Dead cats and the 'unprecedented' election of 2017

Need a distraction? Chuck a dead cat on the table and one thing will happen. Everyone will stop what they were doing and talk about the dead cat that was just plonked down next to the eggplant parmigiana.

In politics, that means they will stop talking about whatever's been causing you problems.

It's a diversion tactic. It might be manufactured, it might be shocking, but that doesn't matter. With any luck, everyone's forgotten what they were talking about before the dead cat appeared.

Boris Johnson used the phrase in a column for the Telegraph in 2013, saying it's borrowed from "the rich and fruity vocabulary of Australian political analysis" - a reference to his former campaign manager, Australian Lynton Crosby, who created polling and strategy firm Crosby Textor. That polling firm has been working for National this election.

Boris Johnson, with then-Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee, during a visit to New Zealand.
Boris Johnson, with then-Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee, during a visit to New Zealand. Photo credit: Supplied

"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," Mr Johnson wrote.

"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.'"

National confirmed to Newshub it is using Crosby Textor this election campaign.

"They are involved as they have been in the past doing some research for us. They are one of a number of contractors to the campaign," a spokesperson said.

Mr Crosby was working for the Conservative Party in the 2015 UK election. In the lead up to the election, Labour was gaining momentum. That's when the Conservatives launched an attack claiming Labour leader Ed Miliband would end the Trident nuclear deterrent in order to appease the Scottish National Party.

It was a technique Will Dinan from the University of Stirling says was designed to create a distraction and to tap into fear about the possibility of a coalition government with the Scottish National Party.

"While the content of [the] attack was in essence nonsensical, it served a useful purpose in deflecting the media agenda away from the emerging focus on tax avoidance and the social consequences of austerity, from which Labour had managed to make notable political gains," Mr Dinan wrote for The Conversation.

The Conservatives' campaign was run by Lynton Crosby, who, Sam Delaney wrote in his book Mad Men & Bad Men: When British Politics Met Advertising, "subscribed to a campaigning philosophy about simple messages that tapped into what the electorate might already be thinking." In that case, it was fear of a coalition government.

So, is a dead cat what Steven Joyce chucked on the table when he claimed Labour has a $11.7b fiscal hole?

National's numbers guy Steven Joyce with members of the caucus.
National's numbers guy Steven Joyce with members of the caucus. Photo credit: Getty

Let's set the scene. It's August 2017. Labour has a brand new leader. People are intrigued by her. She's running a "relentlessly positive" campaign, saying New Zealand is looking good but needs to be better. Labour is more popular than it's been for years.

On the day of the second leaders debate, Mr Joyce made the $11.7b claim, forcing the question of Labour's fiscal reliability to be raised in front of an audience of a million viewers.

Twenty-four hours after Mr Joyce raised the fiscal spectre, all seven senior economists Newshub spoke to said there's no $11.7b hole - but some would raise questions over how tight Labour's budget could be in future years.

If it was an attempt to create a distraction, the aim would be to swing the focus onto Labour's economics; its tax plan and fiscals instead of its new leader.

But if it was a dead cat attempt, Auckland University political studies lecturer Mark Boyd believes it's backfired.

"If it's that kind of thing, where you throw a cat on the table and everyone goes, 'Look at the dead cat', instead of the fire in the background, then it hasn't consumed all of the oxygen in the room," Mr Boyd told Newshub.

Mr Boyd said he believes, "If Crosby Textor was involved... they would put more planning into it. This seems to have been done on the fly."

"I think National's scrambling. They are in unknown territory. Six weeks ago they were cruising to victory. Like 2014, it was just a question over whether they would get enough to govern in their own right or whether they would stitch together a coalition."

Mr Boyd said the 2017 election campaign has seen unprecedented change.

"The whole scenario's completely different to two months ago. For that to happen so close to a campaign, it means incredibly volatility. I can't think of another one in New Zealand with that amount of political change that close to an election."