Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Chameleon Key delivers a masterstroke

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Prime Minister John Key interviewed by John Campbell on TV3 television programme Campbell Live.
Prime Minister John Key interviewed by John Campbell on TV3 television programme Campbell Live.

The alchemists in the National Party were at it again over the weekend, turning a slap in the face with a snapper into a brave stand for ordinary, hard-fishing New Zealanders.

The news that recreational fishers might have bag limits slashed to three went down like a seafood milkshake. But, somehow, that uncharacteristic cock-up was turned into a rhetorical tactic, defence into attack.

The Government out of touch? On the contrary: they had heard snapper-catchers' concerns. They knew it mattered. Mattered, unlike, say, that GCSB sideshow. The revision of the role of the Government Communications Security Bureau was of interest to pointy-heads and "beltway" nerds alone.

The exuberant twenty-something National MP Jami-Lee Ross summed up the pivot neatly. "Liberal elite shouldn't get so outraged," he said. "I have 20 times more emails about snapper than I do about GCSB. That's what NZers actually care about."

Real people care about snapper. And if you cared about the redefining of GCSB powers you were a tedious liberal elitist who couldn't tell a rig from a jig. Orwell or oar well. Take your pick. Because everybody knows that it's impossible to care about more than one thing at a time.

Unlike the complex, frequently abstract detail of the spy bill, of course, the snapper quota was straightforward - literally measurable and quantifiable. They cared so much it would hardly surprise if they sponsored a snapper-flavoured range of Whittaker's chocolate.

It helped, presumably, that National's internal polling - conducted weekly, the prime minister revealed this week - confirmed that views on the GCSB bill were largely falling along right-left lines. Unlike in Germany, the UK and the US, where opposition to surveillance expansion straddles the spectrum, here, with the exception of Act on Campus, there has been no visible protest from the libertarian right.

Key's strategists have decided there's no use being bothered by those whose votes are unwinnable. Key's answer to one dissenting view in his two-hour Newstalk ZB session a week ago was "Well, you're probably never going to vote for us, so." The unspoken end of the sentence: "What's the point in talking to you?"

That is mirrored in the media strategy. Why bother with the tiresome interrogations of National Radio and Campbell Live when, the calculation goes, such a large portion of their audience is uncharmable. The revelations about al-Qaeda in New Zealand and the Yemen connection, remember, were made on the More FM breakfast show.

And so it came as something of a surprise that John Key had decided to appear on Campbell Live on Wednesday night, despite his sullen "probably not" response to the programme's repeated invitations.

Maybe his advisers felt the spy bill issue was starting to get some traction in Middle New Zealand. Maybe they sensed that dismissing the bill's opponents as peddlers of "misinformation" rung hollow as long as there was so little informing. Probably they detected that he had begun to look dangerously derisive, sneering and unleaderly in the earlier exchange with Campbell Live reporter Rebecca Wright, in which he deployed the dead-eye stare along with the snapper gambit, dismissing a series of questions on the spy bill with the advice that "more people will watch" if the programme would "switch to snapper". The calculation, it seems, was that it could do him damage among those who might actually vote for him.

So the Prime Minister braved the Campbell Live studio. And he was formidable. There were some evasions, some elisions, and too many soothing assurances that have not in fact been inked into the legislation. But as far as the chess was concerned, Key was masterful, pushing John Campbell on to the defensive, grabbing the initiative, dwelling on issues that suited him because, after all, wasn't this about explaining things properly?

It was a striking reminder of John Key's ability as a political performer. He understands his audience - no, his audiences - as well as any politician in recent times. For a prime minister halfway through the second term, his command is astonishing. Even Campbell, who's seen a few, said it: "You're a brilliant politician."

The great strength of his media performances is the way that every pronouncement has a sort of silent prefix: "Oh, come on, be reasonable". And when his adversaries attack him as a buffoon or a devil - or a "psychopath" in the words of one prominent left-wing blogger reviewing the encounter yesterday - he grows stronger, more reasonable still. If opponents want to go for him personally, they'd be much wiser to cast him as shapeshifter, whatever the mood requires: one day a jovial dork, the next a forgetful bureaucrat, the next a ruthless political operator.

In the meantime, the Labour party has good reason to worry about how they can match him in campaign mode come 2014. Under the old electoral system another landslide would be just about guaranteed. And National's cousins in the Australian Liberal Party must be torn up with envy. I bet they'd swap him for their own daggy leader, Tony "Suppository" Abbott, in a heartbeat.

Read more: Key pledges to restrict spy agency's probe rights

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

Read more by Toby Manhire

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