The role of the punch in election campaigning

Campaigning is a mix of luck, the economy, public mood, charisma, message, discipline, management — and pugilism.

Luck is by definition outside parties’ sphere of influence, except in what they make of it. So, to a large extent, is the economy in a nation dependent on trade, though regulatory, tax and fiscal settings contribute.

The economy is a large generator of public mood but not the only one. Among this election’s factors are the Treaty of Waitangi and the link between immigrants, refugees and crime and terror.

Charisma reposes in leaders — but only a few and in this election only the grand allusionist Winston Peters, with his amalgam of boyish charm, sly innocence and angry battler from the backblocks.

But is his gift deserting him, at 59? His campaign launch — dry ice, motorbike, the gross Mike King — was more kitsch and querulous than charm and winsome, 5 per cent of the vote, not 15 per cent.

Still, the other leaders are earthbound by comparison: Helen Clark’s strength, determination and fearsome grasp of detail; Don Brash’s admixture of central banker’s gravitas and engaging (or disturbing) lack of wiles of a not-yet-politician; Peter Dunne’s middle-road decency; Rodney Hide’s mix of humour and bounce; Jeanette Fitzsimons’ gracious toughness and running-mate Rod Donald’s Tigger-ish love of the game; Tariana Turia’s stern, comforting grandmother.

Message can help make up for charisma.

Turia’s Maori party is the first compelling dedicated electoral vehicle for Maori ethnic aspirations for many decades. It has not only excited a lot of formerly alienated young people but has the interest and good wishes of many Maori normally classed as “conservative”.

The Greens’ message similarly excites a small segment of voters: save the planet before it can no longer save us. The Greens have zeal. For many they preach too much but for some they are messiahs. That might well see them through this tight election.

Hide has a message, too, one the political debate needs but which had its heyday in the 1980s-90s, since when its constituency has dwindled, particularly now next-door National has recovered.

Peters also has a message: cultural security in a society beset by shocks to old mainstream mores and values. But Brash has gazumped him on Treaty and PC issues and even the present government has tightened immigration rules to about where he was three years ago. So he has become more shrill, which risks thinning his catchment.

What is Brash’s message? That tax cuts and some deregulation will fix the economy and make us rich. He has thereby made the election in part a choice about the role and size of the state (not to mention personal greed). Otherwise, his message is essentially about Clark’s waste and misdirected energies (PC again).

Clark’s message is a buoyant economy, more money in education and health, a slightly fairer society than she inherited. It is also essentially a managerial message: that she knows the ropes and gets the job done; that Brash is an “amateur”.

Within that is a message about National’s discipline: that she runs a tight ship and Brash doesn’t (yet) — witness last week’s disarray over the Lockwood Smith affair. Too often it has no clear, single position, most damagingly on foreign and defence policy but most recently on roads. Brash’s young chief whip Simon Power has greatly improved coordination but there is a way to go yet.

As Peters found in 1999 after his party fell apart, voters punish indiscipline.

And Clark herself is not immune. In May-June as her cabinet’s (in)famous Helengrad discipline frayed, culminating in Trevor Mallard’s unsubstantiable allegations about National’s American “bagman”, the polls marked her down.

The indiscipline followed dents in her reputation for managerial competence as opposition attacks hit home from January to May: NCEA, immigration, the bungled Budget public relations, her own 2000 indiscretions over the Doone affair. Whatever people thought of the policies, there had been widespread respect for her and her cabinet’s management grip.

The cabinet has got back its discipline and its grip and is managing the politics more efficiently and effectively.

That includes hard punching, not least the attack on Smith, iced by Michael Cullen’s below-the-belt jibe on Wednesday. One senior National MP describes Labour’s punching as “very tough”, much tougher than his party had expected.

Expect more. National started it with its billboards, hard-knuckled for all their wit, and Brash’s denigration of Clark in May.

Pugilism slakes a public thirst for combat and has fired up this campaign long before the official openings. But elections go deeper than rounds in the ring. They affect livelihoods.

Punching is intended to undermine trust — in opponents. But an excess of pugilism undermines trust in all politicians, punchers as well as punched. Poll-bound politicians might ponder — just for an instant — why voter turnouts have been falling.