Don Brash, John Key and Mary Poppins

It’s Mary Poppins time boys and girls – Dr Brash is your medicine and Mr Key your spoonful of sugar. Do you want to take your medicine? No?


Well, what’s to be done with you?

There not quite as cheery and smiley as you might want – and a bit of effort’s involved – but here’s a few brisk political calisthenics that you could try as an alternative to holding your nose and swallowing.

The famous Elaboration Likelihood Model by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo talks about two ‘routes’ to persuasion: A central route which is taken when elaboration of the attitude object is high. A high elaboration occurs when “conditions foster people’s motivation and ability to engage in issue-relevant thinking” and, in that state, people are likely to:

(a) attend to the appeal; (b) attempt to access relevant associations, images, and experiences from memory; (c) scrutinize and elaborate upon the externally provided message arguments in light of the associations available from memory: (d) draw inferences about the merits of the arguments for a recommendation based upon their analyses of the data extracted from the appeal and accessed from memory; and (e) consequently derive an overall evaluation of, or attitude toward, the recommendation.

In short, the central route involves thinking about things. The alternative route is the ‘peripheral route’ and is taken when the likelihood of elaboration is low. In such a state:

the acceptance or rejection of the appeal is not based on the careful consideration of issue-relevant information and a consequent restructuring of schemata, but rather it is based on (a) the issue or object being associated with positive or negative cues, which have no intrinsic link to the attitude stimulus (e.g., although an attractive model can serve as an argument for the merits of a beauty product, it would more likely be a peripheral cue for an oven–cf. Gorn, 1980); or (b) the recipients draw a simple inference based on various cues in the persuasion context (e.g., the more arguments for a recommendation, the better it must be–cf. Petty & Cacioppo. 1984).

In short, it’s a quick, low-thought route to having an attitude.

The other thing to note about the ELM is that it’s a continuum, not a dichotomy. That is, messages get ‘processed’ somewhere along that continuum depending on the person, importance of the ‘attitude object’, when it occurs (e.g., months out from an election versus during an election campaign), etc..

Here’s my prescription for a bit of left-leaning persuasion in the present circumstances. I try to incorporate both routes but mostly emphasise getting people to engage more with the ‘issue’ (who to vote for).

From now until November the left need to make the words ‘Brash and Key’ and ‘Act and National’ (in that order) synonymous in the public mind. If that isn’t achieved New Zealand will end the year with a government that could be as radical as the fourth Labour government.

Someone should now be mapping out a ‘rolling maul’ of points (historical and current) that keep pressing the same button: Key and Brash have the same prescription for New Zealand (damn them with their own words – I’m sure there’s plenty to choose from). [This encourages memory  – central route – of the last time Brash and Key were politically aligned and raises the obvious possibility that they’re still aligned – despite recent comments by Key about Brash’s policy prescription being “extreme“.]

Someone else should be mapping out 30 questions that, week by week, Key has to answer definitively as to what any government he leads will or will not do in relation to a raft of policy areas. And, every time Key says ‘I won’t do X’ then go to Brash and say ‘How do you feel about Key ruling X out?’ [As well as associating Brash and Key – peripheral route – it also encourages thinking – central route – about what a Brash-Key government could do.]

Keep the pressure on. Brash (and Key) will fumble, public conflict will be the story and people will start to get confused, uncertain and suspicious about what would or wouldn’t happen with an ACT-National arrangement. [As well as associating Brash and Key with incompetence – peripheral route – it also provokes more thought because there’s no clear answers.] It also has to be pushed that ACT is National’s only option for governing (which, realistically, it is). Don’t let Key claim he ‘has other options’. [That would be Key going for the peripheral route with vague assurances that lead people to believe that they don’t have to worry – i.e., think – too much about an ACT-National option.]

On the positive side, someone else should be formulating a clear message that this election will be between a ‘centre-left’ and ‘radical right’ option (keep pointing out, this will no longer be that ‘first term’ that Key promised would be Labour-Lite – prods the search for relevant memories, i.e., to use the central route to think about what might happen post-election rather than just assuming it will be ‘more of the same’ which amounts to a ‘quick and easy’, low elaboration approach to attitude formation.).

The electorate needs to be asked: ‘Do you want to cross your fingers and take a giant leap off the social and economic cliff with Brash and Key or make progress toward a New Zealand that will sustain our people and our land as we all grapple with a future that is increasingly uncertain and which will not respond to the ‘answers’ of the 80s and 90s?’ (Of course, it needs to be punchier.) [Questions invite thinking – the ‘bigger’ the question the better. Questioning also contrasts the uncertainty about what might happen under ACT-National with a clear analysis of what is needed for an uncertain future.]

On the even more positive side (three sides?), Labour, the Greens – and any other party that opposes what is in prospect with a Brash/Key government – need to highlight their policies in ways that show how they will strengthen New Zealand and New Zealanders so that we can face the future together, just as Christchurch people came together to help each other (where they did). The message needs to be solid, reassuring and heart-warming and needs to be delivered with urgency and passion.

As much as I’m advocating the central route, people don’t live by thinking alone. The positive message should resonate with the heart as much as the head. But, why am I advocating the central route at all? Doesn’t that play into the stereotype of the typical, lefty intellectualism?

The central route does not have to be ‘intellectual’. It just has to get people thinking in the most ordinary sense of the term. They don’t need to know about Foucault and Derrida, they just need to be allowed time to think about Brash and Key. Also, the central route needs to be taken for a simple reason: Key is hogging the peripheral route.

It’s hardly an original insight to note that the overwhelmingly dominant approach that Key is currently taking to persuasion is the peripheral route. He trades on non-political aspects of himself – his smile, affability, ordinariness. Simply to counter this approach, the left needs to push the narrative so that it is forced more down the central route, but still retain options through the peripheral route (e.g., association of Brash and Key). In doing so, it could also potentially reap the reward of making Key seem more and more ‘peripheral’ in his approach.

Another reason why the left has predominantly to go down the central route is that, at present, many people might think the election is a foregone conclusion. The notion of a ‘foregone conclusion’ has to be avoided at all costs. It’s like a gigantic sign to people not to bother to think about how to vote. Under those circumstances the peripheral route wins out.

What Dr Brash has done is given people something to think about. He’s a cerebral man and probably would be proud to think he has achieved that. It may, however, turn out to be the very prod that upsets John Key’s bandwagon as it merrily careers down the peripheral route to the election.

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2 Responses to Don Brash, John Key and Mary Poppins

  1. He can float a tea tray across the UNIT lab, and with a little practice could probably do the whole Spoonful of Sugar sequence from Mary Poppins.

  2. Puddleglum says:

    float a tea tray across the UNIT lab“???

    Now you’ve got me curious.

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