(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 23.)
Older readers of this column will recall a time when election campaigns were momentous events – part politics, part entertainment spectacle and part sporting contest.
Those were the days when party leaders such as Norm Kirk and Rob Muldoon attracted packed halls on barnstorming tours and local candidates were energetically heckled at street corner meetings.
Membership of political parties was much greater then (according to one estimate I’ve seen, 10 times greater) and the electorate was less jaded and cynical. Besides, there weren’t so many distractions competing for people’s attention.
There’s been precious little of that sense of drama and excitement, still less enthusiastic public participation, in the campaign that is now in its last days.
Election campaigns these days are carefully stage-managed affairs conducted largely through the media, notably television. The only big public event I’m aware of in this campaign was the leaders’ debate sponsored by the Christchurch Press – the one made famous by National leader John Key’s repeated taunts to Labour leader Phil Goff to “show me the money”.
Otherwise it’s all about sound bites and photo opportunities, principally with the 6pm news in mind. Everything is obsessively controlled by party strategists and PR advisers to minimise the risk of something going wrong.
Political reporters get very little advance warning of where the party leaders will be and are left scrambling in their wake, hoping for an unguarded remark, an unexpected drama – such as Mr Key being confronted by an ACT member unhappy that his party was getting the rough end of the stick over campaign arrangements in marginal seats – or a scrap of new information.
This campaign has lacked defining ideological issues. It has largely been about debt and borrowing figures – National’s versus Labour’s – and about who offers the best prospect of stability and progress in an extremely uncertain world.
Those figures are probably pointless, because they are of such magnitude that voters’ eyes glaze over. In any case, what credence can we attach to forward fiscal projections when the international environment is so unpredictable? Even at the best of times, forecasts are dodgy.
As the campaign has progressed, Labour has latched on to National’s proposed partial state asset selloff as the crucial point of difference between the two main parties. Obviously Labour’s polling has indicated this is the issue on which National is most vulnerable.
There’s an acute irony here, since the public suspicion of asset sales that Mr Goff hopes to exploit can be traced directly back to the actions of a former Labour government in which he was a high-profile minister. That’s politics for you.
Given the relentless focus on the two men vying for the prime ministership, the campaign has also been about leadership.
Neither man has turned in an entirely convincing performance. Mr Key came perilously close to seeing his campaign derailed over the symbolic cup of tea with John Banks (another exquisite irony, since the stage-managed meeting at the Café Urban was supposed to shore up their parties’ positions, not undermine them).
My view is that Mr Key and Mr Banks were too clever, too cocky, for their own good. That the stunt rebounded on them was poetic justice.
Polls indicate that National was correct to gamble that public dislike of the media would outweigh any concern about Mr Key’s supposedly indiscreet comments or the more general issue of electoral jiggery-pokery in Epsom. Yet he may still rue the meeting, since it had the undesired effect of breathing life into Winston Peters’ campaign.
Arguably the worst possible outcome of this election is that the former MP for Tauranga, a man who has exhausted his credibility several times over, should end up holding the balance of power.
As for Mr Goff, he has given the impression of sleepwalking through much of the campaign. He speaks in a whiny tone of voice that lacks fire or conviction. A capable senior minister in the Clark government, he appears to have risen above his level of competence. If he loses, as seems inevitable, it’s impossible to envisage him surviving as party leader.
And what of the other parties? The Greens have run a good campaign and been rewarded in the polls with their highest ratings yet.
Doubtless they have benefited from events such as the Pike River disaster and the Rena grounding, which have raised public consciousness about environmental fragility. But the Greens have also gone to some lengths to present themselves as a party with credible economic policies, presumably with a view to making themselves acceptable as a coalition partner for National should they find themselves in that position.
While that would stick in the craw of diehard Green supporters, it can’t be ruled out, especially when the Greens have been treated with such casual disregard in the past by their preferred partners, Labour.
And the Maori Party? People tend to give it the benefit of the doubt because Pita Sharples seems a likeable bloke, and even Tariana Turia is a lot less strident than she used to be. But there can be little doubt, after the past few days, about who the Maori Party represents, and what its agenda is.
It is the party of corporate Maoridom and its main purpose is to achieve privileged treatment for the Treaty-enriched tribes that it acts for. This couldn’t have been made clearer than when Dr Sharples said the Maori Party opposed partial asset sales, but would go along with them if the government gave iwi preferential purchasing rights. What’s “each-way bet” in te reo?
This might play well to the Maori corporate elite, but it can only have damaged the party’s credibility among the electorate at large. Perhaps the best that can be said about Dr Sharples in the present circumstances is that at least he’s honest.