Of Mad Dog and English men

They weren't the most important events of the past week. In fact, in a world racked by economic crisis and intractable conflict, they weren't important at all.

But, as is so often the case with small, seemingly trivial events, they were highly instructive. They told us why John Key's National Party will have to work very hard to lose the forthcoming election, and why - barring a miracle - Labour hasn't the slightest chance of winning it.

The first event involved a visit by the Prime Minister to Canterbury University. Nothing so remarkable in that: the limousine pulls up; people shake hands; people make speeches; PM opens the university's new super-computer; people shake hands again; limousine departs. Not much to see here.

Except for the sign that fourth-year mechanical engineering students had stuck to the "Mech Suite" window overlooking the PM's arrival-point.

"John, mate," read the sign, "come up for a yarn with your country's future engineers."

The Prime Minister spotted the sign and, yep, you guessed it, to the whoops and hollers of the (mostly male) students he came up.

But wait, there's more. Not only did the PM come up, but he also agreed to match one of his larger and more terrifying DPS bodyguards against the students' massive arm-wrestling champion, "Mad Dog".

"Just for the record," quipped the prime minister having caught sight of Mad Dog, "I do have some really huge bodyguards. If I'd had a bit of advance warning..."

The two champions squared-off and, of course, Mad Dog won.

"If the New Year honours list was still open," said the PM, over the cheers of the students, "I'd give you a knighthood."

A story for the students' grandchildren? Well, a few years ago that would have been the case. In 2011, however, the whole event was captured on video and uploaded to YouTube.

Now, the cynics will say: "Aw, I bet the whole thing was staged." And, who knows, it may well have been. But, staged or genuine, isn't really the point.

What matters is that a) John Key was up for it, and carried it off with considerable aplomb. And b) The whole event is now available to the electorate via the internet. Just three days after it was first posted, more than 13,000 people had watched the YouTube clip.

The other event also involved the internet.

Indeed, that's where it happened - on the Labour Party blogsite, Red Alert.

In a posting headed "Bill English Funds Bryce Edwards", the Labour caucus' chief election strategist, Trevor Mallard, launched a vicious attack on the young Otago University academic Dr Bryce Edwards for his, at times, highly critical assessments of the Labour Opposition's performance.

The Bill English reference stemmed from Mallard's contention that since Edwards' NZ Politics Daily (a compilation of political stories carried that day in the New Zealand media) is partly sponsored by the National Party's polling agency, Curia Market Research, it is indirectly subsidised by the state (via Parliamentary Services) and, therefore, by Finance Minister Bill English.

The gob-smacking absurdity of this claim (another sponsor of Edwards' compilation is the PSA union) was only matched by the Labour MP's accompanying insults. According to Mallard, Edwards is "one of the few remaining supporters of the Alliance", who is being "bankrolled" to provide "political commentary which mainly attacks Labour and the Greens from the loony left".

Rounding off his attack, Mallard declared: "The guy makes Margaret Mutu look like a well balanced academic."

It is difficult to know where to begin with this outburst.

That it was made by the caucus's chief strategist raises a whole host of questions about the nature of the election campaign Labour is intending to run.

Does Phil Goff sanction this stuff? We can only hope that he does not endorse the sort of crude ad hominem arguments featured in Mallard's posting.

We must hope, too, that Labour's appeal to the electorate is fuelled by emotions considerably less disreputable than the petty spitefulness and partisan hostility which it displays.

Needless to say, Mallard's outburst did not go unnoticed by Labour's opponents - or its friends.

The blogosphere was soon buzzing with negative commentary and, like the YouTube clip from the Mech Suite, the posting's audience began to expand. Within days, the number of people in receipt of Mallard's "wisdom" had grown exponentially.

All elections have a "tone": a mode of address to the voting public which (largely unconsciously) "cues" their response to the competing parties.

If we compare and contrast the tone of the YouTube clip of the PM's visit to the Mech Suite, with the tone of Mallard's Red Alert posting, picking the election result becomes a cinch. Sometimes, little things generate big consequences.



* Chris Trotter is personally acquainted with Dr Bryce Edwards.

The Press