The pot and kettle game makes an opening for Peters

It’s pot and kettle time: gunpowder-blackened politicians blackening other politicians. That side of politics helps earn politicians their low trust ratings.

Don Brash feigns anger (or maybe is actually angry) at being misrepresented when his Iraq and nuclear policy words are quoted out of context. With hand on presbyterian heart, he declares his billboards just point up differences with Labour.

Well, test him on his “pen-pushers” v “patients” billboard. The “difference” stated there is that Labour ministers care only for bureaucrats while Nightingale National cares deeply for patients.

Misrepresentative? Yes. So are the rest. The “iwi/Kiwi” one is divisive to boot.

So Brash could have no other expectation of Labour than that at some point it would misrepresent him. Get in the gutter and you get splashed with muddy water.

It is partly why the mainstream — “all decent, law-abiding, hardworking Kiwis”, to take Helen Clark’s definition — generally steers clear of engaging in politics.

Brash’s billboards do have a small saving grace: they have a tinge of wit.

They have also been much talked about and possibly have loosened votes from Labour because there is a trace of truth in them. Certainly, they have gnawed at Labour’s self-confidence: witness Trevor Mallard’s fevered outburst last week that an American was raising money for National and that this demonstrated American influence on its policy.

A subtle Mallard might have written a “foreign policy” billboard with “Wellington” over Clark and “Washington” over Brash. That would have been to respond to National in kind — and if Mallard wanted a cue he could view the plethora of anti-billboards on the internet, this election’s welcome new and often amusing dimension. But Mallard is not a man to use the rapier of wit when sprigged boots for head-raking are available.

Head-raking can be effective if done skilfully. It works this way: an extravagant statement is made; victims, opponents or commentators complain; the statement is eventually withdrawn or toned down or left to rot; middle-ground people note the withdrawal and maybe put the original down to a rush of blood; but the targeted voters remember the original.

The Bush Administration has used this technique to effect. And there was a variant in Brash’s Orewa II speech back in January. He said women who have babies while on the DPB would not automatically get the benefit under his government and should consider adoption.

Katherine Rich disagreed with the implied threat of pressured adoption and was fired. Judith Collins, her successor in the portfolio, has quietly retreated from Brash’s position. But those who think DPBs are leeches on their taxes will remember the big stick not the wet bus ticket.

What works for the right can also work for the left, as the Iraq innuendo based on Brash’s quotes appeared to be doing, highlighting a difference between National and Labour.

But Mallard went overboard by directly linking an American’s suggestions to business leaders here that they help fund National with National kowtowing to Washington on foreign policy. That was a link too far even in the head-raking game. He became the story and overshadowed Clark’s innuendo.

This pot-and-kettle carry-on, of course, leaves a space for small parties to pitch to voters turned off by it — voters who think the word “commonsense” should be able to share a sentence with “politics”, for example, or who are susceptible to the charms of Winston Peters.

There is a small irony in this because Peters is the master of allusion. You can never quite pin him down. But those whom he charms believe he says deeply meaningful things.

Right now Peters is setting about maximising his vote. His line, which he will drive at his campaign opening on Sunday, is that the more votes New Zealand First gets, the more of its promises it can get Labour or National to implement.

High on the list of promises on Sunday will be the gold card for oldies (copied by National for its veterans policy), law and order, immigration, the “bro-reaucracy” in Maoridom, asset sales and free trade agreements with low-wage countries (such as China).

Peters’ line is that he is not about to make Brash or Clark king or queen. He is about securing results for his particular constituencies and it doesn’t much matter who is Prime Minister. With Brash he could get elements of Treaty and law and order policy, for example. With Clark he could get goodies for oldies.

Read this as a vote-maximising tactic rather than an endgame. The odds remain that the lure of high office will put him in harness with Brash if the numbers are there.

Will his manoeuvre work? National is trying to undermine his support by prodding voters to think and worry about which way he will jump.

But National and Labour are undermining themselves by playing dirty and reminding voters how rotten politics can be. Peters could hardly have written a better script for a springboard for his launch.