Campaigns that border on kamikaze

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 10:34 01/03/2014
John Banks and John Key
John Selkirk
PRIVATE CHAT: Media scrum was invited to see John Banks and John Key sit down to a cup of tea.

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The fact that John Key has already had to bat off questions on all three fronts will have sent a frisson of alarm through National's ranks. Some of the older warhorses will remember how it feels when an election campaign careens out of control.

It happened in 2011 when Mr Key lost his rag over a cameraman recording his private conversation with ACT candidate John Banks at an Epsom cafe.

Mr Key went to the police and heaped fuel on the claims by NZ First leader Winston Peters that he had something to hide, which was enough to give Mr Peters a leg-up back into Parliament.

That the recording turned out to be a non-event when it subsequently emerged on an anonymous website underscored Mr Key's miscalculation.

The 2005 campaign, meanwhile, had more twists and turns than an episode of Shortland Street.

There was the moment when Don Brash admitted he had held meetings with the Exclusive Brethren, masterminds behind an expensive smear campaign against the Greens and, it subsequently turned out, enthusiastic foot soldiers for National.

That this news completely floored many of Dr Brash's colleagues is an understatement. Gerry Brownlee, standing to the rear of Dr Brash during the press conference, briefly let his poker face slip at the revelation.

Legend has it that caucus strategist Murray McCully turned to his colleagues immediately afterward and told them "we're f....".

Then there was the "testicle" edict, issued after Mr Peters managed to unearth a woman with the suitably theatrical name of Vivienne d'Or to accuse Tauranga candidate Bob Clarkson of lewd behaviour and repeated references to his missing left testicle.

An exasperated Dr Brash vented to the media: "I don't want any candidates to be talking about their testicles to be quite frank."

To which any politician in his shoes would surely add "Amen to that."

But Labour is no stranger, either, to the campaign that spins out of control. Helen Clark lost her rag after believing she was ambushed over the so-called Corngate allegations by broadcaster John Campbell, who she labelled a "sanctimonious little creep".

Her government went from looking like it was on course to an emphatic victory, to needing the support of unlikely ally UnitedFuture after Labour's support plummeted in the final two weeks of the campaign.

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The growing cast of characters in the 2014 campaign suggests there are any number of ways in which it could be derailed.

Colin Craig, Kim Dotcom and new ACT leader Jamie Whyte all seem to be vying for the title of wackiest campaign.

Dr Whyte, for instance, seems to be having trouble divorcing his new life as a politician from his old life as a philosophy lecturer.

It is one thing to toss out the sort of provocative statements that no doubt made him a bit of an anti-hero among his students. Tossing out those same statements in the heat of an election year seems more like a kamikaze mission.

Even Richard Prebble, with all his experience as a seasoned political campaigner, will struggle to keep Dr Whyte's political career alive after his clanger over the state butting out of cases of incest when it involves consenting adults.

In retrospect, ACT's strategy of standing someone other than the leader in the Epsom seat is looking like a wise one.

Mr Key has had to soothe ruffled feathers in Epsom in the past after asking voters to hold their nose and vote for a candidate they did not like. Dr Whyte may finally have represented the step too far for the blue ribbon seat.

But Labour has no reason to be complacent. His colleagues would have cringed when David Cunliffe tried to pass off his $2.5 million home in one of Auckland's plutiest suburbs as a "doer-upper".

Many still break into a cold sweat at memories of Mr Cunliffe's infamous Avondale Market speech where he put on a faux Polynesian accent and talked about Mr Key as "the greasy little fella in a blue suit".

However Mr Cunliffe's appointment of Matt McCarten as his chief of staff and right-hand man suggests the last thing on the Labour leader's mind is a safe campaign.

That answers the critics within his own caucus that he has played the start of the year too cautiously, but it is also likely to turn the campaign into a high-wire act.

Mr Key, meanwhile, has no need to run anything other than a safe campaign.

But the antics of some of the minor parties so far suggest that will be beyond his ability to control.

- The Dominion Post

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