Masterful Performance: If Phil Goff is still wondering how one goes about seizing the political initiative, then he's a very slow learner. The danger now is that the mainstream media will start treating the 2011 election not as a contest - but a coronation.
JOHN KEY’S COURAGE over the past ten days has been extraordinary. Not only did he utter the deplorable word "privatisation", but he also gave us ten months advance notice of the General Election’s precise date. Having surrendered one political advantage the Prime Minister then went on to give away another. By reaffirming his 2008 determination not to enter into a post-election coalition deal with Winston Peters, Key has given New Zealand fair warning that if he cannot win the election on his own terms – he’d rather not win it at all.
If, after this performance, Phil Goff is still wondering how one goes about seizing the political initiative, then he’s a very slow learner. It takes courage. It takes clarity of purpose. And, it takes the ability to speak forthrightly to the electorate. When a reporter asked the Prime Minister what would happen after the Election if Peters ends up holding the balance-of-power, Key replied, simply: "If Winston Peters holds the balance of power it will be a Phil Goff-led Labour government."
It’s this rare ability (in a politician) to give a simple, straightforward answer to a simple, straightforward question that endears Key to friend and foe alike. We are reassured that he’s speaking without mental reservation – hiding nothing. Voters cannot but respond positively to such frankness – so very different from the usual circumlocutory political prattle. The result is paradoxical: by demonstrating his consummate political skills, the Prime Minister convinces us that he isn’t really a "politician" at all. "As some of you have noted", he told journalists, "I’m a different politician to a lot of politicians". Indeed.
It takes a very different sort of politician to hide his intentions in plain sight. Only now, in the light cast by the events of the past ten days, has Key’s strategic plan been revealed to us.
Stage One involved persuading New Zealanders that they were dealing with a very different sort of National Party leader – one they could trust. Everything Key has done since deposing Dr Don Brash in 2006 has been directed towards this end, and he has succeeded brilliantly.
Stage Two requires Key to parlay the trust he has so assiduously cultivated into majority support for a radical manifesto of economic and social change. (This is where we are now.)
Stage Three, to be attempted only after securing an unequivocal democratic mandate, is to implement the promised changes as swiftly and as comprehensively as possible.
Essentially, Key’s strategy is the same as the strategy adopted by the Labour leader, Michael Joseph Savage, from the moment he succeeded the formidable (but rather frightening) Harry Holland in 1932. Most New Zealanders don’t realise that the election which cemented-in Labour’s policies took place not in 1935, but three years later, in 1938. That was the election in which Labour secured the most emphatic electoral mandate in New Zealand’s history – 55 percent of the popular vote. It was a victory built on faith and trust. Key is hoping to repeat Mickey Savage’s triumph.
And, unless I’m very much mistaken, he will be assisted at every turn by a news media which long ago gave away any idea of "monitoring the centres of power" or – God forbid! – holding them to account. Absent also (except among a handful of worthy journalistic veterans) is any conception of the Habermassian "public sphere". The idea that the media’s role is to facilitate a democratic discourse strong enough to interrogate and clarify the political choices on offer finds few, if any, advocates in the upper reaches of the so-called "mainstream media".
Carrying much more weight among news editors and producers is the plebiscitary principle inherent in big media’s reliance on opinion polls. Journalists are increasingly aligning themselves with what their newspaper’s and network’s pollsters tell them is the majority viewpoint. Critical examination of the majority’s claims is strongly discouraged, and media bosses only rarely sanction the presentation of a minority report (unless, of course, such reporting serves the interests of a major advertiser).
With all their polls showing Key well in front of his challengers, the mainstream media’s response will almost certainly be to present the Prime Minister’s political discourse as its own. This was certainly true of Morning Report’s coverage of the Prime Minister’s decision to once again rule out Winston Peters as a potential coalition partner. Radio NZ’s parliamentary reporter, Julian Robbins, was scathing in his dismissal of Peters’ electoral chances. NZ First, he assured us, had just become "irrelevant". Excluded from the Prime Minister’s coalition options, Peters would struggle to gain media attention, opined Robbins.
This was extraordinary stuff – especially since Key himself had already made it clear that if NZ First crossed the 5 percent threshold there was every chance he would be forced from office. The real story is that Peters and NZ First's share of the Party Vote will have a crucial bearing on the outcome of the 2011 election - only becoming "irrelevant" if journalists (especially those working in the Parliamentary Press Gallery) decide to make them so. And if that is their decision, what possible claim can they – or their employers – make to either fairness or balance in their election coverage?
Goff and the Labour Party should protest loudly against this sort of treatment being handed out to any political party – no matter how detested by right-wing politicians and voters. If elements of the news media allow themselves to be used – as they were in 2008 – to do the National Party’s and Act’s dirty-work, then it won’t only be NZ First that finds itself in the cross-hairs of an aggressively partisan media pack, but Labour and the Greens as well.