Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Election campaign has become a circus

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / NZ Herald
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / NZ Herald

This election campaign really is descending into a circus. On the one hand all the parties, bloggers, and commentators are fighting over a storm in a teacup - see John Armstrong's Key silence on tea tape cause for suspicion for the best coverage of this. And on the other hand, Green Party activists are caught red-handed in the type of juvenile billboard vandalism that the Greens are doing their utmost to disassociate themselves from - see Amelia Romanos' Greens billboard vandal quits. Also see Vernon Small's excellent Red faces over billboard campaign.

So where is all the policy focus that was promised for the campaign? Why has it all suddenly descended into trivialities, legalities, and pettiness? Part of the answer is that the political parties have all contrived to make this campaign utterly boring and mostly meaningless. National and the Greens, in particular, have so far been ultra-cautious in this election, running tightly controlled and highly scripted campaigns.

But such control-freakery is never liable to last and in the last few days we have seen some own goals from Key and Green party members. And these careless episodes really do have the potential to badly damage their campaigns, because both the teapot tapes and billboard damage campaigns relate to issues of political integrity.

Integrity is one of the biggest electoral assets for both parties, and in contemporary times is one of the main factors in peoples' voting decisions. Policy is less important than perceptions of whether parties and politicians are authentic, honest, and reliable. And John Key and the Greens have this in spades. Both are going to have that reputation tarnished as the result of the two big issues of the day.

There's plenty of advice for John Key today regarding what he should and shouldn't do about the tea tapes. Opposition parties are only barely concealing their glee behind earnest hand wringing about unethical taping, all the while insisting that public interest demands the release of the tape.

Meanwhile David Farrar argues that the distraction is as bad for Labour - see: A distraction Labour doesn't need. And it's no doubt true that Labour would prefer to be landing direct hits on National itself over policy, but seeing your opponent shoot themselves in the foot is surely the next best thing.

Key's position that he's got nothing to hide and won't agree to the release of the tapes on principle is looking fairly shaky. Reporting it to the police has only upped the stakes and ensured the story is prolonged.

Now that the recording has gone further than just the Herald on Sunday, it seems almost inevitable that the content will be known within days. If not, then the Herald would have a bonanza publishing the transcript, analysis of it, and reaction to it - all in their last paper before polling day. In justifying the publication of the recording they will be able to point to the massive public interest that has built during the week.

The intention of National's complaint to the Police complaint may be simply an attempt to buy the party a bit of time to work out how to spin this rather than preventing the release altogether. Certainly this is part of Gordon Campbell's excellent analysis: On the Banks/Key taping saga. Other essential views on the matter can be read in John Hartevelt's What's in the teapot tapes, really?, Andrea Vance's Cuppagate so much more fun than policy, Andrew Geddis' The Conversation, and Karl du Fresne's The funny business at the Cafe Urban. du Fresne, in particular, makes a very good point about how the media in this situation was able to (thankfully) break out of the oppressive directives of the highly-controlling politicos: 'it was symbolic of a tightly controlled media operation in which political journalists are expected to dance to a ballet choreographed by Beehive spin-meisters.... The whole affair was conducted entirely on the politicians' terms, for the politicians' benefit, and to that extent, pretty much summed up what the modern election campaign, with all its jiggery-pokery, has become; and I have to admit I'd find it quite satisfying if something hideously embarrassing came out of it all'.

All in all, the cup of tea has spectacularly backfired. The deal was always going to be seen as dodgy and the impression of Banks and Key desperately trying to conceal what was really said has magnified this impression tenfold. No matter how much Brash is disliked by the public, stabbing your own colleagues in the back in secret is never a good look. If this sinks the Epsom strategy then Act are doomed and for John Key undermines the smiley, blokey, good-mate-next-door image. Who wants to have a beer with someone who will be knifing you in the back the next time he shares a brew.

The defacing of National's billboards by Green Party members is obviously an embarrassment to the leadership of the Greens, and Russel Norman's reaction show's just how far the Greens are pushing into the mainstream. As Vernon Small points out in Red faces over billboard campaign, once they would have 'reveled' in these tactics but now they are obviously petrified of offending potential new supporters who hold the sanctity of private property above freedom of political expression. Small rightly points out that 'It is a measure of how much the Greens have changed that their new moderate mainstream image is now so at odds with some of their grass roots who germinated in protests like this. But with their poll rating above 10 per cent, and starting to pick up more and more middle-class voters, the last thing they need is a controversy that highlights the party's protest wing'. The Dom-Post agrees, saying that the obvious conclusion to draw is that 'it highlights the disparity between the Greens' desired voter target - middle class suburban voters who not anti-National and will vote for the 'new Greens' because they are a serious party and not a bunch of anarchists - and the Green Party's activist base, who are a bunch of anti-National anarchists'. This point about the contradictory balancing that the Greens are having to perform has recently been the subject of in depth research by Otago University Politics student Niki Lomax - see her blog posts on this here.

The billboard attacks by Greens is strongly condemned and analysed by David Farrar in his blog post, It was the Greens. As with other commentators, Farrar draws the parallels with the Exclusive Brethren campaign in 2005. This will be an ongoing comparison, because the Greens have constantly used the Exclusive Brethren example in their campaigns to 'clean up' election regulations and political finance, but now appear to be similarly tarnished.

