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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: The 'gotcha politics' disease is afflicting all

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Metiria Turei had spent much of the week demanding a prime ministerial apology for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs blunder. Photo / Greg Bowker
Metiria Turei had spent much of the week demanding a prime ministerial apology for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs blunder. Photo / Greg Bowker

It sure ain't pretty. It sure ain't enlightening. It is most definitely insidious. It is a creeping cancer of the New Zealand body politic.

Regardless of whether it is John Key or David Cunliffe who has the numbers on election night to pick up the reins of power, so-called "gotcha politics" is almost guaranteed to be the big winner of the 2014 election campaign.

"Gotcha politics" is all about focusing voters' attention on the gaffes and mistakes of opponents rather than trying to win the election by winning the battle of ideas.

It is personality-based politics, not issue-driven politics. It is all about wrecking your opponents' campaign by landing major hits on their credibility.

At its worst, gotcha politics can be an old-fashioned witch-hunt dressed up in modern-day notions of accountability. None of this new, of course.

What has changed is the extent and intensity of gotcha politics.

Even the Greens are not immune. Last Friday, that party joined others in stressing its campaign would focus on the issues, rather than the sideshows.

Was this the same Green Party whose co-leader Metiria Turei had spent much of the week demanding a prime ministerial apology for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs blunder regarding the granting of diplomatic immunity to a defence attache at the Malaysian High Commission charged with sexual assault?

No matter that various apologies had already been forthcoming. No matter that the State Sector Act and the Cabinet Manual set clear boundaries to prevent ministers interfering in operational matters - thereby begging the question of exactly what John Key was supposed to be apologising for. No matter that the Greens had politicised the whole affair to the point of jeopardising the prosecution of the Malaysian official.

It is unfair to single out the Greens. Both National and Labour are just as guilty, if not more so. National's being in Government makes it more likely to be a target of such attacks, however.

One reason "gotcha politics" is becoming more endemic is that Key has neutralised so many issues that Opposition parties are having to resort to personality-based attacks to make any kind of impact.

The other major factor is conflict-driven news media. The seemingly insatiable 24-hours-a-day appetite of internet news sites means quality has to be sacrificed for quantity when it comes to investigations and analysis.

In these circumstances, it is temptingly easier to manufacture the news through the media playing their own version of gotcha politics by trying to catch politicians out.

And an election campaign provides the happiest of all hunting grounds for such practices.

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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