Opinion: Why gossip and personality stories should trump policy debate in our elections - Any dividend from Labour's policy-focused campaign?

Opinion: Why gossip and personality stories should trump policy debate in our elections - Any dividend from Labour's policy-focused campaign?

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.

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13 Comments

I've updated with a youtube clip at the top of Labour's first campaign ad. Goff says November 26th isn't a popularity contest.

If an election isn't a popularity contest then what is it?

Methinks Goofy is refering to the media focus on personal popularity , rather than the popularity of his party's policies .

...... but he's kind of screwed on both counts , isn't he !

Goofy is very busy...sorting a job out post November...one that involves very little real work...like his current 'job'....for the same bloated salary....with perks.

Too late ! ..... his predecessor ( Herr Helen ) already got that " job " , and her sidekick ( MC ) , he got the other " job " which fits that description .

...... Goofy could bunk down at Georgina Beyer's place in ... in... . in ? .

.. .. ah  feck .... who really cares where has-been socialist's slink off to , as long as they're gone ..

Will they be selling tickets to the leadership bun fight...!

Are we in for a Little bit of unionism?

Will being seen with Goofy be an own goal?

After the election loss , a ding-dong knock 'em down , drag 'em out fight is what Labour need .

.... that smooth transition from Clarke & Cullen to Goofy & Klinger , after the last election arse-kicking , was just so creepy and sleazey .

Bring back the " biff " , show some fight , you wastrals !

Wonder if the media will catch on and arrange a Little Klinger of a scrap!

Party boss Goff -  ' The Invisible Man ' -  is serious about that because hes absent from Labour bill boards , a very interesting marketing technique indeed

I do think it telling that the media focus on opening day, so to speak, has been on the look of media campaigns! 

Yesterday, the big news headline/question was why PG wasn't featured on Labour billboards - whereas a big JK face is plastered all over the Nat ones. 

Then I saw the Nats first telly commercial - and, gee, no JK in it at all - just two construction workers holding up signs. 

What could this mean?  Does this signal that National strategists are sidelining JK?  Has the country had a gutsful of the smiley/wavey brand?  Are National trying to align themselves with the blue collar worker?  Is roading the sole policy focus of National?  Is this signalling "Go" to future road asset sales?  Who are these two construction workers... Exclusive Brethren in disguise, maybe?  ... or perhaps communist union organisers have successfully infiltrated the National camp? Or perhaps JK isn't good in moving/speaking form as he can't pronounce words properly, stuffs up a handshake and is likely to go viral again on YouTube? ....

Last elections the National party promised  "a stronger future for all New Zealanders."

At the end of 3 years we have ended up with a record deficit and New Zealand's credit rating being downgraded by two of the three major ratings agencies. 

This time around thepromise is "building a brighter future" . 

So what's in store for the next 3 years,any predictions?

Yes willy foo foo...you can expect National to tighten the screws on the wasteful state sector while Labour tackle the internal bun fight to detemine who will lead them to failure in 014.

The mistake you make WFF is in expecting the govt to have turned the economy round from a socialist failure in 08 to some sort of utopian wealth generator today...Clark wasted 9 years creating a recession and leaving behind a closet full of economic filth.

But do take into account as a fact that the world is in a debt crisis...and no amount of fraud on the part of reserve banks and govts and corporates will erradicate the consequences of the decades of idiocy. So best to expect little real progress until the macro crisis is over...say another twenty years. You don't mind having a National govt until 2031 do you WFF...good.

What our PM said:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/company-taxation/news/article.cfm?c_id=691&obj...

...interestingly stupid and a wee bit megalomaniacal for NZ - again - next to other plans - smiley big words as usual - but no substance !

 "raiders of the nations life supporting resources"...there you go again parky...exposing your true socialist beliefs...who was it drilled that bit of fluff into you parky...?