Free parking at the hospital is what these elections are all about

21:40, Sep 21 2010
Joe Bennett

For the first time in a decade I decided to go skiing. I fancied a day in the high and silent snow, among mountains formed by the same tectonic plates that caused the quake. Without tectonics things would be flat.

As I left the city I passed a poster advertising a candidate for the local elections. Here's the text on the poster in full: "Do you believe that parking at the hospital should be free? I do."

"Now that," I exclaimed to the steering wheel, "is a belter, a real biscuit-taker. In the long and inglorious history of election campaigning, has there ever been a slogan so blatantly emotive and yet so spectacularly trivial?"

"I was rather proud of it," said a voice from the back seat.

"Who said that?" I said.

"Me," said the voice, "the guy on the poster. The candidate. Call me Candy."


"Candy," I exclaimed, "how nice of you to join me for a hypothetical debate to while away the drive towards a windscreenful of mountains."

"What's wrong with my poster?" said Candy.

"In the long and inglorious history of election campaigning . . ."

"Yeah, I got all that," said Candy. "Blatantly emotive and spectacularly trivial, wasn't it? But what I want to know is what's wrong with it. I mean this is an election. And we're not going to pretend that an election is anything other than a mood- driven popularity contest, are we? Surely you're not going to suggest that it's about policy."

"Well," I said.

"Look," said Candy, "in the last couple of weeks the poll ratings of the two main mayoral candidates in this city of ours have reversed. Yet the two men haven't changed. Their policies haven't changed. And despite the quake, the city hasn't changed. The only change is that one of the candidates has been on telly a lot doing leaderly stuff. Apparently he's even winning the race for the Auckland mayoralty that he's not standing for. Now tell me what that tells you."

"I know, I know," I said, "but calling for free hospital parking is just a way of painting you as the good guy, oozing sympathy for the sick like a wounded Florence Nightingale. Hospital parking, I mean, it's so simplistic."

"Simplistic!" said Candy. "Have you seen the other campaign posters round the city? They make mine look like one of the denser texts by Noam Chomsky. Most of them consist of a photo of the candidate, the name of the candidate and a bloody great tick to remind the unwashed what to do. And that's that. At least I address something specific. Yes, I'm fishing shallow, but that's where the fish are."

"Point taken, Candy," I said. "I don't doubt your motives are as pure as the snow on Mt Hutt, and that you'd make a wonderful councillor or health board member or whatever it is you're standing for, but you can't deny that your little rhetorical question - and crikey, there's an emotive device as ancient as ancient Greece - is nothing other than a bribe."

"Of course, it's a bribe," exclaimed Candy as we speared across the plains past the evacuated prison. "When was an election ever won without bribes? Voters are selfish. But don't you see how clever the whole thing is. On one level it's a concrete proposal that only the hard of heart could disagree with. But on another level it ramifies. It suggests that I am a caring sort of guy who believes that the well should subsidise the unwell, that the fortunate should support the unfortunate. In other words, to clever dicks like you, it implies that I am politically Left of centre. Neat, eh? So much said in so few words. Concrete and specific, yet symbolic. As I say, I'm rather proud of it." "Candy," I said, "I'm warming to you. Indeed I've half a mind to vote for you. What was your name again?"

"It was on the poster," he said.

"Was it?" I said, "Was it really? I didn't notice. I was too intrigued by the subtle simplicity of your message."


"You still there, Candy," I said.

"You were right," he said in a voice steeped in gloom. "I should have listened. It is a lousy poster. But not because it's too simple. The trouble is that it's too bloody sophisticated. I should have gone with the tick after all. Bugger it."

And so saying he was gone.

Mt Hutt was closed because of the winds.

"Bugger it," I said, turned the car round and went home.

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