The Battle of the Billboards - Street Art Vs Politics
There was a general election in New Zealand in November of 2011 as a result of which the National Government gained another term in office.
One month before the election there was a preliminary battle for political turf. At stake were the high visibility spots on the nation’s street corners and verges – the prime spots to erect political billboards (or ‘hoardings’).
The proliferation of new political groups in 2011 (including the ‘Maori’ Mana Party and the ultra-right-wing Conservative Party) means there were even more signs than usual with sometimes up to a dozen at each site jostling for position like a bunch of vultures beside the highway.
In some cases the competition was fierce and Toothfish saw instances where billboards were erected almost directly in front of their competitors, thus blocking them out almost completely. The last parties to put up their signs often had an advantage in that they could place them in front of everybody else’s.
These political thickets drove some people almost crazy!
Toothfish met one Labour Party supporter who said they always hated driving before elections. They had to constantly suppress a very strong desire to swing the wheel of their car towards any National Party billboards they happened to be passing.
While this particular commuter did not commit any acts of political road rage (that TF knows of) others were more than happy to take the law into their own hands and deface or otherwise dismantle these billboards. Some of these attacks were doubtless politically motivated while others seemed more intent on using the signs as a temporary platform for their ‘street art’ or on just destroying the whole damn things completely!
POLITICAL BILLBOARDS – THE LAW
It seems there are two criteria for the ‘legal erection’ of political billboards at election time. Firstly you need to be a registered political party. Secondly you need to obtain permission from the local Council in the area where you propose to erect the signs.
To register as a political party you need to have at least 500 paid up members.
Once you are registered you need to comply with both the Electoral Finance Act 2007 (which limits the amount as party can spend on its campaign as a whole) and the Electoral Advertisements of a Specified Kind Regulations 2005(whatever they are!)
The billboards must be erected in accordance with local Council bylaws as well as local District and Land Management Plans. The Councils usually charge the Parties a small bond (say $200) to put up signs in their electorates and gives the Party a map of potential legal sign locations in their area. Any damage incurred during the erection or removal of the signs must be paid for and signs placed in areas outside those on the map are subject to removal at the cost of the Party. Of course signs can also be erected on private property which is outside Council Control.
Once the signs are up on ‘its land’ the Council takes no role in policing them and receives no money for site rentals.
As far as the signs themselves go there are firm rules about how big they can be, how high off the ground and how close to the road.
The ‘Guidelines for Temporary Signs in Public Places’ (Wellington City Council 2010) states that an 'election hoarding” is considered to be a temporary freestanding sign that is larger than approximately A3 (300mm x 420mm) and smaller than three square metres in size and promotes the election of a candidate or party’.
The billboards are only allowed during the month before the election itself and all of them must be removed before the actual day of the election -which in this case took place on Saturday the 26th of November 2011.
The signs are usually erected and maintained by a mixture of Party supporters and Private Contractors or both.
Of course attacks on political billboards are nothing new – people always have and always will deface or demolish them.
Many feature the faces of party leaders and not surprisingly these are often the first focus of any attack.
In the 2005 general election in New Zealand Don Brash’s smiling face was the main feature on the National Party billboards. That is it was until a widespread campaign of defacement saw large ‘Mr Burns’ stickers perfectly placed over the top of Brash on hundreds of billboards around the country. In 2011 Brash was the leader of the ACT Party (another right-wing cabal). This time he was wise enough not to put his mug on a billboard!
'Mr Burns' on top of Brash (2005)
This year most of the ‘facial attacks’ were on National Party Prime minister John Key.
On the North Shore of Auckland someone went round putting mustaches on Key and in Wellington someone else was covering his face with a ‘Terminator’s head, revealing Key to be a dangerous robot beneath his smooth reptilian visage.
Many people just spray-painted his face out completely or cut a hole in the poster and got rid of it.
After the faces it was the words and the slogans on the posters that came in for the most attention.
Shortly before this year’s election an organised nationwide campaign made headlines when up to 700 National Party billboards had stickers put on them. These professional looking stickers were made up of white letters on a clear backing sheet – which when removed – allowed new words to be added fairly seamlessly over the top of the background blue colour of the billboards.
These stickers enunciated National Party policy with greater clarity than the Party themselves with slogans like - ‘The Rich Deserve More!’ and ‘ Sell it! Drill it! Mine it!’ – a reference to National’s attempts to open up oil exploration and mining in New Zealand’s national parks and coastal zone.
It was regrettable that one of the people behind this political stunt was linked to the Green Party. When this was revealed the Party offered to go round and help National remove the stickers from their posters. However the stickers didn’t want to come off – they tore the poster - and eventually most of the added slogans were simply painted over with white paint.
