Island Life by David Slack


Songs in the life of Key

The candidate must lie naked all night in a coffin-like box, only his nostrils protruding above the icy water with which it is filled, and with heavy stones laid on his chest. In this position he must compose a poem of considerable length in the most difficult of the many difficult bardic meters, on a subject which is given him as he is placed in the box. On his emergence next morning he must be able to chant this poem to a melody which he had been simultaneously composing, and accompany himself on the harp.

The penalty for any failure is, of course, death.

You may be thinking this is the initiation ceremony for the Auckland Rotary club, but you would be wrong. It was the test the ancient Druids used to assess your competence in poetic composition. I learned of it on one of the blogs of Jack Ross, and my first thought was: NCEA really is easy.

My next was to wonder: if you were to make this a rite of induction, how many of the candidates would still be willing to stand for Parliament? And which of them would measure up?

I predict the Libertarians would do rather well, a good number of Green Party people too; being green is indeed not easy. ACT members would have ample Darwinian instinct to carry them through or, at any rate, the more mature ones, and their fellow traveller Stephen Franks grew up in Taihape, so he’s seen worse.

Matt McCarten would be no pussy either, if he could just be persuaded to put his name on the ballot. You could expect valiant efforts from Ron Mark and Sue Bradford, but probably just a lot of whining from Peter Brown, and Jonathan Coleman looks to be more of a feet-up-with-a-cigar man.

Gerry Brownlee might rely on natural advantage to sustain him through the ordeal. As for the Maori Party MPs, I can’t see Pita Sharples, proud warrior and learned orator, being at all troubled by any of it. Hone Harawira would be staunch, but could he stay within the confines of the bardic meter?

Peters would get through by making a lot of noise. He’d say he’d already done it when the media wasn’t looking and he wasn’t about to do it again for second-rate reporters who were too lazy to do their job properly.

And what of the heavy hitters? I keep saying I wouldn't like to find myself in a lifeboat with Helen Clark, and the more I say it in a public forum, surely the more scrotum-shrinking I make the prospect. Nonetheless it’s hard to see that cross-country skiing, mountain climbing, steely politician even breaking stride for such a simple task. It would be just another day at the office; in fact I picture her reclining in the chilled waters with Heather Simpson plonked on a stool alongside, reading out the Cabinet papers.

And John Key? I think he would adopt the time-honoured practice of all CEOs with animal instincts of self-preservation. He would delegate. Bill, can you take this one? Failing that, he’d probably turn to the other technique of highly effective CEOs: deride, disparage, marginalise and discard the proposition so thoroughly that it would be seen to be neither advisable nor prudent to pursue it.

Which brings us to the other players in the drama: you, me and the rest of the little orange stick figures. As a voter, how confident do you feel that the candidates and their policies will have been well tested by election day?

Consider the prospect of a comprehensively managed six week programme of marketing, with policy McNuggets carefully drip-fed into the news cycle for the duration. The better the politicians get at modern marketing, the more an election campaign is just another product launch, and this National Party machine looks to be exceptionally well primed to roll out their latest offering.

Earlier this week John Key chatted to Wammo about the vexed business of policies. Where were they? When would he release them? He began by breezily declaring that they’d issued 14 already and they would be steadily announcing more.

Let’s trade in the prevailing currency: I can give you 14 of those Chesdale slices your kids have in their lunch-boxes and I can give you 14 one-kilogram blocks of cheddar; either way it’s technically correct to say I’ve given you 14 packets of cheese. Michael Cullen rightly calls attention to the substance - you call those policies? , but the brute reality here is that the packaging and marketing matter more. Fresh, new, ambitious John will give you a better cheese experience than sour, tired Helen and Michael.

John tells Wammo the tax cut package will come later this year, specifically: the first week or so of the election campaign. He can tell you when that will be once the Prime Minister tells him when the election will be held. Then just count on your fingers and thumbs six weeks back, and that will be the day you find out how much you’ll be getting. And I hereby declare this election campaign well and truly launched.

He talks about timing: it might be pointless to talk much about policy before the election campaign: wonks might be paying attention, but the hoi polloi probably won’t. Hitherto he has been saying that he doesn’t want to bring out policy too soon because Labour would just pinch it, but now he’s on a new tack. There’s no point bringing out the big guns now, he says, because if you try to wheel them out again at election time, they won’t be new and therefore you won’t be the lead item on One News.

The news cycle is of supreme importance. Policy announcements will be calibrated to meet its demands, and thus do they become McNuggets. You know how it plays out as news coverage: Who’s bigger, who’s better, who’s winning, who’s losing? Before we can pause to ask of a given policy Does it create more growth or not? What kind of country will it produce? we’re on to the next morsel.

News thus becomes an amplification of marketing messages; longer on emotion than reason and thus did you get a superior performance from National for most of the 2005 campaign.

Paul Williams put it concisely in a discussion thread here yesterday. Although all parties, Labour included, were guilty of similar sins, he found the Iwi/Kiwi tactics of John Ansell particularly disagreeable.

All spin and no substance, designed to polarise and certainly not to inform.

John Ansell might be gone, but surely the lesson has not been forgotten.

News cycle management is not in the least bit new. Helen Clark's lot are past masters at announcing good news on Sunday afternoon and bad news on a Friday or just before a sufficiently diverting event. But at least they have seemed to feel obliged to offer big wodges of detail in their policies and more willing to produce it sooner.

Trader John seems to be rather more interested in fizzing up the buyers and getting their signature on the contract. Don’t you worry about the details. We’ll sort it out. You’ll get your three-garage Mediterranean style house and we promise it won’t leak.

If he could put in a bardic meter and accompany it with harp music, I expect it would sound even more alluring.

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