After the fury and rage, the name-calling and distasteful vandalism that marked the kickoff of the election campaign, it was rather uplifting to go to a candidates' debate in a church hall in deepest Kumeu on Monday night.
It had its oddities. Very few of the candidates there actually lived in the Helensville electorate, and even fewer had any interest in actually winning the seat. Internet Party leader Laila Harre stood simply for a platform to annoy the incumbent, National leader John Key. She arrived with a security guard to keep her safe, although it was not clear exactly what elements in the darklands of Kumeu she thought she might need protection from.
She made her lack of interest clear. Asked what she could offer to Helensville, her reply was "change the Government". Key did pay some lip service to the electorate. His crew handed out a flyer with "Working for the Helensville Electorate" on it and a picture of him leaning nonchalantly with a flat white in hand against a fence in front of a couple of alpacas. The photo was taken at Fieldays, which is nowhere near Helensville, but a search on Google reveals there are a few alpaca farms in Helensville which was apparently enough to render it fit for purpose.
He was honest enough to thank the staff who did the actual working for the Helensville electorate, acknowledging he was awol for most of the time pursuing his prime ministerial duties.
The debate was derided as "boring" because the rules set by the convener, the formidable Holly Ryan, prohibited heckling, sledging or even mentioning another party. Any who offended more than once would be evicted. They did have a slight killjoy factor but it was not boring at all. The rules added their own level of entertainment. There was grumbling when Ryan also tried to outlaw clapping. The highlight was her addressing Key like a recalcitrant toddler when he broke the rules by mentioning Labour policies.
The surprise hit was the Maori Party candidate, Te Hira Paenga, who managed to endear himself to a room in which only about five people were on the Te Tai Tokerau roll with a combination of youthful exuberance and humour. His speech got the biggest cheer of the night. The audience was predominantly National but they also adopted the underdog, cheering good-naturedly when Penny Bright was introduced as reward for her triumph in defying the force of Ryan and getting into the debate. She fought Ryan's law and she won.
There were moments of pantomime in which the audience hollered instructions on what the main players should do next. They booed while trying not to move their lips so Ryan couldn't detect them. They quibbled when they thought Ryan should intervene, and they quibbled when she did intervene and they thought she shouldn't have. When she bailed at the end, it was a democratic vote by the audience that brought proceedings to a close, freeing them to go and have a cup of tea.
It was a reminder that the echo chamber of social media is no replacement for old-fashioned campaigning meetings.
Social media was always going to play a big part in this election. Yet for all its virtues, its main contribution so far has been to give disproportionate voice to a few largely anonymous players. Part of this is seen in the defacing of billboards, apparently spurred on by a Facebook page set up to showcase "modifications" made to National Party billboards. Some have been humorous, such as the replacement of Working for New Zealand to Twerking for New Zealand.
But others are not. The effigy burning was borderline. Anti-semitic slogans painted on Key's billboards are in another league altogether and the despicability and reach of them has been amplified by social media.
Then there are the politicians. In an apparent bid to out-shock-and-awe each other, the minor parties have had a massive amount of coverage so far. We've had Harre sulking about Key's description of Kim Dotcom as a sugar daddy. We've seen Act's Jamie Whyte apparently forgetting who his real foes are and instead getting into a contretemps with Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy. Key's description of Dotcom as Harre's sugar daddy was a legitimate sledge in the political context. I've used it myself to refer to Hone Harawira and Dotcom back before Harre came on the scene.
The "F*** John Key" chanting at Internet-Mana events is little more than political rambunctiousness, given the word does not have the same shock factor it once did. New Zealand First leader Winston Peters' off-colour pun on Chinese names was indeed off-colour, but should it really have got more attention than Labour's health policy announced the same day which affected hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders? On one level the attempts to vilify Key twerk out for both Key and his rivals.
The Internet-Mana alliance wants the fringe vote, which such things appeal to. Key wants the mainstream voters, who will look at the shenanigans of the Internet-Mana followers with some distaste and think twice about whether they really want them to have any influence in government.
The bad news for Labour is that it is wandering off in its Vote Positive orbit while all the focus is on just how dirty the campaign is getting. This allows it to claim immunity from blame for the dirty tricks, but also means it has been starved of attention.
For those sick of watching an election campaign unfold through a frenzy on social media there is a remedy. Get off Twitter and go down to a public meeting. That way lies democracy, or at least a few good-natured one-liners.