In other cases people spay-painted their own ‘corrective’ or ‘dismissive’ slogans on the signs or pasted on additions – such as ironic speech bubbles beside John Key’s face.
Finally some individuals went the whole way and dismantled the sign completely and there are reports in some areas of signs being doused with solvents and set afire.
Although billboards are always attacked this year's campaign saw an increased number of incidents – particularly involving right-wing parties such as National and the Conservatives. This reflects a growing number of people who are worried about the increasing gap between rich and poor in New Zealand and the Government's position on issues such as social welfare and mining.
Some ‘liberals’ seem to be losing faith in the ‘fairness’ of ‘the democratic process’ and favor a more active interventionist approach in opposing the right-wing status quo. It could be this is the main reason for a general increase in billboard ‘street art’, ‘graffiti’ and general destruction.
THE PARTY SUPPORTER
One person who said he had had "a gutsful" of people vandalizing signs was John – the man responsible for erecting the National Party’s billboards in the Wellington electorate of Rongatai.
When Toothfish met this ex-policeman and staunch National Party supporter in the last week of the campaign he was replacing a John Key billboard which some joker had spray-painted a sad ‘Happy Face’ over the top of in fluorescent pink spray paint. Underneath the slogan ‘Building a Brighter Future’ presumably the same person had added (in green fluorescent paint this time) ‘For me and my mates!’
John said he’d replaced 28 billboards in just this one electorate during the month long campaign. In some cases the paint and stickers could be removed from the billboards but in other cases it could not. Toothfish estimates this particular sign was defaced at least half a dozen times – necessitating three or four complete replacements.
It was John’s firm belief that all of the attacks on National Party signs were organised by Green Party members.
“Their signs never get vandalized.
This was true.
Toothfish never saw a Green Party Billboard that had been hit and only one of the Labour Party’s. The majority of targets were National and Conservative – with a few attacks on New Zealand First and ACT.
It looked to Toothfish that this particular billboard had been damaged by kids (left-leaning ones admittedly).
John couldn’t understand why anyone would bother damaging a billboard. They just got replaced. It cost $50 to print one of the big John Key posters but the Party only had to declare it once on their electoral return. Meaning they didn’t have to add this extra cost to the amount they were restricted by law to spending on the campaign as a whole.
John was passionate about democracy and thought that anyone defacing or destroying a sign was an anti-social radical(i.e. Green Party Member).
Ian is a middle-aged activist who admitted to independently defacing "quite a number of signs" in the lower North Island – all of them belonging to the National Party.
He had also been involved in the somewhat embarrassing ‘Green’ sticker campaign – even though like many of the other people involved he was not a member of the Green Party himself.
Ian’s own billboard ‘graffiti’ was mostly confined to attaching ironic speech bubbles next to John Key’s face saying things like ‘Anyone not voting National in this suburb will be arrested!’ and ‘Vote United Brethren’ (a reference to a pre-election scandal in 2005 when this right wing religious organisation had assisted the National Party in producing a series of leaflets smearing the Green Party).
It was also Ian who had been doing the Terminator faces – often accompanied by a speech bubble saying something smart like ‘Vote Cyberdine!’ or ‘Hasta la vista baby!’
So why did he feel justified in breaking the law and defacing these posters?
'Democracy isn't working. The media is just a PR company for the government and the government is a PR company for big business. Oh no, wait! It is big business!'
Weren’t these attacks just venting his spleen then? Sour grapes?
“Perhaps that did come into it but someone has to say enough is enough. National won’t take advice from anyone. They've dismantled the public sector. All they want is 'good news' sound-bites which endorse their policies.'
As a purely metaphysical nature spirit Toothfish can't condone the nihilistic polices and actions of the current New Zealand Government. But nor does it want to see democracy break down completely.
As its own contribution to the 2011 electoral debate Toothfish launched its own political Party on behalf of the world’s plankton.(See previous NEWS post) If this extremely large group were effectively enfranchised it would form a massive voting block in favor of policies which put the environment first and human interests second.
Someone just needs to hold the pens for them!
Toothfish also put up some of its own political posters and electoral hoardings in New Zealand and despite the Council’s red tape there was no known official interference with any of them (although many were of course ‘souvenired’).
Toothfish suggests that rather than defacing political signs in the future a group of human artists in New Zealand could form a legal political organisation (maybe an ART Party instead of an ACT Party!) for the purpose of legally erecting ‘political signs’ at the next election. There doesn’t need to be any promises, policy or candidates. - just some nice art on three metre square billboards strategically placed in front of any future National Party billboards.
We’ll try and organize it!
More billboard photos
Vote Plankton Posters on walls around New Zealand
Nationwide Billboard Sticker Campaign
Urban Field Studies Blog Article