Tuesday 27 September 2011

Trivial Pursuits

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.


Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Compared with Mallard's Labour shambles, Russel Norman and the Greens are a well oiled machine.

Keeping Stock said...

Good on you for calling Trevor Mallard out on this Chris. You'd think that with the Erin Leigh wound reopened by the Supreme Court decision in her favour, he would have been keeping a low profile. It will be interesting to see whether there are any legal consequences as a result of this, which would be felt by Labour as well as the owner of Red Alert.

Victor said...

All very true.

And Labour needs to remember that it no longer monopolises the left-centre of our political spectrum.

Frankly, the Greens appear a lot nicer and (guess what) most people like 'nice'.

Andrew said...

Good post. I enjoyed the JK video particularly. My son is a 4th year engineering student at Auckland, and from what I've seen of engineering students here, the video looked like a normal day at uni. Work? What's that??

As for Mallard's comments, to my mind they are perfectly mild when compared to the shameful way in which he, and the Labour party in general, prepared a large bucket of shit and poured it all over Erin Leigh's head under cover of parliamentary privilege. In theory, my inclinations are more towards Labour than National, but I just could not bring myself to vote for a party some of whose members display such a lack of simple human decency.

Sorry to bang on. Moderate away.

Anonymous said...

If this sort of thing is what makes a difference to who gets in government, then it isn't worth voting.

Meanwhile, the Emperor has no clothes.

Anonymous said...

Never fear, they have decided to distract the electorate with personal attacks on the universally despised Mad Butcher, that will distract them. Good plan .

Andy C said...

I misread the title as Travel Pursuits and thought "Chris thats a bit harsh..but fair."

Victor said...

There's an interesting and relevant article by Jonathan Freedland on the Guardian's website concerning the current UK Labour Party conference.

Freedland cites an opinion survey suggesting some voters found Ed Miliband "creepy", apparently for standing for the leadership against his elder brother.

Similarly, there are obviously some Australian Labour voters who have not forgiven Julia Gillard for putting the knife into Kevin Rudd, despite the latter's unpopularity at the time of the coup.

On the whole, voters like to be able to view their leaders as being at least as kind, genial and conventionally decent as themselves.

And, ultimately, a lot of politics comes down to Groucho Marx's celebrated maxim:

“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made!"

In my view, politicians ignore this maxim at their peril.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Victor

Groucho also said 'you don't like my principals? well, then I have others!"

I'm afraid that looks so much like Phil at present. At the heart of Rogernomics (for better or worse) and now staunchly on the left.

Ah well.

Victor said...

And Groucho also said:

"A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five."

Every politician in the land might benefit from doing so.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Victor

That quote from Groucho is a a bit obscure for me. You have clearly 'out Groucho'd' me!

My father was a child of fourteen, number 10 to be exact, (thank God for Catholicism), I am a child of one, and I have five children.

You can fetch one of my five children if you wish, but be aware, I have been careful to influence them along the way. ;-)

Robert Winter said...

Isn't it time that Red Alert's value to Labour (as opposed to its opponents) is assessed. Darien has made an excellent apology to the Mad Butcher today (in the face of something of a beat-up) but Red Alert allowed the matter to arise in the first place. And this is the problem, sometimes, with blogs - they provoke people in to writing things that, on reflection, they might decide not to say. Red Alert has diverted more than a lttle attention from the real target, and that can't be good.

Anonymous said...

Goff is scared of Mallard, by the looks of things.
Mallard, a tough old dog, of the old school, aggressive to the limit.
Time for retirement? Get real!

Anonymous said...

Why does Key have to be on all the National electorate election hoardings? Doesn't he trust his MPs to stand on their own? (Garth George, you never said a truer word re yesterday's Herald piece, re the analogy with the Roman age and ours...emperors and gl

Ann said...

Trevor Mallards negative comments not okay,
Chris Trotters okay ? ? ?

Not in my opinion: but if I am honest, I enjoyed the gossip re: Dr. Bryce
Edwards. .Why do the left carry negativity too far so often ?

Chris Trotter said...

For God's sake, Ann, grow up.

There is a world of difference between responding to the inappropriate comments of a Member of Parliament, and launching an unprovoked attack on a young university lecturer for doing no more than attempting to provide New Zealanders with a valuable service in election year.

Sometimes I simply despair!

Ann said...

I am grown up Chris,
and I regularly remind myself that University Lecturers
and the media are not really accountable to anyone,
Politicians are.

Victor said...


The moral of your piece is surely that a new code of manners is now in place, whereby "niceness", ostensible good humour, friendliness and a degree of superficiality and flipness are what's required of politicians.

This is partly a result of John Key's own light touch. But is also reflects an underlying cultural shift, possibly linked to the ubiquity of new media and, more broadly, the permeation of society by short-term commercial imperatives.

Perhaps it's also a symptom of widespread embourgeoisement.

And it's a shift that's all the stronger for fitting in so well with many long-established Kiwi cultural desiderata.

In fact, subtract the flipness,and you may have something resembling New Zealand politics in the decades of post-war consensus. I wasn't here then, so I'm just guessing.

Of course, cultural shifts aren't like diamonds and don't last forever.

It's quite possible that continued economic travails will reinstate both moral passion and the rancour that often accompanies it to a central place in political discourse.

But don't hold your breath. In the meantime, successful politicians need to concentrate as much on being "nice" as on being "good".

Phil Goff, like Helen Clark before him, understands this shift. But neither has proved capable of assimilating their personalities to it.

For his part,Trevor Mallard seems essentially tone deaf to what's required.

But how many are there on National's front bench, apart from Key, who comprehend these imperatives, let alone, who can play to them. Not all that many, I suspect.