Na­tional must watch out be­fore the ‘ar­ro­gant’ la­bel sticks

Marlborough Express - - COMMENT&OPINION - LIAM HE­HIR

In my col­umn in the af­ter­math of the UK elec­tion, I said the one cer­tain take­away was that neme­sis fol­lows hubris. That is to say, fate tends to pun­ish ar­ro­gant govern­ments. Na­tional may have a clear lead, but the rapid hob­bling of Theresa May shows how fast things can change.

This rule as­serted it­self with fe­roc­ity last week. Be­fore Tues­day morn­ing, the Govern­ment had no idea what a rough time it was in for. Na­tional did not fore­see the run up to its con­fer­ence be­ing blown to bits by Todd Bar­clay’s bad be­hav­iour. Bill English was not pre­pared for his hon­esty and in­tegrity to have been put on the line. And, ob­vi­ously, Bar­clay him­self will not have started the week know­ing he was go­ing be re­tir­ing by the end of it.

Of course, the story didn’t come from nowhere. It was the re­sult of care­ful and de­tailed work by Me­lanie Reid, a re­porter for the news web­site News­room. And the prob­lems that were the sub­ject of the story have been around for more than a year. It was the kind of thing that had too many looseends for it not to be­come a story at is­sue point.

I at­tended the Na­tional Party con­fer­ence in Welling­ton as me­dia last week­end. This gave me the op­por­tu­nity to talk to mem­bers and ac­tivists about how they felt about the past week. An­noy­ance at the lead­er­ship and its ad­vis­ers for be­ing asleep at the switch sums it up.

Sup­port­ers of the Govern­ment may be tempted to write the story off as a Welling­ton story. Mike Hosk­ing thought so. On his ‘‘Mike’s Minute’’ on the is­sue, he in­di­cated that, in the grand scheme of things, the mat­ter was a ‘‘beltway bother’’.

And it’s not an un­rea­son­able as­sump­tion. Things that ex­cite the Welling­ton me­dia do not al­ways weigh on the minds of reg­u­lar vot­ers. Peo­ple with jobs and chil­dren and lives rarely have the time to worry about such things.

But that may not be the case here. I don’t claim to have ac­cess to fancy data, but I do make a real ef­fort to talk to peo­ple who only have a pass­ing fa­mil­iar­ity with pol­i­tics. The feed­back I have re­ceived is very much along the lines of: ‘‘It’s not a good look for Bill English’’.

Will this af­fect the elec­tion? Maybe. Prob­a­bly not to any ma­te­rial de­gree, though.

The Dirty Pol­i­tics saga raged with­out mercy be­fore the 2014 elec­tion. Cov­er­age, which lasted for weeks, usu­ally fo­cused on (now) Sir John Key. There was a real sense of pur­pose about ty­ing him to the scan­dal.

In the elec­tion be­fore that, the big story was the teapot tape scan­dal. This bust-up im­pli­cated the former prime min­is­ter di­rectly. Con­jec­ture about what he said to John Banks was one thing. A fort­night of crit­i­cism over how he han­dled it was prob­a­bly worse.

Yet, as his­tory shows, those con­tro­ver­sies failed to move the nee­dle on the public’s vot­ing in­ten­tions. In each case, Na­tional’s vote held de­spite vot­ers gen­er­ally dis­ap­prov­ing of it in those mat­ters. While sore losers will al­ways blame this on vot­ers be­ing too dumb or ve­nal, when it came down to that sin­gle, macro de­ci­sion about how to use their sole party vote, peo­ple based their de­ci­sion on other fac­tors. FIR­ING LINE

And Na­tional got lucky with the emer­gence of an­other scan­dal last week. I re­fer, of course, to the ‘‘Labour camp’’ scan­dal. This in­volved for­eign stu­dents be­ing in­duced to come to New Zealand on the prom­ise of top-notch cam­paign school­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence. In­stead, some claim to have been con­signed to low-grade ac­tiv­i­ties and forced to live in sub­stan­dard con­di­tions. Hav­ing booked re­turn tick­ets in ad­vance, it seems some of these stu­dents were un­able to re­turn to their home coun­tries as soon as the truth emerged.

With at least some of these young peo­ple hav­ing been gagged by non-dis­clo­sure agree­ments, we don’t know the full ex­tent of what hap­pened.

Bro­ken by jour­nal­ist Richard Harman the day af­ter the Bar­clay ex­pose, this story could al­most have been de­signed to give Na­tional breath­ing space. Less­en­ing this ef­fect is that the rest of na­tional me­dia have proved sur­pris­ingly in­cu­ri­ous about get­ting to the bot­tom of Labour camp mat­ter. How­ever, it did al­low Bill English to open the Na­tional Party con­fer­ence by not­ing that both ma­jor par­ties were com­ing off a bad week.

Be­yond that, the Na­tional Party can only take con­so­la­tion in the tim­ing and lim­ited na­ture of the scan­dal. At the time of writ­ing, this dam­age ap­pears real, but non­fa­tal. The Govern­ment’s re­sponse to the con­tro­versy will not in­spire con­fi­dence among its sup­port­ers, how­ever.

There are still three months to go be­fore elec­tion day. With the Govern­ment’s op­po­nents in Par­lia­ment and the me­dia ea­ger to es­tab­lish a nar­ra­tive of ar­ro­gance and com­pla­cency, Na­tional prob­a­bly can’t af­ford too many more weeks like last week.

Cluth-South­land MP Todd Bar­clay and his em­ploy­ment saga have put Na­tional’s house­keep­ing in the spot­light.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.