Paul Moon: Voters too smart to be fooled by contrived personalities

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Michael Joseph Savage.
Michael Joseph Savage.

The spectres of Elections Past tend to have a naive quality about them. Look back to the campaigns of the 1960s, and it's easy to cringe at the earnest efforts undertaken to make staid personalities appear a mixture of modern, personable, commanding, principled and whatever other trait du jour was seen as desirable to the electorate.

Those plummy-voiced, awkwardly poised candidates now seem the antithesis of politically alluring.

But one of the enduring expectations New Zealand voters seem to have of their leaders is that they are "one of us". Of our more memorable Prime Ministers, Seddon, Holland, Kirk and Muldoon were among those who traded on their affinity with what the latter called "the ordinary bloke".

And they all had pre-parliamentary credentials on which they could stake that claim. Savage had been a miner, Holland worked in engineering, Kirk was once a factory worker and Muldoon a soldier and accountant. Each of these leaders, in his own way, endeared himself to voters partly because of his authenticity - and surely Savage must top the list.

For years after his death, the avuncular portrait of his face beamed down in hundreds of the country's living rooms. It would require considerable imaginative elasticity to envisage photos of David Cunliffe adorning New Zealand lounges decades from now.

Authenticity, though, does not have to equate to likeability. Even Muldoon's most acerbic critics, for example, would readily concede that he came across effectively, regardless of how bombastic or gruff he could sometimes be. There were no squeamish attempts to mimic being "ordinary" in the manner that some later politicians have experimented with.

At an ever accelerating rate from the 1960s, though, New Zealanders began to assess the authenticity of prime ministerial contenders via television until, by the mid-1970s, that medium assumed dominance in election campaigns.

Muldoon was the last of our prime ministers who still campaigned so heavily in the age-old manner of addressing crowds in halls across the country, culminating in his final crusade as leader in 1984.

Ironically, one of the contributing reasons for his downfall in that election was the appearance of the short-lived New Zealand Party, led by the pugilistic Bob Jones - the only orator at the time able to out-Muldoon an increasingly fatigued Muldoon, and who was so engrossingly authentic to the thousands he harangued on the same hall circuit.

In more recent elections, though, the portrayal of our party leaders has again altered. Increasingly, prime ministerial contenders have come to appear like presidential parodies, with all the rhetorical cant, intellectual sterility and neutered personality which that entails.

Safe and inoffensive are the bywords of modern campaigns. Image-makers sift every little mannerism and phrase of their leaders through focus groups, and buff the rough edges of their charges until they are completely smooth.

But never underestimate voters. The public still has a good nose for contrived personalities, and just a whiff of insincerity can be enough to derail a candidate's prospects. After all, if a politician is prepared to be deceitful with something as fundamental as their personality, how can they be trusted in anything else?

But before we grumble too much about the decline in the standard of politicians, maybe we should acknowledge that elections are a reflection on voters as much as a judgment on candidates, and we tend to end up with exactly the calibre of politician we deserve.

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology.

- NZ Herald

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