership on Labour’s part. Having chosen not to raise the spectre of inequality, let alone address its root causes, Labour has forced itself to wage the election on its opposition to the sale of a minority shareholding in the public power companies that it ran for a decade under the state-owned-enterprise model, that is to say as de-facto private companies tasked with extracting maximum profits from their customer base. It then proceeded to affect great surprise that a public that remains opposed to privatisation won’t be more forcefully swayed by a policy difference that is technical at best.

The key to a different poster campaign, therefore to a different campaign more generally, could have come from Labour’s quite remarkable 20-minute opening television address, which promoted its current front bench and policies against the backdrop of the history of the party and its unwavering commitment – but for the notable exception of the Lange-Douglas years – to a coherent set of social democratic principles. I honestly thought at that point that the party might pick up the theme and go for a retro line of posters. We might have seen this again

or this,

or a variation on this,

(Messrs Savage, Fraser and Nash, 1954)

and it might have sparked a useful conversation on the history of the social contract in New Zealand, and what appealing to that pre-neoliberal past might actually mean and entail. Strong policy initiatives that build on that tradition and on those values – such as the introduction of a capital gains tax – could then have been promoted within an appropriate ideological framework, instead of being measured against the very narrow parameters of poll favourability, which naturally counselled against mentioning them at all, as any other new tax would.

National’s posters, but for the ubiquity of the drongo-in-chief, are roughly specular to Labour’s in terms of content, and peculiarly (perhaps even studiously) unimpressive and bland from a visual point of view. The most notable exception is a poster reminiscent of the infamous campaign orchestrated in 2005 by John Ansell.

Road-building is just about the only area these days in which the Tories allow themselves some swagger, and are unafraid to enthusiastically publicise how beholden they are to their backers. Even so, the poster is curiously ambiguous, allowing people who might be sceptical of the thaumaturgic effects of great roading projects to see virtue in the stance of the bloke who stands in for Labour. We’re quite a ways away the odious divisiveness of this.

By contrast with both major parties, the Greens aren’t the least bit shy when it comes to making claims that are not so much ideological as downright existential. This, remember, is the party that in 2008 tied its fortunes to those of the planet

and entrusted an Aryan-looking, Missoni-clad child to instruct us to vote for them, or else.

This year’s offering picks up in a slick, self-assured manner right where the previous campaign left off. In this instalment the child has been replaced with a friendlier model and the hope for the survival and continued employment of humankind has taken the concrete form of the coupling of green jobs and clean energy – the new economy made in Obama.

These are the dominant messages that vie for our attention and play against each other in our cities and on our rural roads. Juxtapositions can be hard to interpret: is this a clash of incompatible worldviews, or a glimpse of tomorrow’s coalition?

And what of the placing of ACT at ground level, literally at the feet of its life-giving coalition partner?

ACT’s posters are at a premium, at least in Wellington, the baffling aesthetic of the few that I’ve seen reflecting its state of utter confusion

whilst another party languishing in the low single digits yet flush with cash projects a clean, confident image as it tries to position itself as the viable right wing fringe of the Parliament of 2014.

New Zealand First produced the poster version of a non-sequitur

Image by edmuzik
which was later made slightly more intelligible by means of a piece of recession-era bricolage

whereas the party that I used to be proud to support with my membership got an old sign out of storage, in an apparent, stubborn refusal to gift any of its twelve remaining votes to Mana. (Really? Come on guys.)

And this, at least in the capital, is the unimpressive extent of it, in keeping with the level of the political conversation and a campaign that struggled to take off after the Rugby World Cup and thereafter to generate much interest, its conclusion largely seen as foregone and quite possibly not all that important. In fact, the claim in my opening paragraph notwithstanding, I’ve walked through suburbs in which the signs of the campaign are all but absent – disconcertingly so. To step into them from a more densely marked area is like stepping into a place of indifference, or into another time, barely a week from now, when these very forgettable posters will start to be forgotten.

The image that will stay will me the longest may well end up being one that I nearly failed to notice, up Vivian Street, of a series of grievances against the Tory government struck on little square medals and hung on a fence that is popular amongst the knitters of graffiti. Incongruously small, the medals dangle in the wind without making much noise, like niggling complaints in lieu of the outrage that nobody musters. No-one will bother to take them down before Saturday, when people go to the polls. They will still be there next week, and likely the week after, waiting for other grievances to be added on and to start dangling along.

(more election posters from earlier this year)


George D said...

I've put up about 120 of the Greens 'windmills' billboard, and about 40 of 'stream' (as they're known to the campaign team). I've also put a number of He Whenua Tonui (the land prospers), the Maori language iteration of stream. So I've had a little time to think about them.

They avoid policy, but speak messages very clearly. Kids, rivers, jobs, and an inclusive society. Devoid of direct slogans or policy planks, but heavy with symbolic meaning. Is this a bad thing? They certainly don't talk about what is required to get there, the costs and the losers, or speak about sacrifice. Such is politics right now, where there are no losers, only winners. The party is also using the child heavily across media, the Greens own version of the child from McGehan Close.

Until 2008, the party did its own billboards and material. As a result they were simple and policy focused, and often cluttered or unimposing. In 2008 the campaign won awards, but it essentially said nothing and allowed the viewer to pose their own interpretation. These have slightly more meaning, but again are pleasantly devoid. Thankfully there's enough in the campaign for the public to connect with ("kids, rivers, jobs").

But really, the best thing about them as far as I'm concerned is that they're pretty. As I doorknock sites, the owners are fairly pleased to have something that attractive on their fence or yard. From an entirely practical standpoint 'stream' failed, because it was indistinguishable from a background of trees. The second one incorporated that feedback.

Giovanni Tiso said...

They avoid policy, but speak messages very clearly. Kids, rivers, jobs, and an inclusive society. Devoid of direct slogans or policy planks, but heavy with symbolic meaning. Is this a bad thing?

I'm not saying it's necessarily a bad thing, nor that the old Labour posters I have shown are any less loaded or any more transparent, but... where do the Green posters show an inclusive society? Genuine question.

GZ said...

where do the Green posters show an inclusive society?

It can be argued that a young Maori child who happy and apparently healthy speaks that much, and that the obvious play on words about a society that looks beyond monetary gains to the things that actually matter, is an inclusive one.

Those are the ideas that lie behind the billboards, how well they communicate that, or whether Greens policy would deliver that is a legitimate matter for debate.

Giovanni Tiso said...

That packs a whole lot of meaning in the 2011 child having a darker skin than the 2008 child. I also note that while he does look like he might be Maori or at any rate Polynesian, his family doesn't, and there are no cultural markers outside of a generic Newzealandness (a family frolicking by the river).

James Butler said...

That packs a whole lot of meaning in the 2011 child having a darker skin than the 2008 child.

You're reading a whole lot of meaning into political posters. Now this is your speciality not mine, but I'd say at that depth the ethnicity of the child is worth unpacking.

Giovanni Tiso said...

That's what I mean - reading that as a straight signifier of inclusion seems a little problematic to me.

Anonymous said...

thaumaturgic! classic!

George D said...

The others deserve comment, I might get to that...

AHD said...

I had real hope after seeing Labour's election ad/launch: despite its problems, it seemed to me as though they were promising to launch a bold campaign in which they would perform a structural analysis of post-Rogernomics NZ. I really had some hope that they were going to connect to the glories of Labour's past, to the politics of Michael Joseph Savage rather than Roger Douglas.

I have been disappointed. It's been anything but a bold campaign; the ideological differences are relatively slight.