By Stephen Franks*
Should elections be decided on competing policies, on manifesto promises, or should they be a popularity contest between leaders? Could Phil Goff (or the wise PR man Mike Hutcheson, reported to be advising the Labour Party) lift this election from the swamp of beauty parade banality, by forcing National to discuss at least some of the important issues facing the country?
Labour may be making a virtue of necessity because Goff can't beat Key in a popularity contest, but if they do better than expected could it be good for New Zealand as well? Would that encourage Stephen Joyce and whoever emerges as Labour's strategist for the next election to develop a manifesto of more substance, instead of the likely sick-making tangles of platitudes?
Yes to all those questions except the first.
Astonishing myself, after about 5 years in Parliament I concluded that 'personality politics' is much more important than policy politics. At its best, if the media are doing their job properly to expose the person behind the spin it is the difference between choosing employees on references and character on the one hand, and qualifications and resume presentation on the other.
This is particularly important in an age when ideology is confused. The deciding voters (the mostly uninterested and poorly informed swingers in the middle) are largely unable to comprehend the costs and trade-offs in competing policies anyway.
But as humans with life experience they retain sound instincts for assessing character. Hypocrisy meters are acute. But it does depend on the media doing their work diligently. I want gossip. I want tittle tattle and scandal. We need the unauthorised versions. Helen Clark revealed more of herself in the unscripted fury at John Campbell's impertinent questions over Corngate in 2005 than anything else.
Give us gossip
In 2008 I posted on a discussion with Prof Gary Hawke during my campaign for Wellington Central:
"The people are right to be more interested in revealing gossip than serious policy pronouncements, because many politicians shuck policies like clothes. Think "closing the gaps", "returning to the top half of the OECD" and the biggest of them all, (not that I'm complaining) a Labour PM from the left signing a free trade deal, flanked by union leaders, in a country with notorious labour standards whose manufacturers are demolishing ours.
Few policies thought to be vital during an election are nearly as important as the unexpected shocks met when governing. They must be dealt with on the basis of character and predisposition, in the absence of party debate. No one, including Bush would have thought of running on a policy to respond to a 9/11 event. The policies commentators now cite as defining achievements of the Labour goverment - prostitution liberalisation, anti-smacking law - were never seen on a manifesto.
I’m willing now to defend the relevance of ‘gossip [what the targets always call 'muck-raking' in elections, though I try to play the ball not the man myself. Wishart's work is at least as important to the health of our political system as the more 'elevated' commentators, whether or not he gets some interpretation wrong. Though Nicky Hager's "Hollow Men" to me seems blatantly hypocritical, not just naive, he at least thinks important the question voters should be asking of the leading people in all parties - "are you honest, do you routinely lie to save yourself"? - yet the BSA punishd TV3 for eliciting Helen Clark's responses to Campbell on Corngate. Would the people have re-elected Clark or Peters if they'd been more focused on the character questions underlying Hager's strategy?
With a more informed focus on character would they have re-elected the woman who was to lead the Labour Party into electoral fraud in 2008, and to support New Zealand's first convicted corrupt MP (Philip Field)? Would they have elected Peters, whose dishonesty was unmasked despite Michael Cullen's attepmpts to shelter him from Parliamentary proceedings, by the determination of Phil Kitchin, with Owen Glenn and Sir Robert Jones?
The intuitive focus of the people on illustrative stories instead of policy can be more penetrating than the preoccupations of the intelligentsia - as long as the media are prepared to expose inconsistencies in 'stories'.
That is why I am deeply suspicious of Labour's announced intentions to try to bring our newspapers (and bloggers) to heel by combining the Press Council and the lickspittle BSA. The Left's opportunist attacks on the Murdoch media for hacking could leave us with the worst of all possible worlds - electoral beauty contests where no one is allowed to film before the make-up, or to go without invitation behind the vapid spin to the judges' questions.
* Stephen Franks is a commercial and public lawyer who represented the ACT Party in Parliament from 1999 to 2005 as its justice and commerce spokesman. He also stood for the National Party in the 2008 election as its Wellington Central candidate.
He writes his own blog at stephenfranks.co.nz.