Former British Prime Minister John Major pithily summed up the perils and pitfalls of electioneering: "Some people eat eggs. I wear them," he noted with wry good humour after getting the full yolk treatment while campaigning in that country's 1992 general election.

In New Zealand, the tradition of splattering politicians with a decent-sized grade 8 in order to puncture any superiority complex they may have developed seems to have gone the way of the old Social Credit party, first-past-the-post voting and singing The Red Flag at Labour Party conferences.

Major's fatal egg-traction highlights a fundamental rule of election campaigns, however. You might have oodles of cash. You might have the most experienced and most motivated team of strategists working alongside the most accurate pollsters. You might well plan with military precision every step you intend to take during the (normally) four-week stint on the hustings.

But you cannot anticipate everything. Something unforeseen is quite likely to throw those plans into chaos. A party leader's fortunes can change with the next handshake during the next walkabout in the next shopping mall. Trouble lurks at every photo opportunity. Just remember Don Brash walking the plank in Wellington harbour. Or trying to squeeze his frame into a midget racer. It was excruciating. But TV never tired of playing the clips.


Done like a dog's dinner

In short, the golden rule of election campaigns is "expect the unexpected". And then deal with it as quickly as possible and as firmly as possible. The unexpected has come knocking at the door in this election campaign like never before. There has been Kim Dotcom and the rise and then stall of internet-Mana. There has been the surge in backing for Colin Craig's Conservatives, now a serious competitor for the votes of the disillusioned and disaffected who usually migrate to New Zealand First.

Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics. Photo / Mark Mitchell

And there has been the case of National being digitally done like a dog's dinner. Not that the party did not have notice that investigative writer Nicky Hager was about to drop a new book into the political milieu which, going on the author's track record, was never going to paint National in a good light. It was the subject matter that was completely unexpected.

Dirty Politics floored National. Leader John Key seemed bereft of any idea how to respond beyond circling the wagons and lashing out at Hager.

Key gambled on his popularity seeing him through the crisis. He held out as long as possible in not condemning the book's central character, Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater. Any other Prime Minister would probably have had to buckle earlier and condemn Slater long before Key did.

Cameron Slater fronts the media on the day of Judith Collins' resignation. Photo / Doug Sherring

National would have also undertaken focus-group research which presumably showed the revelations in Hager's book were not troubling the great bulk of voters. And Hager probably did not bargain on the book having the unintended consequence of shutting Labour and the Greens out of the campaign.

Nevertheless, the dirty tricks done dirt cheap by a young(ish) band of National Party members and associates, who appear to have never quite outgrown their days in the Young Nationals, have permanently stained National's portion of the democratic fabric.

'Chop chop for Nicky'

Cathy Odgers: One of the key players in Nicky Hager's book.

Those who question that assertion or cannot be bothered to read the book need do nothing more than turn to page 91 and mull over one of the more notorious but under-publicised examples of the kind of mindset operating within this clique.


An email from tax lawyer Cathy Odgers to Slater, National Party pollster David Farrar and PR consultant Matthew Hooton asks for details of Hager's address. Why? Because Hager had been researching and writing about international tax havens used by wealthy Chinese, including some of Odgers' clients.

"It would be a disaster if they all knew where he [Hager] lived. He may even need police protection ... Chop chop for Nicky," Odgers wrote in her email. Odgers had no compunction about putting Hager's safety at risk, but did not want her name mentioned as it was "too close to work".

Even if you judge such threats as nothing more than the bluster of a bunch of hooray Henry's, such talk is nasty stuff. Rather than cut National free from Slater, Odgers and company, Key instead adopted a "shoot the messenger" strategy. But his tactic failed miserably in terms of getting the book's contents out of the headlines.

Rarely have Opposition parties been presented with such a gift during an election campaign. The score in favour of the Opposition is now two formal inquiries, one police investigation and one ministerial resignation. But Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First have failed to score where it counts - with voters.

Ambush on capital gains tax

When Key sacked Judith Collins, the headlines screamed "National in chaos". In fact, removing Collins was the vital first move in getting National's campaign back on track. Key complemented that move a couple of days later with his ambush of David Cunliffe on the detail of Labour's proposed capital gains tax. That may yet be the defining moment of the campaign.

John Key announces the resignation of Judith Collins. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Collins said she would fight to clear her name. Photo / APN

Hager's book looks like having no material impact on the outcome of the election. In contrast, Cunliffe's capital gains tax blunders have symbolised much of what is wrong with Labour. For starters, National's attack on the tax should have been a case of expect the expected. Labour should have been ready to counter-attack.

The gaffes instead injected doubt into voters' minds about Labour's previous assurances that most people would not be paying the new tax. They raised questions about Cunliffe's competence as a manager of the economy. Above all, the errors confirmed for many voters what they already think - that Key is doing an okay job and it is Labour which is making the mistakes. And taking that all into account, Labour is not yet ready to govern. Eradicating that perception will take time. And time is the one thing that Labour lacks, with the campaign now in its final two weeks.

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