Hard News by Russell Brown


The silence of the public square

Most commentary on the Internet-Mana deal has focused on what the former can bring the latter -- that being money and the fizz of celebrity. But it's also worth noting what Mana brings the Internet Party -- that being some old-fashioned campaign experience.

The parties' joint national roadshow seems to have benefited from a blend of both, and I suspect that the Internet Party wouldn't have been turning up to loudly campaign at places like Avondale Markets without Mana footsoldiers alongside.

Laila Harre announced her intention to stand in the Prime Minister's Helensville electorate for basically the same reason that Christine Rankin is standing in Epsom -- not to win (although Rankin stands to be more disruptive than Harre), but for the attention. If Key was to consent to a campaign meeting in his electorate, where he could be challenged by Harre, so much the better.

Well, scratch that. There will be a meeting, but no one will be challenging anyone.

'It's not a debate. Please don't call it a debate," meeting organiser Holly Ryan said, describing the event as a ''cross-party candidates' meeting'' to give the public a chance to have questions answered.

Those questions must be submitted, in writing, before the event starts.

''There is to be no debate at all. Candidates have been warned they will be thrown out if they mention other candidates or attack any other parties, or anything else like that, at all,'' Ryan said.

Silence would be demanded from everyone but the speaker, with one warning before those disrupting the meeting would be removed.

''It's on that basis that the prime minister agreed to be there.''

The Prime Minister's office insists, in the same story, that it has played "no role in the shaping of the rules for the event". Someone should probably check on that, but it appears that Ryan, who is active in the local community, drew up the rules in the hope that a lockdown might encourage her local MP to attend.

From the original notice for the meeting:

Parties will have opportunity to set up stands in the church hall, with public welcome to attend from 6pm to chat casually.

The main meeting will commence in the church at 7pm. Seating for 230, with sound system. Each candidate will have 5 minutes to present themselves, followed by written questions from the public, drawn for order. At 9pm the meeting will end, with opportunity for everyone to return to the hall for informal discussion and refreshments.

The meeting will be tightly managed, with any interjectors removed after one warning. Questions may be answered by the party policy supporters, seated behind the candidates.

Let's not scorn the value of an actual discussion about policy, or of voters being able to ask questions and be heard. But it's not hard to envisage the policing of voters' responses on pain of ejection going horribly wrong. Who, pray tell, will be identifying and ejecting offenders? Will a giggle be permitted but a guffaw disallowed? Will there be a buzzer to sound when candidates accidentally mention their opponents?

The irony is that the Helensville lockdown is at odds with what is shaping up as a surprisingly interactive campaign. By his own account, Colin Craig chose his scary hoarding portrait with the intention of provoking a response, and that response has been quite creative. It's a form of engagement.

At any rate, the unusual rules for Monday night's meeting have done nothing so much as draw lines to be crossed. The TV cameras will be there in the hope that they will be. That's now the main event. The only thing missing is David Carter in the Speaker's chair.

PS: I'm interested in hearing from you about the vibe of meetings in your 'hood. Feel free to report.

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