Blurred lines on the cam­paign trail

Wairarapa News - - CONVERSATIONS - GOR­DON CAMP­BELL TALK­ING POLITICS

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.

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