Note to MPs: Stay clothed

06:40, Jul 28 2014
Nick Smith
SWIMMER: MP Nick Smith says he keeps trim by swimming.

National MP Nick Smith has defended a throwaway comment he made about fat politicians.

The comment was made when Smith was discussing his pledge to take a selfie dressed only in his togs if his electorate, Nelson, lost the Gigatown competition. 

Smith said he kept in shape by swimming regularly at his local pool.

"I'm trying to do it a bit more at the moment, because it's going backwards, and people don't vote for overweight people."

Smith later told RadioLive the comment was meant to be self-deprecating.

"I was referring to myself, it was a statement of embarrassment that I've put a few kgs on in the last couple of months and need to do a few more swims," he said.


But Smith may not be wrong.

A Michigan State University study published in the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion journal in May found voters were more likely to vote for thinner candidates than their overweight opponents.

University of Otago political scientist Bryce Edwards said there was a wealth of research and evidence that indicated more attractive candidates generally did better than less attractive candidates.

However, some types of candidates were more affected than others, and some types of voters were more inclined to be influenced than others.

"The physical appearance of election candidates is more likely to sway voters that are less informed about politics in general and about the candidates," he said.

"Those that have little information about the choices are inclined to use short-cut methods to make decisions. And a very short-cut way of making a decision is by simply looking at the candidate."

There was a significant number of successful politicians in New Zealand who had only succeeded in politics after having "makeovers", Edwards said.

The first was Norman Kirk, who in the early 1970s was fashioned into a much more presentable candidate for prime minister, with new clothes and a different haircut.

Then in the early 1980s, David Lange was convinced to have a stomach-stapling operation to cut his size down. 

Helen Clark also had to have significant changes made to her clothing and hair before voters warmed to her, and Phil Goff came under scrutiny in 2011 for colouring his greying hair, Edwards said.

Massey University's professor Claire Robinson, a political marketing expert, said there was plenty of evidence that suggested in New Zealand people were quite happy to vote for overweight candidates.

But she acknowledged it was something the politicians themselves were likely to be conscious of, with current MPs Tariana Turia, Chester Borrows and Anne Tolley all having undergone stomach stapling operations.

"A lot of that is also needing to be healthy and fit and able to cope with the stresses of the job."

There was a "halo effect" in politics which meant people saw attractive political leaders as being more credible, competent and trustworthy, she said.

That also meant Smith's swimming togs selfie could potentially backfire.

"I don't think we want to see our politicians [almost] naked.

"When you look at Tony Abbott and how much ribbing he got for being seen in his budgie smugglers, you don't want that discussion or story to go on about you. I think politicians really need to stay clothed."