Hard News by Russell Brown


The Politics of Absence

There is, apparently, a general election campaign underway. I really only know this because, just the other side of Meola Creek in the Auckland Central electorate, Jacinda Ardern has her hoardings up. The only other candidate to have a sign up on what is traditionally a busy site is Shane Jones, who is standing for Labour in Tamaki Makaurau.

Apart from that, no one else even seems interested enough to vandalise the hoardings.

This sense of electoral vacancy was particularly exaggerated last Friday, when the Prime Minister of New Zealand spent an hour hosting a radio show on which -- <strike>because there's an election campaign on</strike> -- he was legally forbidden to discuss politics. A show which was, as he trilled, "an election-free zone".

Which is certainly not to say that the act of hosting the show was not a political one. The programme was, end-to-end, an example of the cultivated political absence that shapes the almost unprecedented popularity of John Key.

The Prime Minister does not appear on Morning Report and only rarely on either of the main TV current affairs shows, but of course he's available to interview Richard Branson, Peter Jackson and Richie McCaw, and take a few calls. But nothing about politics, mind.

I don't blame Key for doing it, nor Radio Live for making the offer. They'd have been mugs not to. But the PM's feckless promise to "talk to someone important" about the rescheduling of Coronation Street was simply depressing. John Key's government has ordered TVNZ, a crown company, to maximise profits -- and there he was, idly offering to impair a crown company in the duty he had given it. It doesn't really matter. It's not so much a constitutional outrage as a constitutional emptiness.

And then, as news broke on his show that a second global ratings agency had lowered New Zealand's credit rating, the Prime Minister said "It's the prime minister's hour and we're having fun." He really said that.

It's not as if the commentariat wasn't moved. "It's hard to recall when John Key looked this bad," raged John Hartevelt, describing the show as "an utter farce" and concluding "Excuse me, Mr Key, but what's fun about another Kiwi soldier dead, and a double blow to the economy? I suppose there is always that Warriors Grand Final at the weekend ... "

Some of the the 93 comments under Hartevelt's rant take a similar view. Many others are like this:

"whoever you are you are pathetic. John Key was great, a true man of the people. Wake up and smell the roses for petes sake."

"Well that's bloody depressing. I thought it went really well. Cheer up misery guts."

"I think it's great that our leader has a personality, better than our last PM and much better than our friend Phil! I don't think anyone could be bothered listening to him whine!"

"Lighten up! What a cack-sided argument you present. I listened to part of it and took it for what it was. It sounds like you reckon it should be all doom and gloom and boring politics?"

And yes, I know this a special time and I know I have personally raged against liberal fatalism over the Rugby World Cup. So let me make it clear that I'm still in favour of the reporting and vigorous debate of major national-interest news stories, even when there's rugby on.

At least the Paper of Record would be serious, right? Not exactly. The following day's New Zealand Herald editorial was concerned with Darien Fenton being mean about the Mad Butcher.

Fenton, a fringe Labour MP who is in no one's post-Goff dream-team, wrote an intemperate Facebook status update about the flourishing bromance between John Key and Peter Leitch, the Mad Butcher, effectively accusing the latter of being a class traitor for campaigning for the "Tory" PM. She apologised, closed her facebook profile, then apologised again, offering to buy the Butcher a beer.

To some extent, she had a point. As Mediawatch pointed out, Leitch (always untameable broadcast talent) recently compromised both Jim Mora's show and Close Up with his unprompted barracking for Key. Having been simply buried by Key in the Helensville electorate contest in 2008, she might be particularly sensitive about him. And Key's sudden and overwhelming affection for rugby league, the NRL, the Warriors and the Butcher is, let's be frank, craven. You realise, do you not, that Helen Clark was patron of the Mt Albert Rugby League Club since forever?

Well, yes she was, and she never hesitated to use the fact to burnish her own class credentials. Fenton never complained when Leitch was Clark's handbag. Leitch, a businessman who built a large retail chain, should also not be mistaken for a class warrior. And mostly, at a time when Phil Goff continues to struggle not to suck all the charisma out of any room he's in, a Facebook blurt that puts the party on the wrong side of Warriors Fan No. 1 was spectacularly unhelpful to Labour. Idiotic comments at The Standard, only more so.

Such sentiments are widely -- if somewhat lazily -- accepted in the political blogosphere as proof of Labour's "arrogance". But Labour doesn't have a lot to be arrogant about at the moment. What you're hearing there is grief, anger and frustration.

Was it really worth an editorial, given the news of the day? And did it have to be the sort of spiteful tract that the Herald published on Saturday? The paper basically turned all its guns on a particularly small target.

Not that Matthew Hooton would have been complaining. In a, er, colourful performance on Nine to Noon, he declared that Phil Goff had missed a chance to show true leadership by immediately purging Fenton. Kathryn Ryan was unamused:

"Don't start talking to me about bloody sausages for goodness sake. You're saying you're not going to patronise the public over the fact they can't watch the rugby at the same time. You're now saying the Mad Butcher is the centre of the election."

Oh, don't be silly Kathryn. The Mad Butcher isn't the centre of the election. Any more. I couldn't tell you where the centre of the election will be next weekend, but there are trained professionals calculating that right now. I'd suggest Dan Carter's groin would probably be a good place to start looking.

It's futile to carp about public excitement for recent sporting clashes. The crowd haka at the NRL Grand Final was an extraordinary thing, Tonga's defeat of France was marvellous, Samoa's performance against the Springboks historic. But when the Prime Minister speaks to the nation about economic sovereignty in front of the Australian flag this week -- having lost a jolly sporting wager over the Grand Final -- it will feel not so much like the absence of politics as the Politics of Absence.

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