Politicians making soft choices

Last updated 11:04 19/09/2012

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Most of the time, the mechanics of journalism are of no interest to most people, but occasionally it is worth shining some light on the process.

OPINION: Last week, for example, yielded a couple of examples of what looks like becoming a trend - that when the Government announces a controversial policy, or catches political heat unexpectedly, the ministers in the firing line will become unavailable for immediate questioning.

At the same time, the softer, kinder media outlets - such as breakfast television - do not seem to have quite the same difficulty in securing the ministers involved.

Accountability, in other words, seems to be going on the back burner.

Nothing entirely new in this, as ministers in successive governments have always tended to try to choose the media messengers who will be more amenable to their messages.

It comes down to a matter of degree.

Last week, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett and Education Minister Hekia Parata were scarce when it came to serious questioning about (a) the Government's draconian threat to slash benefits by 50 per cent after July 1, 2013 if certain health and preschooling conditions were not being met and (b) in Parata's case, after some controversial moves to amalgamate and/or close schools in Christchurch were announced.

Bennett, however, turned up on breakfast television, where she was referred to accidentally as “Paula Benefit” by host Petra Bagust, to much amusement.

Clearly, ministers cannot be at the media's beck and call day and night.

At the same time, it is dangerous if the questions in the public's mind are not being put - and answers given - primarily because the Government prefers to frequent those media outlets where the format will all but guarantee the hard questions do not arise.

Being accountable is part of the democratic process, and being seen to be distant and/or contemptuous of public concerns is a pathway to electoral oblivion.

The Clark Government, after all, wasn't voted out so much because it was incompetent - it lost support because it was seen to be distant, and imperious.

Stonewalling the media until the story dies quietly is another favoured strategy.

Last week, ACT party leader John Banks was being assailed by sworn allegations that he had sought donations from internet magnate Kim Dotcom for his mayoral campaign, but had allegedly asked that they be made anonymous - thus, they would not be traceable to any actions subsequently taken by him.

Prime Minister John Key, not for the first time, indicated that if Banks couldn't be proven to have broken the law, that would suffice to keep him as a minister.

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The common factor in these examples appears to be the short-term avoidance of conflict and the smoothing away of signs of public dissent regardless of the long-term cost.

Thus, when asked last weekend about the economic outlook, Key reportedly replied with a straight face: “The big worrying factor, if there is one, is Australia.”

This was classic political flannelling - the acknowledgment of a serious problem, and the simultaneous suggestion that the problem may not actually exist, all in the same sentence.

Popularity is a fickle thing to pursue, long term.

Eventually voters are likely to expect a readiness to front up to controversy, and leadership in resolving it.

- The Wellingtonian


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