Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: National's overconfidence problem

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Justice Minister Judith Collins. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Justice Minister Judith Collins. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Voters like politicians to be confident - and the National Government is certainly obliging at the moment with supreme self-assurance. In politics, however, there's a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and any successful government risks tipping into overconfidence, with its associated pitfalls. It could be argued that signs of arrogance are emerging at the moment for National.

Judith Collins and Milkgate

Judith Collins epitomises the National Government's supreme confidence and, true to type, the Justice Minister has shown not the slightest self-doubt during the so-called milkgate scandal. Her response has been extraordinarily unrepentant and blasé. This has earned her the ire of the Herald, which in today's editorial remonstrates with her for being 'utterly unapologetic', and her 'unwillingness to acknowledge even that her action could be perceived as inappropriate' - see: Minister's actions in China naive and careless. The editorial disapprovingly quotes her response to the scandal: 'Typical of her attitude was the comment, "I drink milk, shock horror I drink milk".' Despite her 'Brusquely' batting away questions, the Herald says her actions were 'at best... naive, careless and unwise', and draws parallels with the disgraced actions of Richard Worth and Pansy Wong in mixing business and politics.

For another harsh critique of Collins, see Duncan Garner's Judith Collins should have stayed away.

He says, 'Her judgement is woeful. If she was blinded by loyalty, where were her senior staff in all this? Are they so sycophantic they looked the other way? The Chinese love it when politicians from other countries drop in on their business. It is always seen as an endorsement. Not a subtle one, but a loud and clear one. There's huge commercial value placed on a ministerial visit to a business in China - it's a country and market that loves status - especially political status and high office. Collins got this one terribly wrong'.

Collins' supreme confidence on this issue is explained by blogger Danyl Mclauchlan, who explores the mindset of National MPs: 'Anyway, it's routine for Ministers to visit New Zealand companies overseas, routine for those companies to promote those visits, and it is also routine for New Zealand politicians to have family members involved in New Zealand business at a high level and it's ALSO routine for New Zealand businesses to donate money to the National Party. Which I why - I think - Collins and her fellow Nats are a little bewildered at the suggestion that there's something wrong about her taxpayer funded promotional visit to a company run by her husband that donated a large sum of money to the National Party, while everyone else stands around with their jaw open, stunned that the Minister of Justice could do something so stupid' - see: With knives in it.

Not all disapprove of Collins' uber-confidence of course. For the best positive account of how well Collins has dealt with the issue, see Media Training NZ's Judith Collins shows media skills over Oravida visit. According to this view, 'Regardless of the validity of her visit, her approach with the media on the issue has been faultless'. Furthermore, 'She was clearly always available to the media and got her message across to audiences across New Zealand. Mrs Collins almost made a negative story into a positive one. She was always relaxed on TV, smiling and emphasising that she supports all New Zealand businesses overseas. This body language is vital in these situations. That's because people judge you more by how you come across than what you say. When asked if there was a conflict of interest, she responded with something like: "Every New Zealand voter should expect every MP to promote all New Zealand businesses overseas." If she had fallen into the trap of using the language of denial, the story would have been negative'.

For other interesting critiques of Colllins and her handling of Milkgate, see No Right Turn's Appearances matter, Tim Selwyn's Oravida/Collins, Gordon Campbell's On Judith Collins' alleged milking of the system, and Newswire's Labour links campaign donation to Collins.

John Key has brought himself into the controversy, too, by sanctioning Collins' actions and refusing to release further information about this - see Radio NZ's PM won't release advice over Collins, and No Right Turn's No transparency = no trust.

So, does this scandal have the potential to make National look arrogant? That's what Patrick Gower thinks - watch his 5-minute This week in politics: March 6, 2014. Gower concludes: 'This is a sign of a government that is becoming arrogant. They think its OK to hide behind some bureaucrats who signed it off. Judith Collins isn't untouchable. She might think she's untouchable - she is not.... they look out of touch'.

Gerry Brownlee's overconfidence in Christchurch

For another case study on how overconfidence can lead to mistakes, see Tracy Watkins's Brownlee apologises to Labour MPs. The Minister for the Earthquake Recovery is well known for his self-assured approach to the rebuild, but some say this is becoming a negative for him. Certainly the Labour MPs did not accept his apology for his unfounded attack on them - see Stuff's Brownlee taken to task. Labour hopeful, James Dann also says, Gerry's latest outburst shows that the rebuild is getting too much for him. And the No Right Turn blogger says that Christchurch needs a new Government Minister - see: Fingers in their ears.

For Gerry Brownlee's point of view on the rebuild and its problems see his opinion piece, 'Debunking myths and nonsense'.

John Key's confident and relaxed persona

That the Prime Minister possesses a strong sense of self-confidence is not in doubt. It could be seen once again this week in his willingness to participate in all sorts of photo opportunities that other political leaders would feel are 'beneath them' - see Isaac Davison's Key pulls 'derp-face' for students. There was some criticism of these amusing photos - see Andrea Vance's Key slammed for derp face. But Barry Soper argues 'that's a big part of the PM's appeal, he's not afraid to act the goat' - see: John Key - not afraid to derp.

