The New Zealand campaign isn't one of the five ugliest in the world, it isn't even as bad as America's. PLUS: An exclusive interview with the journalist who called our campaign ugly.
Talk of the election campaign turning dirty has been sprinkled through our political debate this week. Labour released its Two Johns ad, which Helen Clark labelled as "humorous" and John Key called "down and dirty". It's neither, but the media started talking about "attack ads" and asking is this election campaign getting dirty?
You can see the ad here:
It was all a bit silly, but then came news that Huffington Post magazine critic James Warren had a written a post claiming that New Zealand's election was one of the world's ugliest. Warren wrote that "as far as campaigns, we [Americans] don't know dirty. Picking recent and ongoing campaigns in Nigeria, Russia, Austria, New Zealand, Taiwan and Zimbabwe, they remind that we're watching a Stepford Wives Tupperware gathering by comparison."
Warren was actually referring to a piece on the Foreign Policy magazine website, which put us in the five ugliest list. Some local media reported the story without investigation; classic cut and paste journalism. Some commentators, such as dear old David Farrar used it as a way of making a point in favour of the parties they support. Farrar wrote, "I guess they have noticed the unrelenting campaign of secret tapes, stolen e-mails, insinuations of being a “domestic shouter”, complaints about temper tantrums etc etc".
Truth is, Foreign Policy hadn't noticed any such thing. Writer David Kenner pointed the finger largely at Winston Peters, who he said had attacked both sides, "claiming that the Labour government’s free trade agreement with China had gone 'as sour as the milk in their baby-food products' and referring to former investment banker and National Party leader John Key as a 'greedy merchant banker'.”
But Kenner was most impressed by the google-bombing attack on John Key by left-wing activist Rochelle Rees. Thanks to Rees, John Key's website was the first link to appear on Google when someone typed "clueless" into the search engine. According to the New Zealand Herald, "Ms Rees started the bomb by sending out emails telling people to include links to Mr Key's site when they used "clueless" on their websites. It pushed Mr Key's site to the top of the list when people searched for the word".
But rather than let this 'dirty election' impression gain legs, I got in touch with Kenner and this morning he told me why he had included New Zealand on a list featuring countries as corrupt as Russia and Nigeria.
I decided to include New Zealand because of the innovative nature of the Google-bombing attack, rather than any sort of extreme rhetoric or personal smears. It struck me as something unusual, and a unique use of technology, that I hadn't ever seen used during a campaign. There are always campaigns where politicians question their opponents' experience or accuse them of not having the nation's best interest at heart, so it is simply more interesting to focus on campaign attacks that are out of the ordinary.
So Kenner was drawn to the New Zealand campaign by its originality rather than its ugliness. He also admitted that New Zealand made the list because even the slightest bit of foul play was unexpected from a country with such a proud democratic tradition.
But yes, I agree that the ugliness of the New Zealand election doesn't compare to Nigeria or Russia. It was the cleanest of the five elections we surveyed, but also "dirtier" than the sixth option. I also think New Zealand, as a country with a strong democratic tradition, was graded on something of a curve. It's more surprising to read about a dirty election campaign in New Zealand than, say, Taiwan, and that also factored into my decision to include it.
I know, you're wondering which country was sixth. So was I.
The #6 option was Iran's upcoming elections, which hasn't gotten really nasty yet and, according to some Iran experts I e-mailed, rarely turns personal. I used IFES's election guide (http://www.electionguide.org/) to survey my options -- I looked at most of the options from 2008, and also scanned the list from 2007 to see if there were any noteworthy ones from there too. Because we were looking for a list that covered personal smears and verbal attacks, campaigns where the sole complaint was electoral fraud or voter intimidation didn't make the cut.
It's interesting that Kenner thinks that a google bomb and a few harsh words is uglier than the Iranian system, where the Guardian Council of jurists and clerics vets candidates before the election, deciding whether they are committed enough to the Islamic republic's ideals to be allowed to even run. Or that we rank ahead of Cote d'Ivoire, where local police are concerned about the potential for increased child abductions in the run up to its presidential elections in November. It seems some political hopefuls may cling to traditional beliefs that human sacrifice could boost their chances.
I'm not really having a go at Kenner. He spotted a campaign novelty in the google bombing and wanted to tell his readers about it. But the local media could afford to be a bit sharper when it comes to analysing the nastiness of our own election.
In particular, Kenner, Warren, and all the New Zealand media who have hopped on this bandwagon are wrong to suggest New Zealand's campaign is uglier than America's. We've had our moments – the Dancing Cossacks with their message of reds under the bed in 1975 and the racism of the Iwi/Kiwi billboards in 2005 aren't anything to be proud of. You could argue that they equal some of the worst of America's ads, such as the infamous Willie Horton campaign in 1988. But in this campaign there's been nothing to equal the bitterness of John McCain's attack ads on Barack Obama. Look at his now widely discredited ad trying to link Obama to former Weather Underground leader William Ayers:
Or this ad from the man behind the Willie Horton ads, who reappeared earlier this year to attack Obama this way.
Not that it's all one way. Back at the start of the primaries, Barack Obama got a fair bit of impact – and media attention – with this crack at Hillary Clinton:
All of which makes the Two Johns ad look pretty tame. No matter what some might say, this campaign is hardly getting dirty. There has been no voter intimidation, no threats of violence, no signs of prejudice (apart from Lockwood Smith's foolishness), not even any personal attacks that go beyond legitimate policy debate. We should give the parties credit for that and chill.
Good on John Key for ruling out attack ads, if that's the way he wants to play the game. But to be honest, it would be no sin if National did have a pop at Labour. Negative ads are not terrible in and of themselves. They can help spell out the differences between various parties, so long as they're accurate and policy-focused. The mark of ugliness is when an attack distorts the truth, plays to our basest instincts, or veers away from the political to the personal. In the US, there are reasons to be concerned. Not here. Not this time. At least, not yet.
PS: Just to add insult to injury, Foreign Policy has left Auckland off its list of the planet's 60 most integrated and globalised cities. Hey, I know it's not Tokyo or San Francisco, but come on... There's room for Lagos and Ho Chi Minh, but not Auckland? Ouch. Seriously though, it's a fascinating analysis. Read it.