Let's have a little sympathy for Labour's mud-flingers. The party's pollsters are among the best in the business and for more than a year now they have been serving up an unpalatable fact: sink or damage National Party leader John Key or there is no chance of a Labour fourth term.
The party has been all over the place in trying to apply the lesson. A classic was Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen's schizophrenic approach earlier this year when he would describe the state-house-to- political-leader as "a working-class scab" in one breath and an international moneyman in the next.
That approach was doomed and so were most other attempts. Mr Key made the odd classic gaffe, such as expressing a desire to lead a Labour Government, but he rolled on, largely unruffled. He admitted to strip club visits as a merchant banker, but made the perfect response that this was not appropriate entertainment in his current role.
All the while he kept moderating the more extreme elements of National Party policy adopting the so-called Labour-lite approach, but with marker pole differences, such as personal income tax cuts. Now, each time the Labour leaders pick up their weekly polling data they find the huge gap in favour of National cemented in place.
To say Labour is rattled is an understatement. Desperate would be a more accurate description demonstrated by that frenzied attack on Air New Zealand and the public service over the charter flights of Australian troops to the Middle East, followed by personal attacks on Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer.
The word has gone out to throw everything possible at Mr Key, working on the old political principle that if there is enough mud thrown, some is bound to stick.
Health Minister Pete Hodgson tried again to work up a scandal over Mr Key misleading with electoral forms on which house he was living in, but Mr Hodgson made such a dog's breakfast of this on RNZ's Morning Report that every feedback fax to the programme was critical of him. In any case, as Mr Key explained, he had a legal opinion from the Clerk of the House backing his approach.
Labour signalled that it would be trying to tie Mr Key to sham Elders Finance deals over Equiticorp, hinting, ominously, that he had been interviewed by the Serious Fraud Office. Mr Key scuttled that with a pre-emptive strike, saying he had left Elders before these events. His interview had been in relation to charges against other people.
That was confirmed by former Serious Fraud Office director Charles Sturt, who added that to suggest otherwise was purely mischief-making.
This desperation for any scrap of information, any document that can be flourished against him, seems to put into context the burglary of Mr Key's home while he was on a well-publicised overseas holiday, and the mysterious raids on his home garbage bins, detected by neighbours on several occasions. These were not homeless people, looking for discarded Parnell food portions. They were well-dressed operatives who took off swiftly when their activities were detected.
The most likely assumption is that these were freelance actions by political activists. I do not for one moment imagine that Prime Minister Helen Clark would have had any knowledge of this. Such activities would be abhorrent to her.
Miss Clark's approach to discrediting Mr Key involves regular asides noting his newcomer status and his lack of experience. But taking her eye off the ball in this manner led to her trapping herself in parliamentary question-time last week when Mr Key asked about NZ Law Journal criticism of the Electoral Finance Bill provisions suffocating freedom of expression in election year.
Miss Clark responded by denouncing the "well-known, right- wing" editor of the Journal, leaving Mr Key, the inexperienced newcomer, to deliver his trump card: "Can the prime minister confirm for New Zealanders that that is exactly the sort of opinion she is trying to close down with the provisions of the electoral law reform bill, because she does not like it when people publicly say they disagree with her?"
More is to come in the blackening attempts on John Key after this week's parliamentary recess, Labour is promising. But party strategists would be wise to mull over American president Theodore Roosevelt's advice: "The men with the muck-rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck."
- © Fairfax NZ News