For another example of John Key letting the public view his 'human side' - see Stuff's Gossip mags: When John meets Bronagh. David Farrar draws attention to one aspect of that feature in which the PM is reported as saying 'He also dropped off his own dry-cleaning and returned DVDs' - see: Returning the DVDs. Farrar says that 'I think says a lot about why he is still so popular. He has stayed remarkably down to earth'.

Media training Brian Edwards also discusses the political personality of the PM in his blog post, John Key - 'There There' Prime Minister. He argues that 'People comfortable in their own skin are generally comfortable to be around. And that's how I've felt about the Prime Minister on the one or two occasions I've met him'. This appeals to voters, which explains 'the public love affair with John Key'. But Edwards also draws attention to Key's inclination to minimise 'the significance of anything that might seem to reflect badly on him or his party; by dismissing rather than dealing with criticism'.

Also showing his 'human side' this week is Steven Joyce - see Sarah Stuart's Twelve Questions: Steven Joyce. Joyce will be National's Campaign Manager this year and for more on how Joyce - and the other party campaign managers - will be running their election campaigns, see Tracy Watkins' very good feature, Election battle lines drawn.

National's alleged proxies

There was an interesting example of the overconfidence of National's alleged proxies this week, when the Taxpayer Union criticised a deaf MP - see Patrice Dougan's article, Green MP's 800km taxpayer-funded trip questioned. The involvement of the Taxpayer Union in apparently singling out the deaf MP Mojo Mathers went down extremely badly. See, for example, Andrew Geddis' Let's all pick on the deaf girl! and the Scott Yorke parody blog post, Right Thinking: Thank God for the Taxpayers' Union.

On Twitter, many linked the Taxpayer Union with the National Party. From the right, Matthew Hooton (@MatthewHootonNZ) exclaimed, 'This is just partisan bullying by @jordNZ and $ are irrelevant. Worry about WFF, superannuation, gold card etc'. And on the left, Helen Kelly (@helenkellyCTU) said 'Jordan Williams isnt the Director of the Tax Payers Union. The TPU is JW. Why does he wear a disguise? He's the Phantom of Nationals Opera'. For more twitter debate, see my blogpost Top tweets about the Taxpayer Union allegations about Mojo Mathers.

And for the latest allegations that rightwing bloggers act as proxies or conduits for National Party attack messages, questions have been asked about Paula Bennett passing on information to bloggers. Bennett denies this but says she 'won't release communication records from her office' - see Tim Dower's Bennett says blogger leaks irrelevant.

National's risk of complacency

Of course there are very good reasons for the National Government to be overconfident at the moment. Riding high in the opinion polls, and watching their opponents on-going problems with gaining traction and repeated gaffes will certainly have the effect of reaffirming that the party and government is on the right track. But the risk of complacency is real. In believing that they can 'sleepwalk to victory' successful parties inevitably get tripped up by their mistakes. There have been a few additional episodes this week that show the potential for this to get out of hand - see for example, Michelle Duff's Response to health report criticized, the Herald's Choice of top cop opens a can of worms, and David Fisher's Spy agency slow to put fixes in place.

Other criticisms can also start to resonate - see, for example, Duncan Garner's Let's get some super honesty John, and Lynn Prentice's National's ICT failures.

In the blogosphere there's been some interesting discussion on the question of the potential for National's confidence to turn to arrogance in the minds of the electorate. Pete George says it's a bona fide risk for National, but that it's a luxurious problem compared to what other parties are facing - see: Overconfidence versus undercompetence. Also answering the question I've posed, The Ruminator blog has intelligently discussed National's risk, but argues that it would be a mistake if Labour goes down the line of using this 'arrogance' allegation as its way forward - see: Confidence: An ode.

Social media scholar Matthew Beveridge has a harsh critique of the Government's orientation to digital politics, complaining that John Key and National don't take the power of Twitter and other ongoing engagements seriously - see: National, over confidence and social media. For a more detailed critique of what the PM is doing wrong, also see Beveridge's MPs on Twitter: John Key.

But today's must-read blog on this topic is Oliver Chan's Ain't no party like a National Party cause a National Party don't stop?. He looks at past examples of overconfidence on both sides of the political spectrum in New Zealand, and warns National against the complacency that appears to be creeping in.

Some of these issues will no doubt be discussed tomorrow on TV3's The Nation at 9:30am. Reporter Torben Akel looks at National's game plan for the election, together with the use of 'Brand Key', and Patrick Gower interviews Key himself. I'm going to be appearing on the panel, along with Michelle Boag and Maori TV's Annabelle Lee-Harris.

Finally, for a satirical take on the supreme confidence of the Minister of Justice and her propensity to mount her 'high horse', see David Slack's funny but biting account on the Metro magazine blog: Judith Collins: National Velvet.

- 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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