The subtle art of political diversion
The art of diversion has always been part of political life, and there is a long tradition of bread and circuses.
Whenever the business of government gets difficult, the circus diversions – quick, look, over there! – serve a useful strategic purpose.
To that effect, Education Minister Hekia Parata and Social Development Minister Paula Bennett have functioned as a quite successful tag team.
The policy screw-ups by Parata (for example, on class sizes) tend to be quickly followed by some headline-grabbing musings from Bennett about . . . oh, should the state remove the right to have children from some New Zealanders who have committed certain types of crimes?
Repeatedly, the media has taken the bait.
It pays to never underestimate the readiness of the middle-class commentariat to debate and pronounce on the breeding habits of the underclass.
Last week, the techniques of diversion were deployed at an entirely new level.
Out of the blue, Justice Minister Judith Collins claimed that the expensive designer jackets worn by Greens co-leader Metiria Turei made her a hypocrite for speaking out about child poverty. Police Minister Anne Tolley backed up Collins.
For her part, Turei tried to find a dignified way to defend herself.
Ultimately, the ugly round of exchanges between the three highly-paid protagonists did them (and Parliament) no favours.
Obviously, there isn’t a dress code for making valid political comments. MPs can, and do, speak credibly about child poverty without having to wear op shop clothes to do so.
Collins’ claims came across as right- wing political correctness gone mad. More, they also had the potential to boomerang on National.
Was Collins suggesting that Prime Minister John Key, as a multi-millionaire, also therefore a hypocrite for making his wellpublicised visit to Struggle St in south Auckland, a visit that culminated in him taking 12-yearold Aroha Nathan to Waitangi?
Can Paula Bennett – who bears the actual ministerial responsibility for assisting children in poverty – still wear her own flamboyant jackets with the same panache, now that her colleague has deemed such garb to be a political sin? As Turei pointed out, only women tend to get judged in that way.
Much more so than men, women are pressured to take moral responsibility for what their clothes are supposed to signify about their integrity.
Unfortunately for Collins, her comments had no wider context to them.
Once again, National had to look to its leader for a master class in how the dark art of diversion should be practised.
The Prime Minister’s resurrec- tion of an old subject – should New Zealand adopt a new flag? – would have induced yawns at any other time.
Yet as columnist John Armstrong pointed out, the flag campaign makes sense when joined with the news of economic recovery.
It enables the ‘‘ feel good’’ aspects of the economic resurgence – which will not benefit everyone – to be blurringly linked to a message of national identity, in which all can take part.
If those two factors – economic recovery and national identity – can be successfully fused, National will have a potent emotional message to take to the electorate.
In such a climate, Labour’s messages about income inequality might seem not only negative, but vaguely unpatriotic to boot.
Truly, for those without bread, circuses can often be the only consolation on offer.