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“Can we just vote now to end this embarassment”

  • November 6th, 2011

I did not blog post on the election last week because I found the campaign too nauseating. I did not want such depressing reflection. Not, I think, because I'm missing another contest after fighting four elections over 12 years.  I'm so not missing that overwhelming commitment. And nor is it because the political tournament is a let down after the Rugby World Cup. Other friends offered that as their reason for disengagement earlier in the week. Sean Plunket captured that sentiment in yesterday's DomPost opinion piece.

I think the sentiment was widely shared.  I owe this post's heading to a Tuesday lunch companion who thought the RWC should have ended on the Saturday of the election so that he could miss all the election propaganda.

Halfway through the first National/Labour leaders' TV debate I had to read something frivolous to fight off the urge to join the nearly 50% of the audience who switched channels or put a brick through the screen before the end.  I forced myself to listen to National Radio's minor party leaders' debate but it was too dire to remember.

But things are looking up. Guyon Espiner tested Bill English and David Cunliffe well on Q & A this morning. The Press Key /Goff debate in Christchurch seems to have turned the corner. Reassuring to me was the mystification of foreign friends at the kind of politics that can have the Prime Ministerial candidates on the front page of the capital's newspaper competing for "blokeyness" (judged on questions like how they share navigation with their wives). We are so lucky to have so little dividing us that we need to try to distinguish on such familiar grounds..

So what was so nauseating at the start of the week?

I'm upset about the trend of democracy as it is practiced by the masters of the focus group and the opinion poll. The election is reported like an elongated cricket test. Journalists do not investigate or interview to be able to tell us who is being misleading, or who is right and who wrong in their conflicting claims. Yet many of the contested statements could be readily checked and either verified or shown to be false. The blow-by-blow reporting and the opinion pieces are nearly all about who could be winning tactically, who will bat tomorrow and who is being seen by the pundits to get runs on the board.

I did not bluntly negate Pete Hodgkin's extraordinary claim on National Radio with me on Friday ( that Phil Goff had beaten John Key in this week's campaigning). Declaration of a stage victory for Phil seemed absurd enough not to need rebuttal but it was more that I did not want to join in just scoring the game. There were substantive differences to review but of course we did not get on to substance.

Still it is not really the reporting that is upsetting, though it may contribute to the nausea.  My revulsion is at seeing Phil Goff and other people I know to be patriotic and intelligent New Zealanders trapped into pretending that they believe in dopey policies (like vandalising our efficient GST with piecemeal exemptions) and dopey arguments (like claiming significance to lost dividend streams on SOE shares sold, without admitting that they may be less than the interest cost savings from borrowing avoided with the proceeds of sale).  David Cunliffe pretending that increasing the minimum wage and opposing restoration of a youth wage will have only a "marginal" effect on unemployment is as sick-making as watching Bill English having to pretend that John Key's dedication to the current superannuation policy is statesmanlike.

Labour (and National) are trapped into many policy and  debate positions that you and I may correctly believe to be stupid. But the Leaders are not talking to us. The major parties must now ruthlessly focus on their conversations with the swing voters in the middle. Only their votes matter. And not many of those voters know enough of public affairs to be worth talking to for long or in any depth about matters fiscal, or indeed any other complexity. Elections are won and lost on whether the causes espoused and the arguments used – as boiled down to the 10-15 words on each point that might get through the media filter to nationwide TV –  will make the Leader look like a nice non-scary, familiar and safe person to the 10-15% of voters who swing to vague sentiment. 

I was not surprised to read in a Herald report yesterday morning of the vox pop interview with a woman who will vote for John Key and thinks he leads the Labour Party.  Many of the swing voters would pay less attention to policy and politics than most New Zealanders would pay to World Wide (WWE) Wrestling. Both are now similarly staged.

And it is not only the major parties which have to ignore how they come across to the majority. Yesterday's clips of the horrible Hone Party launch were a reminder that most political speech is addressed to someone else, and it should be judged that way.

The campaign is reviving my fears that after 150 years of wide suffrage, democracy is showing signs of having run its course in some of the countries that cradled it. It may remain the best system we can contemplate, but it is a demanding system of government. In countries with people too feckless (bought off by patronage or other state bread and circuses or welfare)  or too divided (by race, religion, class or otherwise) or too corrupt or too lazy to sustain a critical public (media) consensus on minimum politician quality it may not reverse decline.  I worry that it might be becoming just too hard for 'professionally managed' election processes to throw up governments capable of leading citizens into the increasingly hard decisions facing the West.

This is not a question of "immaturity". It may be the opposite – the unavoidable result of being five or six generations into uninterrupted prosperity and civil peace and security. Too may of us may have no appreciation of what is needed to sustain vital principles. It could be related to the quality of education, or the standards of journalism, or constitutional safeguards against election bribery of people with their own money, but they too are more likely to be symptoms more than causes. People who talk about New Zealand as a young country forget that we are the fourth longest standing democracy in the world. 

My revulsion is from watching and listening to smart well-meaning men and women betraying their intelligence in demeaning debate, offering policies and justifications they know to be nonsense, or even worse, bad for their country, because of how they are forced to engage under the dynamics of elections in lazy democracies like ours. It is shared across the english speaking world.


  • Rob
  • November 12th, 2011
  • 1:56 pm

Now that you've got that off your chest go down to the wine cellar and fetch yourself a nice Merlot.

  • tim
  • November 15th, 2011
  • 9:04 pm

spot on!

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