Bovver Boy: Why has Labour made its chief head-kicker its chief election strategist? Trevor Mallard's recent attack on University of Otago political scientist, Dr Bryce Edwards, had about it the unpleasant whiff of Muldoonism, and stands in sharp contrast to the friendly, easy-going style of National's campaign.
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 so 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 the University of Canterbury. Nothing so remarkable in that: the limousine pulls up; people shake hands; people make speeches; PM opens the university’s new super-computer; people shakes hands again; limousine departs. Not much to see here.
Except for the sign that 4th 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, “Maddog”.
“Just for the record,” quipped the Prime Minister having caught sight of Maddog, “I do have some really huge bodyguards. If I’d had a bit of advance warning…”
The two champions squared-off and, of course, Maddog won.
“If the New Year’s honour’s 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 You-Tube.
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 already watched the You-Tube clip.
It had gone “viral”.
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’s chief election strategist, Trevor Mallard, launched a vicious attack on the young University of Otago academic, Dr Bryce Edwards, for his, at times, highly critical assessments of the Labour Opposition’s performance.
The Bill English reference stemmed from Mr Mallard’s contention that, since Dr 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 the Minister of Finance, Bill English.
The gob-smacking absurdity of this claim (another sponsor of Dr Edward’s compilation is the PSA union!) was only matched by the Labour MP’s accompanying insults. According to Mr Mallard, Dr Edwards is “one of the few remaining supporters of the Alliance”, who is being “bank-rolled” to provide “political commentary which mainly attacks Labour and the Greens from the looney left.”
Rounding off his attack, Mr 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 Mr 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, Mr 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 You-Tube clip from the “Mech Suite”, the posting’s audience began to expand. Within days, the number of people in receipt of Mr 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 You-Tube clip of the PM’s visit to the “Mech Suite”, with the tone of Mr Mallard’s “Red Alert” posting, picking the election result becomes a cinch.
Sometimes, little things generate big consequences.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27 September 2011.