John Key’s strategic supremo is Lynton Crosby, from the Australian firm Crosby/Textor. Crosby has a trick in his bag called the “dead cat strategy.” Here’s Boris Johnson, one of Crosby’s British clients, describing it in 2013:
If you’re losing an argument, if you’re in a weak position, throw a dead cat on the table, the London mayor wrote.
“Everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”
Today, John Key threw a dead cat into the middle of New Zealand’s Parliament.
John Key knew he was in a weak position today for two reasons. First, his deliberate inaction in the face of disgraceful treatment of expat New Zealanders by Australia is a dereliction of his duty, as his many advisers will be telling him.
Second, his Labour opponents have just completed an annual conference that far outshone expectations, capped by a rousing address from Andrew Little, buoying professionals and activists alike across the New Zealand left.
So Key decided to get rid of all those long-term negative headlines by gifting the media a short-term negative headline instead. That’s the strategic thinking behind Key’s disgraceful performance in Parliament today, when he said any politician looking for humane treatment for detainees on Christmas Island was “backing the rapists” and “putting yourself on the side of sex offenders.” Here’s the video:
Make no mistake – this was no passionate outburst. It was a coldly calculated tactic, cynically designed to remove stories about Key’s inaction and Labour’s conference from the media.
The dead cat got even more prominence because the Speaker of the House, National’s David Carter, inexplicably ruled that it is perfectly fine within Parliament’s rules to accuse MPs of “backing rapists” or “putting yourself on the side of sex offenders.”
Bear in mind that Parliament’s rules are so tight that calling someone a liar or a hypocrite are automatically ruled out of order, and you can’t even refer to an MP being absent from the House chamber.
Some might wonder whether the Prime Minister and the strictly impartial Speaker of the House from his own party might have conspired to make the dead cat as big and hairy as possible, so nobody would talk about anything else.
I, of course, couldn’t possibly speculate on that.
Right on cue, everyone who follows in politics exclaimed: “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat accusation of backing rapists on the table!” and stopped talking about anything else.
I can’t fault anyone for doing that – because that accusation really did sit there on the table, with the Speaker pointedly refusing to clear it off.
But it’s important we all understand where the accusation came from.
It’s not that Key is necessarily ashamed of his inaction on Christmas Island – in fact, I think he’s proud of it. It’s that Key understands full well he’s got a weak argument - telling people locked in a detention centre that’s on fire that they’re “free to go” and “there voluntarily” just doesn’t pass the smell test.
Key doesn’t win just because we all looked at his dead cat. But he does win if we wake up tomorrow having forgotten about the important issues that lead him to throw the dead cat in the first place. We, all of us, cannot allow that.