Curtain up on a feral sideshow

Last updated 05:00 16/08/2014

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Terrifically offbeat Okato artist Dale Copeland is not impressed.

"It's all rather primary school playing field," she says of this year's general election campaign that so far is more like a feral catfight than a sober contemplation of who best to lead the country until 2017.

"I wish we had a Parliament of separate people rather than parties. People chosen because of their separate abilities. Just as you would choose a board of directors for a big company," she says.

"You would not, if you had any respect for the company, choose between two warring teams whose main aim seems to be getting chosen rather than running the company."

But then you might expect her to dismiss the political status quo. When Right-wingers dream of their Left-wing, anti-establishment nemesis, odds are that Copeland, in all her delightful intelligence and wit, is a fair representation of their prejudices.

Except this year the artist's complaints are shared across the political spectrum. No-one is impressed with the campaigning so far. And you can pick your reasons. You have the dubiously motivated politicking of Kim Dotcom and a vulgar student chant against John Key or the Prime Minister returning fire, slating the German internet millionaire as sugar daddy to the Internet Party's Laila Harre.

If that's not enough there is New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and his calculated "two Wongs" attention-grabber or ACT leader Jamie Whyte just as cynically nabbing headlines with his call to end race-based laws. Then there is investigative reporter Nicky Hager and his book detailing, among other allegations, National's too-cosy relationship with Right-wing blogger Cameron Slater. In response, National is palming Hager off as a "conspiracy theorist" while Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei claims the book shows Key has degraded the country's democracy.

From out of nowhere everything got mucky. And there will be more. Dotcom, for one, has promised as much one week out from election day.

"I don't think anyone has an appetite for the type of election playing out right now," says Witt council chairwoman and veteran of local politics Mary Bourke.

"The alarming thing is it could have a negative impact on voter turnout but now, more than ever, people have to take a stand."

So far, she says, Taranaki's candidates have kept clean, which is no real surprise. Because despite being involved in one of the country's most mistrusted professions, there is also a consensus those wanting to represent Taranaki's people are altogether quite pleasant, stable types.

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"I don't think people think much of the personal slights and put-downs," says New Plymouth's would-be Labour MP Andrew Little.

"I am listening to and discussing genuine political and social issues. I will be running a respectful campaign," says National's Taranaki-King Country shoo-in Barbara Kuriger.

Campaigning in New Plymouth will be about the issues not the "sideshows", says Green Party candidate Sarah Roberts.

Unfortunately those sideshows could already have done their damage in providing a handy excuse for people to turn off politics, as Bourke fears.

And it's bad enough as it is. Voter turnout in Taranaki in 2011 hovered around 70 per cent, similar to the rest of the country and trending ever-downward. That compares well with the United States, where about 50 per cent turnout is fairly standard, but it hardly delivers a government truly representative of the population.

Hawera's Ramanui School principal Liz Harrison sees it as an educator's role to ensure her pupils understand, young as they are, that democracy has to be fought for and that sacrifice is an obligation.

"It's a responsibility to vote. It's definitely a responsibility. I think the biggest difficulty is getting people out there to vote," she says.

"But people have become complacent because everything is always done to us anyway."

Not everyone is complacent for the same reasons. Socio-economic status, heritage, age, employment and education can all play a role in turning you on or off politics. So too can confidence. There is the fear, among both National and Labour, voters will stay away as they see a National victory as a foregone conclusion.

But until the ballots are cast nothing can be known for sure, says Steve Day of New Plymouth's Pace Engineering. Day wants the election over yesterday to see an end to the uncertainty even if, in his smoko rooms at least, there is no clamouring for change of the type that ended Labour's nine years in power in 2008.

"There seems to be an interest in maintaining a steady hand on the tiller with appropriate fine-tuning. No poli is perfect," he says.

Nor is any system. Day is particularly uncomfortable that Dotcom could be in a powerbroking position come September 20. But under MMP the German's financial backing of Hone Harawira will probably see the Internet Mana alliance, and by extension Dotcom, in Parliament next month.

"This is bizarre, absolutely bizarre," Day says.

The bizarreness, the bickering, the trivial attacks, the serious attacks might be playing right into National's hands, says associate professor Grant Duncan of Massey University's School of People, Environment and Planning.

Sideshows increase people's disillusionment and complacency with politics and means they are less likely to go to the polls. Those who don't vote are generally Left-leaning, he says, meaning complacency will hurt Labour and the Greens much more than National.

"We have been taking a lot of interest in low participation rates, particularly among young people. And I think these little squabbles really add to the disillusionment and cynicism around politics and voting. There is a lack of dignity that goes with those squabbles," he says.

Yet it is very hard to stop those squabbles, or at least their coverage, he says. With the rise of social media, online bloggers and a 24/7 news cycle issues that might have formerly been left uncovered are now thrust again and again into public consciousness.

Ironically, it is the young who are fuelling this new media landscape while being turned off, politically speaking, by the arguing baby-boomer politicians who are dominating it.

But it could all be so different if those young people were somehow energised to become part of the political landscape, says Duncan. He says this is exactly what Dotcom and the Internet Mana Party are trying to do.

The pay-off could be huge. There are literally hundreds of thousands of young people, a blank canvas, not yet engaged in politics, not even enrolled, and Duncan says the old pattern of voting for whoever their parents supported no longer holds.

"There is the potential for a rather unexpected transformative shift in New Zealand politics if and when the digital generation goes: Right, now it's cool to vote," he says. "Then things will change."

Henderson and Sergeant, Page13

- Taranaki Daily News

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