Traditionally, New Zealand’s election campaign has had a formal length of about one month. This is in part a result of laws and conventions relating to the time between the dissolution of Parliament and the election of the next one, which must be less than 40 days. A campaign’s beginning is generally signalled by the public campaign launches of each political party and the broadcast of opening television addresses by party leaders. From this point onwards candidates engage in an intense schedule of electioneering.
Since the 1970s, with widespread television ownership, campaigns have been more ongoing, with the parties campaigning throughout the electoral cycle. This ‘permanent campaign’ has politicians using photo opportunities to gain media attention, while party strategists keep a close watch on public opinion polls (which are conducted by the parties themselves as well as the media).
Campaign techniques have changed dramatically since New Zealand’s first election in 1853. In very early elections the main campaigning technique was for candidates to give speeches. They stood on top of soapboxes or other temporary wooden stages erected in public – otherwise known as the ‘hustings’. Electioneering has also involved political banquets, posters, bribery, public meetings in local halls and door-to-door canvassing.
First national campaign
The early 1870s saw the first attempt at a national campaign. Government minister Donald McLean organised a campaign on behalf of the incumbent government, and Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel toured the country. Although the governing group won the election, McLean’s method took years to catch on. It was not until the 1890s that a nationally organised political party – the Liberals – fought and won an election.
Face-to-face contact with voters was slowly superseded – or at least supplemented – by the use of evolving media technologies. First, newspapers became the main medium for getting the message out in 19th-century New Zealand. Then, in the 1940s, radio surpassed newspapers as the main method of political communication.
The 1960s saw the arrival of television, and by 1969 the medium was beginning to dominate election campaigns. Television election advertisements became increasingly sophisticated, and news coverage brought images of the campaign into people’s homes.
From this point the whole configuration of electoral politics began to change to a more professional – some say Americanised – form. A telegenic image and highly adept communications skills became paramount. Politicians and their campaigns were tailored using commercial market-research principles. Commercial agencies, communications consultants and new technologies communicated with and listened to voters. Parties sought votes by focusing on their leaders and using soundbites and emotional appeals, rather than mainly through party manifestos which listed policies reflecting their political ideologies.
Campaigning on the internet
In the 2000s the internet became a vehicle for further changes in electioneering. Parties and candidates used websites, blogs and social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to get their appeals out.