By Greg Stephens
Over the past few years, New Zealand has seen a dramatic increase of politicians playing the person, rather than the ball. David Benson-Pope provides one of the most salient examples. However, the recent furore over Peter Davis’s sexuality (and then Helen Clark’s marriage) is perhaps unprecedented within New Zealand.
However, there is more to these scandals than simply nasty politicking by a political party unable to accept three defeats in a row.
The anti-government Right have a lot more to gain in attacking Clark, Benson-Pope et al. than just damaging their reputation. Indeed, there has been little immediate poll damage to Labour after each fresh attack. One would then have to ask whether or not they are actually playing the game right at all.
However, there are other reasons behind the attacks. Each smear is part of a much wider game being played, and that is a long-term game.
Each attack is about discrediting the specific MP, and much, much more. Each MP discredited is not so much about that MP, but about the public’s impression of MPs in general. One MP being involved in something dodgy is not going to have much of an impact on how the public sees MPs in total. Yet each new attack, each new smear, whether true or not, hits the confidence the public has with our politicians.
Well, what does this achieve? No sane person would place their life savings into a bank known to rip people off. Likewise, no sane person would want to pay taxes to a government which is run by dodgy, corrupt or tainted politicians. The smears against each MP are a smear against every MP. The neo-liberal Right want the public to distrust each and every MP. In doing so, they want each voter to head to the voting booth thinking "do I want my taxes to go to a pile of dirty politicians?"
Hence, Rodney Hide’s "perk-buster", or in reality "reputation-wrecker" persona is a legitimate tactic. So too is Judith Collin's “pervert” remark. I am not arguing that they are a 'good thing'. But they are, in the long term, an advantage for the Right.
The Right want to create a deep mistrust of the elites. It suits their aims in reducing the size of the government. Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson achieved in creating that mistrust in the 1984-93 period. Unfortunately for them, the public was able to turn that mistrust into electoral reform. While a clever tactic, they misread how to create that mistrust. Simply lying to the public means you can vote in the other lot (or turn to a third party such as the Alliance or New Zealand First as happened in the 1993 election).
The current anti-government Right seems to have a much better strategy. Taint anyone associated with wanting "big government". Smear them, smear their husband. Whatever it takes to make the public not trust the government with their taxes.
There are methods for the Left to recourse however. For a start, they need to be clean, whiter than white clean. Over-the-top laundry powder ad clean. However, everyone has a skeleton in their closet. So they need to be honest. David Parker provides the best example. He simply stated that he has had business problems. He didn’t hide anything. And guess what? It shut down the controversy. Those that do transgress, especially Taito Philip Field-style, need to repent, and be punished. Reaffirm the public’s faith in the system, don’t dismantle it further.
Trevor Mallard's comments are probably the worst thing Labour could do. Sure there are rumours going around about National MPs, but releasing them will not be in Labour’s long-term advantage. Indeed, it means the public are more likely to see the dirt as being on all MPs, rather than just a few bad eggs.
I am not arguing that running a smear campaign is a 'good thing' to do. However, it does have tactical advantages for the anti-government Right, and they have embraced it. The Left have also taken part in long term strategic moves – numerous Right-wing bloggers would label the Working for Families package in that light.
However, I do argue that the Right is playing politics in a substantially different manner. Politics in New Zealand, and much of the world, has traditionally focused on being about policy and ideas. The Right have abandoned those focuses at the moment – they would rather use alternative factors to gain votes. The New Zealand public may, or may not, be taken with their new tactic – either way though, we are beginning to see a different era of politics.