Toby Manhire 's Opinion

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

Toby Manhire: Soap operas aside, policy rules in this campaign

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Key and Cunliffe are both adept debaters, and ... their tussles promise to be important and engaging.
Key and Cunliffe are both adept debaters, and ... their tussles promise to be important and engaging.

I must have missed the wobbly dissolve and dreamy harp, but there's no mistaking the flashback soft focus in which New Zealand's political soap opera has played out over the past few weeks. Mysterious donations from 2007. A disinterred MP's letter from four years earlier. Grainy pictures, political ghosts. This is not the brighter future. It's the fuzzy past.

The unlikely character around whom most of the yarn has tangled and unravelled is Mr Donghua Liu, property developer and political donor of Remuera.

A hapless David Cunliffe was harpooned having denied any earlier advocacy for Liu. Rumours swirled - with the Prime Minister doing much of the swirling - about the scale of donations to Labour. A book for $15,000? A bottle of wine for $100k? An opulent Chinese river cruise for a Labour Cabinet minister?

But this week, as Liu "clarified" his statement, it became clear that what he had spilled was a hill of beans.

The $100,000 was a cumulative sum for a range of donations, many of which didn't seem to be donations at all. And it was all "as best I can remember". Mr Liu had apparently led us all up the Yangtze.

Much of the story's appeal has come from the slow accretion of information, contradictory recollections, and wonderful capacity for crowd-sleuthing. Comment threads on political blogs grew bloated with theories. The internet was scoured for fundraising auctions from 2007, for clues about the kind of wine and location in that photograph of Liu's partner, Juan Zhang, and Rick Barker.

Was the 3/6 timestamp the third of June or the sixth of March? The collective productivity of the nation must have plummeted. By some merciful miracle, no one called it Liugate.

Who, meanwhile, was directing the action? One senior press gallery journalist wrote yesterday that "sources in the Government, with no love for Labour, say ministers were 'leaning all over' officials in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to ensure Cunliffe's letter was released quickly". Did National partisans urge Liu to write a statement amid the embarrassment of Maurice Williamson's resignation as minister for calling police about domestic violence charges he faced? They'd have been mad not to, perhaps. And yet the Prime Minister overplayed his hand: regularly hinting about more to come and the size of the donations lent an unhelpful Machiavellian air to Everyman Key.

Reasonably enough, Cunliffe will be left feeling aggrieved, bruised and vindicated. (I shudder to think, by the way, what noises he made upon seeing yesterday's Herald, with its pages devoted to the life and deeds of John Key.)

The chief frustration as far as his party is concerned is that, in the sepia muddle of weeks of allegations, an impression is left of some equivalence between Williamson's serious ethical breach and their own relations with Liu - much ado about not a lot.

Of course there may be more of the flashback drama to come. But it feels as though it has run out of puff. Labour emerges with its guns spiked on cronyism arguments; National emerges looking a little slippery, even seedy. But morally murky fundraising? They were all at it.

If it seems a dismal beginning to the election campaign, there is cause to hope that this has been a flash flood, rather than the start of a long storm. Do not despair: the next 12 weeks need not be full of muck-raking and dirty tricks.

On the contrary, this promises to be a policy-dominated campaign.

Key and Cunliffe are both adept debaters, and while Cunliffe's leadership qualities will rightly come in for scrutiny, their tussles promise to be important and engaging, not least because this time around Labour seems intent on releasing coherent packages of policy, and has taken the strategic risk of giving up on the obsession with the floating voter of the centre ground.

Campaign directors and broadcasters will be in the middle of negotiations about the leader debates now. At least three should be themed by subject to drill down into policy areas - social policy and environment; economics; given the news agenda of late, there is easily enough to devote a debate to security and foreign policy (intelligence agencies, trade deals, relationship with United States, action in Iraq, drone strikes). A fourth, perhaps on whether it is "soccer" or "football".

And while there is a danger that a crunchy, policy-based election campaign becomes drowned out by the coat-tail-flapping, circus-act subplot of the little parties, they of course are a crucial component.

The Greens' petition to be included as a major party in three-way encounters always looked doomed, but there should be at least one debate in which all the serious parties take part. All of them, at once. A recipe for chaos, perhaps, but shouldn't we get a chance to see how they all relate to one another?

The past few weeks may offer little encouragement that this election will be fought over policy, philosophy and vision, but I'm strangely optimistic. And as long as I'm in the mood, here's another foolhardy prediction: voter turnout will go up.

- 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.

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