Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Selfie king versus preacher man

As the election campaign reaches its final week, John Key seems to be on cruise control while David Cunliffe is still struggling to make an impact. Phil Taylor and Geoff Cumming assess the National and Labour leaders on the road, while Audrey Young and Claire Trevett outline the top advisers who guide their every move.

Photo / Dean Purcell
Photo / Dean Purcell

John Key

John Key is the king of the political selfie, the prince of the walkabout. His is a campaign high on charm and low on policy detail but one which the polls suggest is working.

Key was mobbed last Sunday at the Moon Festival in Henderson. The barriers employed to keep the hordes of Chinese Aucklanders seeking a photo with the boss barely did the job as the feverish crowd pressed forward. The PM moves easily among the citizens, a "gidday, how are you?" or (if it's a child) "what's your favourite cartoon?" are usually followed by a photo op.

A staff member is always on hand to record such moments and post the resulting photo to the PM's Facebook page and its 160,000 followers. The power of social media cannot be underestimated. "It's definitely the campaign of the selfies," chirps accompanying staffer Libby O'Brien.

Critical selfie mass may have been reached on Tuesday afternoon in Palmerston North. Doing the rounds at EziBuy's distribution centre, office worker Jacqui Polson pulls out her phone to show Key the selfie he did with her mother just a week or so back.

She gets her picture with Key anyway, a family set.

"It's a shit job," she quips, "but you are doing it very well." Presumably she means running the country rather than pressing the flesh.

Key seizes upon a giant pick-up stick and gives it a swish. "You could use that on Dotcom," suggests Polson helpfully. "That would be a form of justice," the PM replies.

And so go the glad-handing days on Key's campaign trail. They are built around visits to selected companies and groups, with a policy announcement du jour for good measure.

Monday was the carrot of a possible tax cut in 2017 - put down by David Cunliffe as a block-of-cheese gesture. Sunday, Auckland: a Samoan church service, the World TV Chinese Moon Festival celebration, the policy appeal to fishers of commercial-fishing-free zones for the inner Hauraki Gulf and Marlborough Sounds.

Tuesday, 8.15am, on the turbo-prop flight to Palmerston North, the PM surveys the headlines and may not be best pleased: "Audacity of PM's tax cut", "Judge gives police hurry up over Dotcom", "Marine park a cynical Government ploy to fool fishers". The tax cut was too vague and too distant, the marine parks weren't what they seemed because pressure on the fishery in the Marlborough Sounds wasn't from commercial fishing and in the Hauraki Gulf the trawlers were already excluded from that area most of the year.

Judging from two rows back, the morning papers don't appear to have soured his demeanour or chinked his professionalism as Forrest Bennett seizes the opportunity to slip into the seat vacated by the PM's minder. A minute later, their heads tilt towards one another and Bennett holds his phone aloft and they grin for the camera.

Day 12 and the PM's performance doesn't skip a beat. Bennett, an American New Zealand resident, marvels at the accessibility and affability of his new country's leader. "He's good, very genuine. I'm trying to persuade my friends to vote for him," he says as he uploads the photo to Facebook.

Policy of the day is defence. The announcement is that it will be business as usual, accompanied by a spiel about how National has rejuvenated the military, which was run down by Labour, and delivered in a region that gets an economic boost from the presence of bases at Linton and Ohakea.

Responsible management, not policy, is the ace in National's hand. Policy is the card that must be played by the Opposition. So Key talks about reducing debt, and a stable economy aimed at a dividend in the form of a distant tax cut, and chides Labour as the party that wants to bring us "five new taxes". The left measures success on how much they spend, the Nats on the outcome, he tells staff at the Toyota plant, where he arrived in a large BMW. "It's not always about the money."

No one mentions Dirty Politics until at two media stand-ups late in the week when he's asked when he last spoke to Jason Ede. Ede, now working for the National Party on the campaign, was characterised in Nicky Hager's book as Key's black-ops man operating from the PM's office in cahoots with the Whale Oil cabal. The PM demonstrates the ease with which he can shrug off uncomfortable topics. "Ages," he responds with a guileless expression, after the TV3 leaders' debate. Days, weeks? "I'm not going to guess." And, somehow, it's as though the rotten-ethics scandal was long ago.

