Shifting political generations brings new national narratives

By Wright Communications

The phrase “generational shift” has become the story of New Zealand politics in recent months with the electoral outbreak of Jacindamania followed reasonably rapidly by the accession of Simon Bridges to the National Party leadership. So what are the implications for the national narrative and what will these new generation leaders need to do to ensure they actually connect in a meaningful way - read vote-winning - with the next generation?

We're already seeing a clear trend emerging, in the media and public fascination with the personal lives of our young, pregnant Prime Minister and her first-man-of-fishing partner. With National's generational shift to Bridges - who himself is a young family man with three children under six - we are going to become consumers of the two leaders' personal lives in a much greater capacity than ever before.

Where previously we've taken a passing interest in Helen Clark climbing mountains and John Key playing golf, we're now likely to witness nappy changes and lots of footage from inside the family home. We're talking wall to wall social media, women's mag coverage and mainstream interest in the personal lives of these leaders on a completely different scale to anything we've previously seen in New Zealand.

It could be seen as a reflection of the type of reality TV / social media mash up that, much to the horror of many, engages the younger generations in their hordes. Are we witnessing the further Americanisation of New Zealand politics? Rhetorical question.

The test for Ardern and Bridges will be to judge how far they choose to engage with potential voters through exposure of their personal lives versus actual political issues that might matter to theirs and future generations.

Already there is evidence of Ardern's pregnancy and personal life overshadowing the political work she is diligently undertaking. The deservedly derided 60 Minutes interview is one example and no doubt the number of Kiwis who know when her baby is due would be many times the number who could recall anything she said in her recent historic Waitangi speech.

It's clear both leaders are keen to shift the political narrative, with younger voters in mind. One issue they have already realised is fertile ground for a connection to their target audience is the environment. Within hours of taking over his party's reins, Bridges had reached out to the Green Party and was talking of a greater focus on environmental issues.

For her part Ardern was quick to back up Helen Clark and Sam Neil's call to ban the bag with references to the many pictures she receives from young Kiwis showing turtles with plastic straws up their noses or seals being strangled by stray plastic bags.

They are on to a potential winner with this, as research, such as Colmar Bunton's Better Futures Report (which recently highlighted plastic waste as one of the year's hot issues) has consistently shown Gen Y and millennials as leading the way when it comes to New Zealanders concerned about and acting on sustainability issues. This audience wants political action in this area too.

But how will they get their messages across to the country's youth and more importantly convert them into loyal voters. They will need to go to where the younger voters live - social media.

What better example of this than our two 2018 Winter Olympic bronze medallists - Nico Porteous and Zoi Sadowski Synnott, who appeared to consider their post-triumph media suitors from traditional channels (see their 28 February interview with Duncan Garner on The AM show) like some sort of curiosity from a bygone era, and were quick to point out that their home was on social media. They are both 16 and will be eligible voters come the next election.

But while it is the realm of younger voters, social media failed to deliver the much discussed youth-quake at the last election, so is clearly yet to be mastered by politicians in this country.

Therein lies a challenge for Ardern and Bridges.

In the race to connect with followers Ardern is well ahead. On the day that Bridges became National party leader he had 7,212 Twitter followers and 13,000 on Facebook. Compare that to Adern's 147,000 on Twitter and 191,000 on Facebook and it's clear he has work to do. Ironically, their online fan bases combined don't come close to the country's most popular social media politician, that keen golfer and Prime Minister from a previous generation, Sir John Key, who boasts 240,000 Twitter followers and 244,000 on Facebook.

Bridges may take heart from that, as he looks to emulate many of Key's successes, and he will no doubt rapidly increase his online followers. But he'll have to work out how to compete with the baby photos and the catch of the day to win their votes.

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