Recent elections and votes in America, Britain and Australia have been brutal and brittle affairs with plenty of rancour, and some fear the same here this year. But I wonder if they're looking in the wrong direction
The mumblings and frettings about how Donald Trump's victory in the US may twist and define our own elections this year have been many and full of dread. And not unreasonably. You only have to look at recent votes and polls in our cultural neighbours – the US, UK and Australia – to see the rise of some ugly politics. But I fear the worriers may be wailing at the wrong wall.
Most of the concerns I've heard and seen are that race-baiting may loom large over Election 2017. Take the dog whistling – and downright barking – by Trump, the Brexiteers and some politicians closer to home in Australia, toss in the developed world-leading speed of (and economic dependence on) our immigration and our diminished media, and it's understandable why some fear a campaign dominated by a bit of old-fashioned demonising of 'the other' and question whether our fourth estate is robust enough to report it properly.
Of course, there's also the fact that Labour has clearly identified immigration as a vote-changing issue and it will have to display more nuance that is has in recent times to negotiate that without stumbling (or indeed charging) onto shakey ground. And then there's Winston Peters. With New Zealand First primed to be competing for the balance of power – and perhaps more – it'll be telling to see what exactly that old dog has learnt from past indiscretions.
So while the risk for a racist campaign is ripe, I have a perhaps Pollyanna-ish hope it won't come to that. Whatever else they are, I think the leaders of the two main parties will be loathe to open that can of worms and are smart enough to focus the immigration debate on population numbers, jobs and infrastructure, where it belongs.
As for Peters, I'd like to think Ron Mark, Shane Jones and Tracey Martin will be moderating elements on that front and our changing demographics (and the fact he has plenty of other ammunition) might mean the sins of 1996 go unrepeated. And, while quick to condemn migration numbers, he's been less eager (his obsession with Chinese grandparents aside) to focus on Asia and has even argued to increase the refugee quota.
No, if we're going to adopt or mimic the politics of those neighbours, I fear the greater temptation will be for politicians to demonise, not immigrants and refugees, but the media and to seek to bait voter's distrust of traditional news sources.
Reading The New Yorker this weekend, I was struck by these lines, about the major news organisations struggle on how to report on President Trump and their forthright reporting of his lies:
"Such fact-checking is essential, but it is also a task of the President's making, one full of traps. Trump and his aides provoke conflict with the media to fire up supporters and renew the narrative of a people's champion at war with the bicoastal establishment."
The sense of grievance, I believe, does not run as deep in New Zealand as in America. But if any vibe can translate from the US to here, it's probably the one that provokes media conflict to fire up supporters. Politicians can demonise the press with much less downside risk than they would endure demonising immigrants.
Just look at Britain in recent hours, where the government is proposing to make journalists liable to face espionage charges just for gathering state secrets as part of their job holding the state to account. These are challenging times indeed to be speaking truth to power.
This will be a challenging campaign to cover for mainstream media. On one hand, resources are stretched tighter than any other time in living memory. On the other, the competition will be intense, what with several new media actors on the scene keen to make their mark and editors at traditional media scrapping to win an audience for their expensive political coverage at a time when many are more invested in MasterChef than in members of parliament.
It also comes in the wake of the 2014 'peak cray' Dirty Politics election, when journalists, rightly in my view, persisted with coverage of serious claims of unethical behaviour by the Prime Minister's staff and senior ministers. But it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the stories didn't generate too many hoots being given by voters, who felt let down in the lack of coverage of their hip pocket issues.
Add to that the fact that media have been frustrated in recent years by a government that has become increasingly risk averse and negligent in its duty to be available for public scrutiny by journalists. While John Key was Prime Minister and popping up frequently on air, online and in print (although often in the soft media), his ministers could hide behind his coattails. And they often did.
Senior ministers could go for much of a year refusing to appear on the weekend television shows; most notably Paula Bennett, who in her most difficult year in politics, all but vanished from rigorous interviews.
Time and again, producers in TV and radio would ring ministers offices for interviews, only to be told to send an email and await a reply. In many cases there would be a refusal to appear, as "we don't have anything new to say" or "we'll only come on when we have something to announce". When pushed, press secretaries might prevaricate, claim previous commitments (the sort that seem to disappear when good news is about), or simply offer lectures about not owing any particular programme or network anything.
But come campaigns, even ministers finally have to come out of their dens blinking into the media lights. And given their hostility to a good, ding dong defence of their position, the temptation this year to reach for the Trump ploy of not only attacking, but actively vilifying, the messenger, will be great.
New Zealanders, much to my constant dismay, are determinedly polite creatures. They would often rather have politicians spin and waffle and dissemble than see them interrupted and held in check by a well-prepared and skeptical interviewer. So they are, in many ways, there for the taking.
Again, the one to watch will be Peters. The local champion at pouring scorn on journalists, may find himself a pig in muck given the current swirling debate about the state of the media, fake news and the lack of agreed facts.
And again, I place some hope in the integrity and track record of our main party leaders. Despite some frankly appalling interviews this year, Bill English has a good reputation of being able and willing to front media and engage in robust debate; Andrew Little, while still needing to find a voice a bit more at ease with his own personality, is a former boss of the union that represented most of this country's journalists and so is well versed in media culture, its characters and the importance of that robust debate.
Here's hoping they remember their better angels when they're being grilled on behalf of voters under the intense pressure of the campaign. And indeed, here's hoping journalists remember the fine line between being the public's iron clad champion and indulging in the Bad Sir Brian Botany-esque pleasure of simply bopping people on the head.
Then, maybe, the debate and demand for accountability through our election year may be 'the shining light on the hill' that was so brutishly (if hopefully only temporarily) extinguished in last year's US campaign.