Quizzed on the detail of his tax cuts (Cunliffe claimed Key had cooked the books and they would cost $2.4 billion rather than $1 billion), the PM again does vague. A tax cut would depend on the country being in better financial shape, how it would be done hadn't been worked out, but it would target low- to middle-income families, but then again, he wasn't ruling out a break for the rich.

So vague that a reporter asks, why bother? The unspoken answer is a tax allusion fits the responsible, frugal image National wishes to contrast with those free-spenders of the left.

David Cunliffe

Photo / Jason Dorday

David Cunliffe is at a Titirangi meeting for New Lynn and Helensville candidates. Tim Groser is standing in for John Key, averting yet another head-to-head.

Groser portrays National's election strategy as "standing on our record" and "sticking to our knitting". He claims 83,000 jobs have been created in the past year; National has focused on "issues that matter to middle New Zealand". This prompts warm applause from National supporters in the Labour-dominated audience.

Cunliffe counters with 260,000 children living below the poverty line, unemployment and widening inequality - "the top 10 per cent owns more of this country than the other 90 per cent put together". Labour was founded on the idea of equality, that everyone is the same.

This invites the first of several barbed questions from the contemptuous Nats: If Labour is in touch with the average New Zealander, how come it is at record lows in the polls and National is enjoying record highs?

It's the question of this election campaign. "Dirty politics" may have tainted National but hasn't helped Labour. Cunliffe the Harvard graduate has tried to steer the party left, hammering traditional Labour issues such as poverty, inequality, housing affordability, early childhood. But there's no sign he's wooing back core, let alone swinging, voters.

The campaign has failed to ignite and gather momentum. Labour is polling consistently in the mid-20s, about 10 percentage points less than when Cunliffe succeeded David Shearer a year ago and less than the 28 per cent vote recorded in 2011.

The polls may prove wrong but Labour supporters are missing in action. At a walkabout in Panmure, media and minders easily outnumber the punters. But how much is down to Cunliffe and his strategists - and how much to factors beyond their control?

Labour has left unchallenged National's mantra that it has steered a steady course through the global financial storm; gaps may be growing but not enough voters believe they are worse off under National than they might be under Labour. Internet-Mana's appeal to young and radical voters has undermined the strategy of taking the party left.

Labour understandably rolled out its policy platform early - but that left little chance to excite with new announcements on the road.

Dumping Shearer a year out from an election was a desperate measure and voters seem unconvinced that Labour's internal sores are cauterised - and that Cunliffe is the real deal.

The caucus moved against Shearer because of how he came across in the media and fears that Key would wipe the floor with him in debates.

Cunliffe has certainly proved streets ahead of Shearer in those aspects. He more than matched Key in the televised debates. He appears a credible leader, he articulates well and is quick on the rebound. That works as well in media stand-ups, where the issues of moment can surprise. Quizzed on Sunday about Dan Carter tweeting last month that he would vote for Key, Cunliffe responds: "Dan Carter's aim is normally pretty good but obviously his political kicking boot is off on this one."

But his attempts to relate can seem laboured, the language leaden. After National's "dance of the veils" ends with an underwhelming tax-cuts pledge, Cunliffe says it will amount to "half a block of cheese" or $5 a week - but he's holding up a $10 note.

He's desperate to connect but - unlike Key - deals in detail, in statistics. Spying a row of preschoolers sitting at a bus stop in Panmure, he stoops to engage and baffles them with talk of Labour's "Best Start" early childhood policy.

After his capital gains tax brain fade last week, the media sharks scent blood. In Panmure on Tuesday, they probe in vain for a flip-flop over Cunliffe's ruling out of the Maori Party from a Labour-led coalition.

After the TV3 leaders' debate, he tells the media that Key's got his tax pledge sums wrong: that a $1500- a-year tax cut would cost $2.4 billion, not the $1 billion Key estimates.

Cunliffe appears more comfortable addressing the suits at the Deloitte-Business NZ election conference than one-on-one with Panmure shopkeepers. He assures the Wellington gathering that tax and spending plans are fully costed, will redirect the economy and enable debt reduction while maintaining surpluses.

But Deloitte's polling of Business NZ members shows what he's up against. They are even happier with Key and his Government than in 2011 and only 27 per cent support a capital gains tax. Support, however, improves to 41 per cent if a CGT was accompanied by personal tax cuts.

Cunliffe has a week to gain the few percentage points he claims would tip out his more popular rival.

- NZ Herald

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