Blurred lines on the campaign trail
For better or worse, faithbased voting tends to be the norm. Many of us vote after selecting the campaign messages that best accord with our deeply held beliefs. There is a commonly held view, for instance, that National is better at managing the economy. Similarly, there is an ingrained belief that Labour is prone to being a ‘‘tax and spend’’ lightweight on the economy.
Credible, more nuanced evidence exists to the contrary. The last time Labour was in power, it ran eight years of budget surpluses and – rather than spending up large on social causes – it paid down government debt, such that New Zealand was well placed to ride out the impact of the Global Financial Crisis. Whatever else he was, Michael Cullen was hardly a tax and spend lightweight.
In a context where voting is dictated by these pre-existing narratives as much as by rational choice, trust becomes an essential element in the mix. Given how fake news is now a global concern, it was hardly surprising that one of the main television debates between Labour’s Jacinda Ardern and National’s Bill English began with a question about whether voters can any longer trust politicians not to lie.
Arguably, as this campaign heads into the home straight, the line between political spin and outright falsehood has become more blurred than in any other election in recent memory. The allegation, for instance, of an $11.7 billion hole in Labour’s alternative budget, and the similarly extravagant claims of a $50,000 impact upon farmers of Labour’s water tax proposal, have now been widely debunked.
For its part, Labour did its own credibility no favours by initially claiming that the housing crisis was so urgent that it may need to enact a meaningful capital gains tax during its first term - only to backpedal under fire, and promise that any property tax changes wouldn’t now happen until after the 2020 election.
Oddly, the most compelling campaign example of politicians playing fast and loose with the truth emerged from the recent past. Two years ago, the Key government was under fire for wasting $11 million of taxpayer money in paying off a Saudi prince aggrieved by New Zealand’s ban on live sheep exports. At the time, Foreign Minister Murray McCully claimed he had been acting on legal advice from MFAT, supposedly to prevent this country from being sued.
Last week, after two years of fighting under the Official Information Act over the privileged nature of official advice to ministers, RNZ could finally reveal that MFAT had never given any such advice. Basically, legal privilege had been invoked to support a fictional cover story meant to rationalise the payout to this very lucky Saudi prince.
McCully and then-PM John Key have since left the political stage. Still, one might have expected the Saudi revelations would dent the credibility of then-Finance Minister Bill English, who signed off the multi-million dollar payout. Yet there’s been barely a ripple.
Without much ado, the election 2017 campaign appears to have crossed the borderline between political spin and outright lies. Yet only the media, perhaps, has ever felt there was all that much of a difference.