John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: It's dirty all right, but voters don't seem to care

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So far, so good for National but a damaging leak could change that

Illustration / Guy Body
Illustration / Guy Body

One question - and one question only - lingers like flashing neon on a moonless night as the Nicky Hager-instigated political firestorm of the last 10 days finally seems to be burning itself out, if only gradually.

That question is whether one of the more calamitous episodes in National's 78-year history has completely derailed the party's 2014 election campaign before it has even really begun.

The current drip feeding by person or persons unknown of the emails which Hager so meticulously and thoroughly stitched together in his latest book, Dirty Politics, could spell further trouble for National, especially if new and embarrassing material is released tomorrow to spike the party's formal launch of its campaign in South Auckland.

So far, however, the material dumped via Twitter - though of intense interest to the political cognoscenti - has added little to the knowledge of the nefarious practices of some high-profile party figures already detailed in Hager's book.

The short answer to the question of whether National is going to be punished at the ballot box is a cautious "no" - or at least not yet.

This week's Herald-DigiPoll survey - the first to be conducted since the publication of Hager's book - recorded a marked drop in National's popularity and John Key's personal rating. But that was off unsustainable highs in the previous poll.

A clear majority of committed voters still seem to prefer Key's and Bill English's brand of moderate and largely painless conservatism.

The latest DigiPoll result is broadly in line with the overall trend this year in the Herald's and other major polls. If replicated on election day next month, then National will secure a third term, though only by a narrow margin.

Sometimes there is a time-lag in opinion polls between an event taking place and major shifts in opinion registering in poll findings.

That cannot be ruled out in this case, especially if National handles another potentially cataclysmic crisis as badly as it handled this one.

But National can breathe easier for now. The DigiPoll outcome suggests that most voters continue to be far more focused on things that are fundamental to their lives like economic growth, jobs, inflation, house prices, education, hospital services and so on.

The revelation that a dirty tricks operation was being run out of an office on the Prime Minister's floor at the top of the Beehive appears to have failed to shock the bulk of voters.

It is politicians simply living up to the caricatures, stereotypes and cardboard cutouts into which the public variously pigeonholes them.

Whether it is National or Labour ones being naughty is immaterial to those voters. They are all the same.

As far as most voters are concerned, whale oil is something that was used in the distant past to fuel lamps - not scandals.

They have never heard of Jason Ede. Nor do they care that they have not heard of him.

All they know is that he is from Wellington, a place whose sole function, it seems, is to waste the taxes they are forced to pay.

They have heard of Hager, however. He is a polarising figure who is seen as either a saint or a stirrer - and nothing in between.

The atmosphere at his crowded book launch said it all. It was one of heady expectation; that Hager was about to unveil the magic formula which would unite the centre-left and finally puncture Key's bubble of seeming invincibility.

To his followers' absolute delight, Hager seemed to have more than delivered. To their further delight, National seemed to break almost every rule of crisis management in endeavouring to play down the complete and utter unacceptability of the collusion between Cameron Slater and the Beehive which the book exposes.

Rather than fess up and admit that the covert destruction of the reputations of people merely because they happen to think differently was way beyond the pale, Key went into denial mode, thus prolonging the agony for National. It would have been of considerable assistance to National had Slater switched off his mobile while in Israel in the past week instead of pouring petrol on the blaze which was consuming the party he presumably wants to win the election.

Also hanging her head in shame should have been Judith Collins for her role in passing information to Slater which ultimately resulted in the terrorising of a public servant by a third party.

For that matter, where was the State Services Commission, which is obliged by statute to protect public servants from intimidation and political interference? Answer: Missing in Inaction, as usual.

Collins should have offered her resignation as a Cabinet minister in order to help minimise any damage to the party.

She has done National no favours. Her caucus colleagues will surely reciprocate in kind when she seeks their blessing when Key finally exits the Beehive for good.

Key was this week doing one thing right, however.

While those on the left were in raptures seeing him squirming in obvious discomfort on the six o'clock news night after night, Key was using his press conferences to speak over the heads of the media.

In particular his assertion that the left was trying to "steal the election off New Zealanders" may well have struck a chord outside of the urban liberal enclaves in the big cities.

The left's problem is that while the book's contents are a major indictment of National, the audience that Labour and other Opposition parties are targeting are not that interested in the ins-and-outs of constitutional shenanigans.

National may have got the Government's books back into fiscal surplus, but its dirty tricks operations suggest a serious ethical deficit on its part.

Were this the United States, the main protagonists in this sorry affair would be hauled before a Senate inquiry and end up being handed a severe reprimand - if they were lucky.

Not everyone in National's camp will be impressed that those responsible for the contents of Hager's book will escape censure.

Take the likes of Nicky Wagner, who was already facing a real struggle holding her Christchurch Central seat for National. She may as well not even bother campaigning now that citizens of the earthquake-stricken city know they rate as "scum" in the mind of Slater. She will not be the only one cursing Slater. Christchurch was National's success story in 2011. National's strong party vote in the city was a tribute to John Key's unique ability to draw votes from across the political spectrum.

But Christchurch is gone. It would be rich irony if the city became National's graveyard in 2014.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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