You knew Helen Clark would fight all year all the way to tonight’s election eve sweep down Ponsonby Road when she turned up to her first press conference of the year in open-toed shoes — with her toenails painted. This was a gal who once didn’t wear lipstick.
All year Clark has battled adverse polls reflecting a sagging public mood and a sagging economy, her lapses of political management last year and third-term-it-is. To come from behind, she pushed “trust”: on the one hand a “secret agenda” behind John Key’s bland change-with-no-change; on the other insisting her decades of experience were needed to navigate the wild waters whipped up by the international credit turmoil.
She couldn’t get the first to stick. Then petrol prices fell back to earth, the October tax cuts cut in and fear of apocalypse faded. Clark was still battling uphill. Worse, by trying to make the international turmoil her competitive advantage, she ruled out her stock campaign weapon, big new spending.
For feistiness, grit and a fixed smile you can’t fault Clark. In this campaign she has run on her record (outstanding abroad, mixed at home) and an “ambition” for a richer, more equitable, climate-change-leading New Zealand (even as droves leave for Australia). To answer Key’s “fresh” line, she pointed to the younger ministers on her front bench and her crop of promising younger candidates.
Labour’s campaign opening event reflected that younger energy: a visitor from Mars knowing nothing else of politics here but the tenor and tone of the two main parties’ openings would have declared Labour a no-contest winner. And in fact Labour outside Parliament is in good shape.
But since midyear Clark has been dragging an anchor called Winston Peters. Poll ratings have pronounced him near death.
For decades Peter has thrived by slipping off the question — and, often, the facts — into a winsome smile or tangential bluster, no pin so small he could not pirouette on it. This week he slipped off the pin into self-delusion: first, denying using helicopters to campaign, then, when confronted with evidence from two sources that he had, admitting he had in two campaigns — but that he had not campaigned from (subs: italics from) the helicopters as one of the questions to him had been framed.
Key could not have had better justification of his refusal to have Peters in a National governing arrangement. Peters himself showed he could base that refusal on Clark’s ground of trust.
Key had some rabbit-in-the-headlights moments as the credit crunch typhoon — or, rather, the rhetoric — came onshore and as Clark and Michael Cullen rediscovered red-blooded Keynesianism. But he and the ever-accommodating Bill English accommodated to that brand of economics with the same ease with which he hoisted toddlers to his shoulders for snapshots.
Having got the new (old) religion, he started promising roads in marginal electorates, pure 1960s pork barrel. Once a trader, always a trader.
Where Clark stumped determinedly, Key cruised affably. Seemingly oblivious to the double meaning, he asked a young woman eating nuts in an Indian food bar: “Do you come here often?”
He didn’t look quite a Prime Minister — or, with his Newzealn diction, sound like one. But he was inviting, even to dogs: one gave him a big kiss. He got his lines off pat and learned to answer the question he wanted asked, not the one actually asked — John Campbell’s television debate inquiry about his 1990s front bench retreads drew only another recital of slogans, with the emphasis on law and order.
In policy that was a crowdout winner. Justice spokesman Simon Power was so busy this campaign playing the Palin part on crims that as commerce spokesman he didn’t (at least as of midday yesterday) get to put out a competition and regulation policy.
That left a serious gap in economic policy, which came down to (slightly) bigger and earlier tax cuts, paid for with cuts in KiwiSaver, foreign affairs and research, (slightly) lighter regulation, a (slightly) smaller state, a bit more infrastructure and education standards. No Don Brash sharp edges.
The election sorted the parties into two blocs. Peter Dunne fled to National. ACT promised Sir Roger Douglas to fill out National’s economic policy. Labour lockstep ally Jim Anderton wanted free dentistry and an infrastructure bank. The Greens ruled National out and reluctantly settled in with Labour.
With Peters near death and the possibility neither bloc will get a majority, the splotlight fell on the Maori party. Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples slowly got across to the media a message of deals for Maori rather than “king-making”. Top was entrenchment of the seats. Thus did an arcane topic for constitutional pointyheads get a run in the popular media.
Just being in that spotlight partly made the party’s point: that it is not any old ethnic party but the Treaty partner in Parliament. But it is still learning the trade. Its best result would be a National bloc majority win and deals afterwards with a Key who needs a pipeline into the brown vote — that is, influence but not power. Power can be toxic to a small party, as others have found.
But it is power the Greens want, after nine years in Parliament learning how to influence.
So they changed their style and thereby became, as in 1999, the star of the campaign — at least in their advertising.
Labour’s ads were to the point and on the nose, funny and angry. National started with a dreamy blue, then went negative red, warning of three more years of bad headlines on crime, sickness and ignorance under Labour. Both professional. Both old politics.
The Greens imagined a little girl’s future. The ads showed the Greens have now grasped that politics is not just high-falutin’ principle and precept but what voters feel and fear. The ads personalised the Greens’ ethereal message of doom and hope.
Doom and hope: you might say that combination was, in various ways, this year’s campaign.