Saturday, September 20, 2008

Demagoguery alert

(Published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, September 16)

EXPECT Winston Peters to dip deep into his bag of demagogue’s tricks as the election nears and he sees his political future slipping away.

He’s at it already. His opening shot when the election date was announced last week was a warning that “media barons in foreign boardrooms” must not be allowed to decide the outcome.

Yeah, right. Even as I write this, the directors of Fairfax Media and APN – the companies that publish The Dominion Post and the New Zealand Herald – are busy plotting the destruction of democracy in New Zealand. They spend their days barking instructions down the phone to toady editors in Wellington and Auckland. Only the heroic New Zealand First leader stands between us and these rapacious robber barons – or so he would like his followers to believe.

The truth is more banal. New Zealand is mercifully free of the highly politicised media seen in countries such as Britain, where proprietors have traditionally viewed newspaper ownership as a licence to pull strings politically. Editors here have a free hand in determining their editorial policies – short of urging armed insurrection, at least – and their overseas-based directors would be wryly amused by the suggestion that they have nothing better to do than meddle in New Zealand politics.

The notion that New Zealand is at the mercy of manipulative foreign media moguls is an old fantasy of the Left, and a paranoid fantasy at that. Frankly I’d be surprised if Mr Peters – who’s no leftie – genuinely believes it. But the line will play well to his fretful followers. The Demagogue’s Handbook (a well-thumbed copy of which Mr Peters inherited, metaphorically speaking, from his role model, Sir Robert Muldoon) has a lot to say about the effectiveness of stirring up suspicion against shadowy, malevolent influences, both inside and outside the country.

The reason Mr Peters has such trouble with the media, however, has nothing to do with boardroom conspiracies. The truth is that journalists have simply had enough of his puerile, petulant, bullying antics.

Ask yourself this: why does Mr Peters, alone among our politicians, have a relentlessly adversarial relationship with the media? I would suggest it’s because he, unlike his parliamentary colleagues, has difficulty accepting that a liberal, western democracy demands openness and accountability.

For a long time he was allowed to get away with his bluster and prevarication because journalists, away from formal situations such as press conferences, were disarmed by his personal charm and humour. But the protective shield seems finally to have worn off.

Having said that, you can’t blame Mr Peters for fighting so desperately to save himself. After more than a quarter-century with his snout in the parliamentary trough, the thought of having to find a job out in the real world must be terrifying.

Incidentally, there’s a new political maxim to sit alongside Austin Mitchell’s famous line that National voters live on the hills and Labour voters live on the flat. My research (totally unscientific, but then so was Mitchell’s) suggests that radio talkback callers worship Mr Peters and people who write to newspapers can’t stand him. Make of that what you will.

* * *

LABOUR does slogans and buzzwords very well. This thought occurred to me at the recent Business New Zealand forum at which representatives of various parties put forward their election policies for business and the economy.

Helen Clark talked about investing in “human capital”, by which I presume she meant people. She talked about the New Zealand brand and the knowledge economy. She rattled off some of those snappy-sounding initiatives that Labour has “rolled out”, like Schools Plus and Fast Forward.

Later in the day, Michael Cullen stepped up to the microphone. We heard that phrase “human capital” again. He spoke of the need to “bed in” investment. There was mention of economic drivers, flexible pathways and accelerating rollouts.

The Clark government has been very good for the slogan industry. I’m sure that somewhere in the bowels of the Beehive there’s a unit working around the clock, possibly co-opted from Saatchi & Saatchi, producing catchy phrases that resonate with optimism and give the impression of a country rolling assuredly into a future rich with promise.

If slick phrases win elections, Labour’s a shoo-in on November 8. The pity is that it takes a lot more than glib Beehive-speak to re-energise an economy that’s steadily sinking to Third World status.

* * *

GREAT is the discontent and bitter are the recriminations over the shortcomings of the much-touted Snapper card that was supposed to revolutionise bus travel in Wellington. Passengers are reportedly pining for the trusty old 10-trip ticket which, in a typically over-enthusiastic gesture of faith in new technology, has been prematurely withdrawn from sale.

The only surprising thing about this is that anyone is surprised. Technology is a siren that lures the unwary onto the shoals of frustration and despair. If only they’d asked for a bit of curmudgeonly advice beforehand.

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