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Paul Casserly: Fumble in the jungle

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Paul Casserly watched John Key take on John Campbell in awe.

John Key goes head-to-head with John Campbell on Campbell Live. Photo / TV3
John Key goes head-to-head with John Campbell on Campbell Live. Photo / TV3

Last night John Key and John Campbell went head to head in a dramatic tussle over the GCSB Bill.

The build-up was tremendous fun. Campbell was on another crusade and I for one was along for the ride. I love how Campbell Live gets hold of an important issue and gives it a bloody good shake.

Other shows just make us shudder, Campbell Live, at its best, makes us proud.

However I had some misgivings about the GCSB Roadshow which had been underway for several days. It involved various Campbell Live reporters schlepping about the country and asking random people if they liked being spied on.

Of course they didn't. They may be rural nobodies from nowhere but they're not idiots.

Still shots of the countryside always play well and I get the need for a visual device for this rather dry subject. What was surprising was how many people had quite informed opinions about the matter.

I know that I'm against the bill even though I am incredibly uninformed. I base this solely on the fact that the Law Society reckons it's a dodgy law, which is good enough for me. I also like Dame Anne Salmond and she's calling BS too.

Then there's the former head of the GCSB and Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who hardly seem like radical conspiracy nuts.

Still, my laziness and aversion to legal matters pretty much renders me a sideline observer. This changed as my blood boiled the other night when John Key assumed - as had been noted by Russell Norman - a Muldoon-like demeanour at the National Party Conference.

Campbell Live's Rebecca Wright was asking Key why he wouldn't front on the show to talk about the bill. Surrounded by a room full of hyped up tory-bots, Key was brimming with the confidence of a general of a large army being confronted by a cheeky child with a rock.

He smirked and suggested, accurately as it happens, that Campbell would get more viewers "if he focused on snapper rather the GCSB". Then he chuckled.

"Will you come the show to talk about the GCSB bill?" asked Wright.

"Probably not," snorted El Duce.

He must have figured out the snapper line was a good one as I heard him repeat in on the radio the next afternoon.

But clearly his people were rattled by the growing disquiet about this seemingly unpopular bill. They had to do something to quell this unrest.

That something saw Key finally fronting up for an interview with Campbell.

The fight was on.

From the off, Key was brimming with that grin that reminds you why he was once referred to as the smiling assassin. JC for his part looked like he was there to land some solid hits. He had right on his side, he had the people, he was on a crusade and I couldn't wait for him get stuck in, to get Key on the ropes.

But there was a problem: Key was in top form. He was on his front foot, and it was Campbell who spent most of the next 18 minutes swinging and missing.

Possibly due to the dense nature of the subject, and the waffle that can be deployed by the PM to confuse even the sharpest tack, Campbell couldn't get purchase on his opponent.

He even lashed out a few times and seemed ready to reach across the desk to throttle the PM, who for his part looked to be enjoying himself. The smile just got wider. Even though they didn't really make sense, his words were like some sort of kryptonite to John, who - sensing that he wasn't getting anywhere - wisely resorted to video to remind us of the main points. Mainly that people who know what they're talking about reckon the bill is bullshit too.

"Why does it have to be rushed through?" said Bruce, former head of the GCSB.

Sir Geoffrey added: "We needed the debate to be elongated, not cut off."

But you have to feel for Campbell. How do you argue with the Smiling Man when he counters like this?

Campbell: "Are you saying that Bruce Fergusson, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and the law society and the privacy commissioner and the human rights commission are all wrong?"

Key. "Yeah."

But Key didn't have it all his own way, Campbell, after being overwhelmed by another flurry of baffling burble had a moment of absolute clarity.

"You are a brilliant politician, and you're doing a wonderful job tonight."

To which Key, lying through his teeth replied, "No, I'm not."

But it was Key who landed the most effective uncontested hits. He wasn't here to defend the bill so much as to attack Campbell and his GCSB Roadshow, which he described as, "wandering into cafes or whatever and telling them that the GCSB will be able to spy on them".

He also jabbed with a, "You've done so many stories that are absolute nonsense and you know they are."

And pulled out a smarmy but effective "I'm a bit busy running the country" for good measure.

I'm less sure about his, "We provide protection like the Norton Anti virus". As someone rightly tweeted, that pretty much means "slow, unreliable and more trouble than it's worth".

But the level of debate rarely rose above this:

Key: "You are frightening people.

Campbell: "No, I'm not."

Key:"Yes you are."

Then came the passive aggressive ending of the show.

Campbell: "Thank you for joining us. I'm sorry it's taken you so long to get in here."

Key smirked it off and delivered the line he came in for, the line that had been workshopped all that afternoon, the line that he had practised in the back of the Crown Limo as it powered up Symonds Street.

Key: "What I can tell you is what I can tell any New Zealander who's watching this show. They have absolutely nothing to be worried about."

The trick is so obvious when you see it. I truly have no idea about all the details of chapter eight or 14 or whatever they were trying score points over. But kids, if you ever get into politics, the way to win an argument is easy: Just keep smiling.

* Campbell Live, 7pm, weekdays, TV3.

Read more: Audrey Young: PM's display on spy bill convincing

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