Of course the rule for these types of political 'black ops' is don't get caught. That the Greens responsible for the attack then did interviews and put out a press release is mind bogglingly incompetent and almost rivals the foolishness of having a secret conversation just metres away from an assembled media horde.

An issue that should be a feature of this campaign is the MMP referendum. The outcome of this will arguably have a much more far-reaching and ongoing impact on the country than whether Labour or National lead the next government. Sadly the referendum has been heavily overshadowed by the political party chase for votes. Quite simply the politicians have no great interest in fostering or leading debate about the referendum, and so they've forsaken that role. Nonetheless there is some quality analysis being contributed to the debate. For example, today Prof Jack Vowles nicely demolishes the anti-MMP argument about the supposedly lack of accountability under the current system. His research shows that MMP has led to a greater degree of MPs being 'thrown out of Parliament' than under FPP - see: List MPs and 'Accountability'. Colin James explores why National tends to favour the supplementary member (SM) voting system, and why Labour favours some modifications to MMP - see: MMP or SM: it's not just a small-party matter. Chris Trotter also makes some important points in his discussion of coalitions and electoral systems in "The Most" versus "The Majority". And finally, I have an opinion piece in the Herald today in which I argue in favour of abolishing MMP's 5% threshold, pointing out that the supposedly 'dirty deals' in electorate seats are really due to the unnecessary threshold - see: Undemocratic 5pc threshold at fault, not MMP.

Top content

Tea tapes and Epsom

Duncan Garner and 3news.co.nz staff (TV3): 'Teapot tapes' raise questions

James Murray (TV3): Key is using own tabloid tactics over 'teapot tapes'

TV3: VIDEO: John Key discusses the 'teapot tapes' http://bit.ly/vNQk5V

James Murray and Lloyd Burr (TV3): Key has gone to police over 'teapot tapes'

Barry Soper and Felix Marwick (Newstalk ZB): Cameraman speaks out about cuppa recordings

Ryan Evans (Taranaki Daily News): The storm chaser in the tea tapes drama

Paul Harper and Michael Dickison (NZH): Tea-pot tape saga a 'farce' - Goff

Newstalk ZB, NZ Herald and APNZ (NZH): PM goes to police over tea tape

Guyon Espiner (TVNZ): Cup of tea saga not a game-changer

TVNZ: Tea tape: Complaint waste of police time - Goff

Audrey Young (NZH): Row over Epsom tea tape brews up

TV3: Don Brash talks 'teapot tapes' http://bit.ly/sVNWc4

John Hartevelt (Stuff): Brash unfazed by tape 'gossip'

Michelle Cooke (Stuff): Paper could have reason to publish tapes: expert

TV3: Key under pressure over teapot tape

Barry Soper (Newstalk ZB): Political Report: November 15

John Armstrong (NZH): Key silence on tea tape cause for suspicion

John Hartevelt (Stuff): What's in the teapot tapes, really?

Andrea Vance (Dom Post): Cuppagate so much more fun than policy

Gordon Campbell (Scoop): On the Banks/Key taping saga

Steven Price (Media Law Journal): Of sneaky devices 2

Andrew Geddis (Pundit): The Conversation

Phoebe Fletcher (Tumeke): Tea Party meeting scandal blow to National

Martyn Bradbury (Tumeke): Tea Party recordings - what is a blogger to do?

Karl du Fresne: The funny business at the Cafe Urban

John Pagani (Stuff): The sleaze in Epsom

David Farrar (Stuff): A distraction Labour doesn't need

Grant Duncan (Policy Matters): Tea-Party-Gate Pt II

Robert Winter (Idle Thoughts): Mr Key, Mr Banks and Tapegate: my scenario and the Duty of the Herald

Rob Carr (Political Dumpground): Recordings Blunder

Roy Greenslade (The Guardian): New Zealand prime minister complains about News of the World tactics

Bernard Orsman (NZH): Greens, Labour urge electorate to counter tactical voting for Act

Matt Nippert (NBR): Cup of tea sees Banks become shoo-in for Epsom

Richard Long (Dom Post): Dosing ACT with Epsom salt a better tactic

Green billboard vandalism

Amelia Romanos (NZH): Greens billboard vandal quits

Danya Levy (Stuff): Green party link to billboard attacks

Vernon Small (Stuff): Red faces over billboard campaign

The Dom-Post: The obvious point about the Green Party linked billboard attacks

Dan Satherley (TV3): Greens out billboard vandal

NZ Herald staff and APNZ: Norman: I didn't know about attack

RNZ: Green Party member behind billboard attacks

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): It was the Greens

No Right Turn: Dumbarse

Manawatu Standard: Editorial - Campaign need not descend to smear

TV3/RadioLIVE: Labour not behind billboard vandalism - Goff

Robert Winter (Idle Thoughts): Greens admit vandalising National posters: no nut loaf for a week

Electoral reform referendum

Bryce Edwards (NZH): Undemocratic 5pc threshhold at fault, not MMP

Jack Vowles: List MPs and 'Accountability'

Colin James (ODT): MMP or SM: it's not just a small-party matter

Chris Trotter (Bowalley Road): "The Most" versus "The Majority"

Steven Price (Media Law Journal): Vote for Change Changes Pamphlet

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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