(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 13.)
This election is shaping up to be the strangest in my lifetime.There’s a cacophony of minor parties scrambling for attention and a frenzied political bidding war in which there seems to be no limit on the extravagance of the promises made.
We’ve had an outbreak of thinly disguised xenophobia over the sale of a farm, a sideshow over the use of the phrase “Sugar Daddy”, and a blatant appeal to the emotions of voters who imagine New Zealand can raise the drawbridge and retreat into a cosy and safe economic fortress, 1970s-style.And all this is taking place within the context of a seriously flawed electoral system originally devised to prevent an extremist party such as the Nazis regaining power in Germany, as if that were somehow applicable to New Zealand.
The weirdness is so all-pervasive it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s begin with the largest (literally) and most bizarre factor of all.The very name Kim Dotcom suggests a character from a Batman or Austin Powers movie. But while Dotcom likes to present himself as something of a fun-loving jester figure, he’s a noxious force in politics.
If there was any doubt about that, it was erased by the Internet-Mana Party video on YouTube in which Dotcom urged an apparently liquored-up audience of Christchurch students to chant “F--- John Key”.Apologists for Dotcom have tried to excuse this as free expression and youthful exuberance. It was nothing of the sort.
Whatever you think about Key (and I’ve never been a fan) this was rabble-rousing at its basest and most puerile level. Dotcom looked like a grotesque cross between a gangsta rapper and the Fuhrer at Nuremberg.Policy? Issues? Never mind that tedious stuff. Let's bring it all down to mindless, hateful abuse.
The video did, however, serve one useful purpose: it left no one in any doubt that what primarily drives Dotcom is deep personal animosity against Key.
No matter what you think about the other figures in this election campaign, you have to allow that they are all motivated by genuine concern for New Zealand. But Dotcom doesn’t give that impression.The question voters should ask themselves is whether a toxic personal grudge is a sound reason for entering politics (not forgetting, of course, that Dotcom may also be motivated by a desperate desire to avoid extradition to the United States, where he’s wanted for Internet piracy).
Relax, the apologists for Internet-Mana say; Dotcom won’t necessarily have any influence on party policy. If you believe that, you probably also believe in chem trails. He doesn’t strike me as the sort of person to put $3 million into a party if he’s not going to have any control over it.Which brings us to Laila Harre, the nominal leader of the Dotcom-funded party. Of all the performers in the current political circus, she is the one whose reputation has been most damaged.
Harre once commanded respect as a leftist politician of conviction. In aligning herself with Dotcom she has redefined herself as a rank opportunist – a retread, desperate to revive her political career even if it means throwing her lot in with a flashy and extremely rich capitalist entrepreneur with an opaque agenda.Try as she might, she will never overcome the perception that she has betrayed her proletarian principles in the pursuit of power.
So what of the other players in this most bizarre election campaign?There’s the cerebral and unworldly Jamie Whyte, whose Herculean task is to rebuild the discredited Act. Whyte is a conviction politician, just as Harre once was on the other side, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Act has no gas left in its tank.
There’s Colin Craig, who hopes to capture the substantial social conservative vote, but who seems determined to sabotage himself. I mean, who persuaded him to pose for that tragically misguided photo where he’s lying in the grass with a come-hither look?Craig is another conviction politician, but like Whyte, he’s up against a media that is at worst hostile, at best unsympathetic. The last thing he needs is to provide ammunition to the mockers, but he can’t seem to help himself.
Then there’s Winston Peters. There’s always Winston Peters. But I wonder if this could be the old warhorse’s last charge. If New Zealand First doesn’t get past the five per cent threshold, I can’t see Peters sticking around for another three years – in which case that could be the end of the party too, unless Ron Mark can be persuaded to take over.And of course, lastly there’s Key. His preternatural popularity is a complete mystery, but you can’t argue with the opinion polls.
The only thing standing between Key and a third election victory is the MMP system, the vagaries of which could still deliver a rogue result in the form of a dysfunctional coalition cobbled together from the disparate, angry forces of the left.As a journalist, I find it riveting; as a citizen concerned for our future, I find myself getting more apprehensive as the big day approaches.
FOOTNOTE: This was written last weekend, before the Nicky Hager bombshell. What was previously our most bizarre campaign ever is now also shaping up to be the ugliest.