My View - Karl du Fresne
OPINION: Older readers of this column will recall a time when election campaigns were momentous events – part politics, part entertainment spectacle and part sporting contest.
Those were the days when party leaders like Norm Kirk and Rob Muldoon filled halls everywhere they went on barnstorming tours of the nation, and local candidates were energetically heckled at street corner meetings.
There's been precious little of that sense of drama and excitement, and yet less enthusiastic public participation, in the present campaign.
Election campaigns these days are stage-managed affairs conducted largely through the media, notably television. The only big public event I'm aware of in this campaign was the leaders' debate sponsored by The Press in Christchurch – the one made famous by National leader John Key's repeated taunts to Labour leader Phil Goff to "show me the money".
Otherwise, it's all about sound bites and photo opportunities, principally with the 6pm news in mind. Everything is obsessively controlled by party strategists and PR advisers to minimise the risk of something going wrong.
This campaign has lacked defining ideological issues. It has largely been about numbers – National's versus Labour's – and about who offers the best prospect of stability and progress in an extremely uncertain world.
Those numbers are probably pointless, because they are of such magnitude that voters' eyes glaze over. In any case, what credence can we attach to forward projections when the international environment is so unpredictable? Even at the best of times, forecasts are dodgy.
As the campaign has progressed, Labour has increasingly latched on to National's proposed partial state asset sell-off as the crucial point of difference between the two main parties. Presumably, Labour's polling has indicated that this is the issue on which National is most vulnerable.
There's an acute irony here, since lingering public suspicion of asset sales, which Mr Goff hopes to exploit, can be traced directly back to the actions of a former Labour government in which he was a minister. That's politics for you.
Given the relentless focus on the two men vying for the prime ministership, the campaign has also been about leadership.
Neither man has turned in an entirely convincing performance. Mr Key came perilously close to seeing his campaign derailed over the symbolic cup of tea with John Banks (another exquisite irony, given that the stage-managed meeting at the Cafe Urban was supposed to shore up their respective parties' positions, not undermine them).
My view is that Mr Key and Mr Banks were too clever, too cocky, for their own good. That the stunt rebounded on them was poetic justice.
Polls indicate that National was correct to gamble on public dislike of the media outweighing any concern about Mr Key's supposedly indiscreet comments or the more general issue of electoral jiggery-pokery in Epsom. Yet he must still rue the meeting, since it had the undesired effect of breathing life into Winston Peters' re-election efforts.
As for Mr Goff, he has given the impression of sleepwalking through much of the campaign. He speaks in a whiny tone of voice that lacks fire or conviction.
A capable Cabinet minister in the Clark government, he appears to have risen above his level of competence. If he loses, as seems inevitable, it's impossible to envisage him surviving as party leader.
And what of the other parties? The Greens have run a good campaign and been rewarded in the polls with their highest ratings yet.
Doubtless they have benefited from events such as the Pike River disaster and the Rena grounding, which have raised public consciousness about environmental fragility. But the Greens have also gone to some lengths to present themselves as a party with credible economic policies, presumably with a view to making themselves acceptable as a coalition partner for National.
While that outcome would stick in the craw of diehard Green supporters, it can't be ruled out – especially when the Greens have been treated with such casual disregard in the past by their preferred partner, Labour.
And the Maori Party? People tend to give it the benefit of the doubt because Pita Sharples seems a likeable bloke, and even Tariana Turia is a lot less strident than she used to be. But there can be little doubt, after the past few days, about who the Maori Party represents, and what its agenda is.
It is the party of corporate Maoridom and its main purpose is to achieve privileged treatment for the Treaty-enriched tribes that it acts for.This might play well to the Maori corporate elite, but it can only damage the party's credibility among the electorate at large.
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