Island Life by David Slack

Don Brash Eats Belgian Babies

If you're wondering about Labour's plans for smearing and discrediting National sufficiently to keep them from winning the election, read on. The 1990 election, that is. We'll get to the current one in a moment or two.

Lynley Hood bobbed up in the news last week with some interesting material she'd unearthed during her tireless efforts to cast some light on the puzzling and unhappy saga that is the Peter Ellis case. She had there in her hand a list of names of National Party members. However they were not the villains of the piece. That honour went to the Labour Party.

What she had unearthed was a collection of documents that painted a less than flattering picture of the Labour Party. Talk about mean! Talk about scurrilous! Talk about down and dirty! Talk about bring back memories!

The documents revealed that in 1988 they were worried about the polls, they were worried about the inroads National was making and they were worried that they might lose the 1990 election.

I read the Herald report on this as I ate my muesli thinking Well that could have been anyone. Could have been the people in the angry punch-ups at the party conferences. Could have been people in the faction that peeled off in disgust to form New Labour. Could have been people in the faction that ended up in ACT.

It wasn't a harmonious time. Many tears and tantrums, tissues and issues. The Prime Minister and Minister of Finance's respective offices waged a Beehive war. Looking back, it seems amazing anyone even had time to think about the opposition. But of course they did.

Lynley Hood had discovered an Interim Report to Cabinet on Anti-National Strategy. Its objectives: to stop National being perceived as a viable alternative Government; to create a weak, destabilized and demoralised National caucus and to render a Winston Peters-Ruth Richardson combination impossible.

Let's pause for a moment and consider how a Winston Peters-Ruth Richardson combination might have played out. Boy, that would have been some trainwreck to watch. But I digress.

Hood went on to describe the report in detail. It included one page of negative comments about National "to be repeated constantly" ("negative - no policy alternatives, whingers"; "a divided party - couldn't govern"; "Promises - where's the money coming from?" "no team to govern") and two pages of negative comments about National MPs ("key lines to be repeated").

The she recited some recommended attack lines, and suddenly she had my full attention:

[Jim] Bolger - not up to being PM - a lame duck leader - weak, boring, timid, gutless - trying to 'sleepwalk to victory', repeat other Winston lines"; "ignore McKinnon - 'Don Who?' "; "discredit Richardson - inconsistent, expedient (for business comments) - naive, impractical (electorate); [Bill] Birch as 'shadow treasurer' "; "destroy Peters - no policies, lacking in substance - arrogant - flashy, superficial - a third party appeal, now fading fast, shrill".

The memories just came flooding back. When you're writing speeches for the Prime Minister, everyone is poking papers and reports and recommendations at you. You happily take them all. You never know where you might find a nice line or a nugget of interesting information.

I really have no idea of its provenance but I know for certain that I got a bit of paper pushed my way with the very lines on them that Hood has unearthed all these years later. One day I used them.

Geoffrey Palmer deplored personal attacks. He deplores various things about politics that he thinks are a bit less than lofty, it has to be said, but I recall that back then he found personal attacks especially deplorable.

At regular intervals - poll result days spring to mind - people would encourage him (in fact implore might be more accurate) - to take a poke at the opposition line-up. One day he relented. Okay, he said, put something together.

I piled into it and used all of the aforementioned abusive material. He hated it. We didn't abandon the speech, but we ended up with an extremely pared-down version. My recollection is that the media leapt on any morsel of denigration he offered and gave the lines a big run. It's also fair to say that as the year went on, the odd line went into the speeches and the press conferences and the press releases about the capacity of National to govern.

But if there was some large and elaborate plan to pin scandals on National, they were comprehensively and hopelessly obscured by such small issues as the vaulting unemployment rate, a deeply contentious frigate contract, the privatisation of Telecom for what then seemed the impressive sum of 4 billion or so dollars, and a leadership change. Regrets: we've had a few.

Perhaps there exists a noble political movement populated entirely by high-minded individuals who never take a cheap shot. I confidently suggest that no party seeking your vote this spring can match that description.

For one thing, people tend to have an appetite for this stuff. We don't think much of a boorish or inane or below-the-belt attack, but we lap it up if it hits just the right balance of insight and barb. Put your hand on your heart and say you've never smirked at a putdown by Cullen, or Tamihere, or Lange or Muldoon.

An all-out smear attack is something else again, but they have a high capacity to do more harm to the smearer than the smeared if there's not a substantial degree of truth to them, and if they don't manage to stay within the parameters of what people perceive to be fair.

If you click over to Scoop, you'll see they've done us all the very generous service of carrying the full tape of the PM's Monday press conference, and it offers a nice example of the issues at play here.

Look out in particular for a question to her of Jeff Gannon proportions - but valid nonetheless - that asks whether you can really call it a personal attack on Don Brash to criticise him by quoting the words he's used. Helen Clark uses this absolute gimme to point out that she's been on the receiving end of some pretty noxious stuff herself.

Michael Cullen predictably got sneered at last week for giving a speech to PR people on the desirability of having less spin and more facts in politics. Well, by all means give me all your jibes about the pot calling the kettle black, but then consider this: Cullen is not just a deft master at the quick soundbite and the barbed wit. He's a thoughtful politician too. I've heard a quite persuasive argument that he wrote this budget with a historian's perspective. (Yeah, yeah - the chewing gum budget means they're history. That's not what I'm getting at.)

A politician can be many things at once, and Cullen is undeniably that. Craig Ranapia could well be right to label him New Zealand's bitchiest straight guy. It would be equally correct to say that he's also one of New Zealand's most intelligent politicians. The speech he gave last week was one of the most enjoyable speeches I've read in a long time.

You can get it here. You may find a barb or two in it. But if you're searching for a sign that the present government will stoop to anything to stay in power, you won't find it in there.