Who wins when politics gets personal?
New Zealand Herald column, 16 May 2001
Now you know the cost of Helen Clark's occasional penchant for playing the person instead of the ball. You pay $55,000 for her calling John Yelash a "convicted murderer" when he was convicted only of manslaughter.
I say "occasional penchant" because it has not yet become a trademark as it did for Sir Robert Muldoon, the last Prime Minister to use personal attack as a weapon with the steeliness Clark wields it.
Clark still has much more effect arguing her case on its merits (as did Muldoon early on). Last week she won the defence argument on points by sheer skill and forcefulness (though over time relationships in Canberra and south-east Asia may well falsify that argument).
But Clark's occasional bullying gives the beleaguered National party cause for hope. Bullying eventually undid Muldoon. "Strength" applied to personal destruction (and Clark has confided to insiders that she thinks her attacks on retired officers "strength") can boomerang.
National is also heartened by two other developments in Clark's prime ministerial style.
One is fallibility. She alleged the Skyhawks had combat-trained with ground troops three times in 30 years, whereas they have flown 300 hours a year in such training. We have now seen the elephantine Clark memory, a formidable debating tool, fail.
The second is her recent lapses in reliability to do what she has said she will do -- once her strongest appeal to voters. The nature of her settlement with Yelash belies her pre-election fulminations against secret payouts.
A third development, which is nothing to do with Clark, is likely to hearten National still more. During the winter economic queasiness is likely to concertina the left's big opinion poll lead over the right. In fact, that process has already begun.
Now mix all that into the National presidential race and look back 30 years into history.
In mid-term 1971 Sir George Chapman, an assertive, youngish professional, set out to knock over big, bluff stalwart Ned Holt. Chapman's cause: to reconnect a drifting parliamentary team to its grassroots.
Holt survived, thanks partly to some conference-eve skulduggery by Prime Minister Sir Keith Holyoake who grasped he was the ultimate, if not explicit, target of the Chapman rebels' darts. Holyoake nevertheless went six months later but the reconnection had to await an election defeat in 1972 and Chapman's eventual accession in 1973 to an impressive nine-year presidential reign -- though he in turn had to deal with rebellion when Muldoon disconnected from the party.
Supporters of this mid-term year's assertive, youngish professional presidential challenger, Michelle Boag, echo the Chapman disconnection theme. Stuck in soggy polls, they can't change the leader -- indeed, few say they want to -- so their target is the incumbent president, low-key stalwart John Slater.
Not that Slater has been a do-nothing. His list of modernising initiatives -- including policy task forces, special interest groups and more effort in membership and fund-raising -- would read well in calmer times. So would his usually courteous gregariousness.
But much of Auckland business thinks National lost the plot after Ruth Richardson. Younger people right of centre are more assertively more-market than their elders. Neither are putting real trust in or weight behind the party right now.
Boag argues their support and involvement -- most likely obtainable only in non-traditional ways -- are vital if the party is to recover full fighting strength. She can get them, supporters say, and Slater can't. She is now well ahead of him.
But Boag's very closeness to Auckland business wide boys worries staider Nationalists, of whom there are many. Slater plays on this tangentially in his "integrity, loyalty" campaign speeches.
He does it tangentially because Nationalists abhor personal mudslinging -- except over the teacups or the gin, when they do it with gusto. Each camp is accusing the other, sotto voce, of insidious campaigning misdemeanours, though the Boag camp's list is longer and more specific and includes a case for the rules committee.
Which, to return to Clark, makes a point. Politics is highly personal and tempers flare. But long-run winners keep tempers out of sight.