Michael Cox: The perils of meeting the voters

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Marching into the political crucible as a candidate is good preparation for a working life in the House.

John Key. Photo / Greg Bowker
John Key. Photo / Greg Bowker

Have a thought for all those aspirant politicians who will hit the streets and byways this year, as they campaign for your vote. Their experiences will be illuminating, sometimes painful and always educational.

Her pendulous superstructure fell out of a flimsy and colourful dressing gown. "Would you vote for dem puppies?" she asked. I had just fronted up to her front door to introduce myself as a new candidate in the upcoming election.

Judging by the raucous laughter emanating from behind her door, following my hasty and embarrassed retreat, she had obviously enjoyed my visit.

Although I doubt whether he ever experienced such a welcome as the woman in the colourful dressing gown gave me, I believe that Edmond Burke, in 1774, summed up what being a member of Parliament was all about. He told his electors in Bristol: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

David Cunliffe. Photo / Natalie Slade
David Cunliffe. Photo / Natalie Slade

Sadly, in my view, many of the members of Parliament foisted on us via the MMP system of elections fail that old and tried test.

All those polls done trying to tap the mood of the electorate are all poppycock, according to Edmond.

That year, when I was introduced to "dem puppies", I knocked on about 5000 doors in the marginal seat of Manawatu. At one of them I was told, in no uncertain manner, "Don't waste your time knocking on my door, Mr Cox, I've voted Labour all my life." A woman's voice from the back of the house called out, "It's okay, Michael, I cancel him out!" I once again retreated from this potential domestic.

"What's got four legs and one arm?" responded a belligerent potential voter when I asked him if he had any questions. "I don't know, what's got four legs and one arm," I innocently inquired.

"My big dog when it catches you." Another hasty exit.

On the Manawatu plains the driveways are long and dusty. I parked my car at the entrance to one of these and asked the chap trimming the tall hedge if Mr Smith lived here. "Yep, up at the house." He pointed with his hedge clippers down the dusty driveway to the front door. I asked the woman who answered my knock, "Is Mr Smith in?"

"Nope, he's up at the road, cutting the hedge." Mr Smith was chuckling to himself as I climbed into my well-marked car.

These are just a few of the more colourful experiences from my door-knocking campaign. The important thing was that I had moved right outside my comfort zone as a local public accountant and was meeting voters on their terms and conditions. Normally these people had come and knocked on my door to ask for my pretty expensive accounting advice, and now the tables were turned, and I was asking them for their votes on their doorsteps. That experience did me no harm as a future member of Parliament and was a part of the long process of becoming one of the people's representatives.

The first step was convincing some 200 or so delegates from my local party organisation that I was the right person and had sufficient judgment to be their MP. That was the hardest part, followed by those streets and byways with all their doors and driveways, at an average of 20 an hour.

The last three months of the campaign were almost the easiest, with more than 30 public meetings, and the news media waiting for the slightest hiccup to turn into a headline. This all culminated in election day when you knew everything would change, win or lose.

It was that year I went through the crucible and came out of it a stronger and changed person. I had made huge contact with people on the street and knew about some of their problems, trials and tribulations. I had fronted up to the 30,000 or so people who I wanted to represent in Parliament. It became their choice, and although I know many just voted for their party of choice, some would have made a decision on the impression left by the guy who knocked on their door. I wonder how the chap with the clippers or the woman with her "puppies" voted?

Many years later people still approach me and say, "You must remember me, you knocked on my door."

I wish this year's bunch of political hopefuls all the best and many interesting experiences in their search for one of those special seats in the House.

Michael Cox was a three-term MP for Manawatu, a whip in government and Opposition, Opposition finance spokesman, a local body representative for Waipa District Council and a treasurer of the National Party, and was made an OBE for public service.

- NZ Herald

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