Politi­cians mak­ing soft choices

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION -

Most of the time, the me­chan­ics of jour­nal­ism are of no in­ter­est to most peo­ple, but oc­ca­sion­ally it is worth shin­ing some light on the process.

Last week yielded ex­am­ples of what looks like be­com­ing a trend – that when the Gov­ern­ment an­nounces a con­tro­ver­sial pol­icy, or catches po­lit­i­cal heat un­ex­pect­edly, the min­is­ters in the fir­ing line will be­come un­avail­able for im­me­di­ate ques­tion­ing. At the same time, the softer, kinder me­dia out­lets – such as break­fast tele­vi­sion – do not seem to have quite the same dif­fi­culty in se­cur­ing the min­is­ters in­volved.

Ac­count­abil­ity, in other words, seems to be go­ing on the back burner.

Noth­ing en­tirely new in this, as min­is­ters in suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have al­ways tended to try to choose the me­dia mes­sen­gers who will be more amenable to their mes­sages. It comes down to a mat­ter of de­gree.

Last week, So­cial De­vel­op­ment Min­is­ter Paula Bennett and Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Hekia Parata were scarce when it came to se­ri­ous ques­tion­ing about (A) the Gov­ern­ment’s dra­co­nian threat to slash ben­e­fits by 50 per cent af­ter July 1, 2013, if cer­tain health and preschool­ing con­di­tions were not be­ing met and ( B) in Parata’s case, af­ter some con­tro­ver­sial moves to amal­ga­mate and/or close schools in Christchurch were an­nounced.

Bennett, how­ever, turned up on break­fast tele­vi­sion, where she was re­ferred to ac­ci­den­tally as ‘‘ Paula Ben­e­fit’’ by host Pe­tra Ba­gust, to much amuse­ment.

Clearly, min­is­ters can­not be at the me­dia’s beck and call, day and night. At the same time, it is dan­ger­ous if the ques­tions in the pub­lic’s mind are not be­ing put – and an­swers given – pri­mar­ily be­cause the Gov­ern­ment prefers to fre­quent those me­dia out­lets where the for­mat will all but guar­an­tee the hard ques­tions do not arise.

Be­ing ac­count­able is part of the demo­cratic process, and be­ing seen to be dis­tant and/ or con­temp­tu­ous of pub­lic con­cerns is a path­way to elec­toral obliv­ion.

The Clark Gov­ern­ment, af­ter all, wasn’t voted out so much be­cause it was in­com­pe­tent – it lost sup­port be­cause it was seen to be dis­tant, and im­pe­ri­ous.

Stonewalling the me­dia un­til the story dies qui­etly is an­other favoured strat­egy.

Last week, Act party leader John Banks was be­ing as­sailed by sworn al­le­ga­tions that he had sought do­na­tions from in­ter­net mag­nate Kim Dot­com for his may­oral cam­paign, but had al­legedly asked that they be made anony­mous – thus, they would not be trace­able to any ac­tions sub­se­quently taken by him.

Prime Min­is­ter John Key in­di­cated that if Banks couldn’t be proven to have bro­ken the law, this would suf­fice to keep Banks on as a min­is­ter.

The com­mon fac­tor in these ex­am­ples ap­pears to be the short­term avoid­ance of con­flict and the smooth­ing away of signs of pub­lic dis­sent re­gard­less of the longterm cost.

Thus, when asked last week­end about the eco­nomic out­look, Key re­port­edly replied with a straight face: ‘‘The big wor­ry­ing fac­tor, if there is one, is Aus­tralia.’’

This was clas­sic po­lit­i­cal flan­nelling – the ac­knowl­edg­ment of a se­ri­ous prob­lem, and the si­mul­ta­ne­ous sug­ges­tion that the prob­lem may not ac­tu­ally ex­ist.

Pop­u­lar­ity is a fickle thing to pur­sue, long term. Even­tu­ally, vot­ers are likely to ex­pect a readi­ness to front up to con­tro­versy, and lead­er­ship in re­solv­ing it.

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