Mike Hosking & the benefit of low expectations

Labour's public upset over the TVNZ debate moderator is a sign of more ill-discipline and prompts the question if it's time for a rejig in David Cunliffe's office

Labour has been bleating about Mike Hosking being used as moderator in a TVNZ election debate. There is even the unconvincing talk that Labour may boycott the debate if Hosking takes that role. As the story goes, Hosking called Cunliffe a moron because he gave his state of the nation address on Auckland's anniversary day and has demonstrated a pattern of antipathy towards Labour over a sustained period. 

Hosking, as we know, is a flagrant Tory sympathiser, in New Zealand’s low-octane shock-jock sort of way.  

Exposing him as such is, I'm told, Matt McCarten's latest genius ploy. 

Here’s the thing, though. Everyone in New Zealand with enough interest in politics to sit through a televised debate knows full well that Hosking dislikes the Labour Party, adores Key and probably thinks Cunliffe is a moron or worse. But this is not bad for Labour and Cunliffe. This is great for Labour and Cunliffe.

Debates are about expectations. If people think you’re going to do well, you invariably do poorly. If the public expect a trainwreck, more often than not you come out the “winner”. It’s not really about the substance of these debates – they rarely have much of that – but about how the contestants performed compared to expectations leading in.

If you had never heard Obama or Romney speak beforehand, you would have almost certainly concluded that the President, a much more charming and eloquent television performer, won the first debate in 2012 handily; in fact, the perception was that his performance was so diabolically bad, and Romney’s so comparatively strong, that it could have cost Obama re-election if not for Hurricane Sandy and the '47 percent' video.

Four years earlier, most pundits said Sarah Palin out-performed Joe Biden in the Vice Presidential debate, presumably because the then Governor of Alaska strung a sentence or two together without winking and didn’t, as the media had anticipated, spend minutes at a time staring into the wrong camera.

Similarly, John Key didn’t beat Helen Clark in 2008’s TV debates because he came across as smarter or more accomplished than the incumbent; he just did a pretty good job, and that’s all people needed to see.

So, if voters see Hosking line-up Cunliffe with hardball after hardball and the Labour leader comes out unscathed, it’s a triumph for Labour. If it’s a less than stellar performance, Hosking’s well known bias is a helpful buffer against the negative consequences. Kiwis will work that out without being told via anonymous leaks in advance which makes Labour look like sore losers before the ref has even pulled on his jersey. 

So why is Labour whining about this? Why is Grant Robertson commenting on the issue at all, as he did in the story on Stuff this morning, revealing yet again a shocking lack of media discipline? And why, oh why, oh why, is Matt McCarten inserting himself into the process when doing so clearly raises expectations in an unhelpful way for his boss, and totally undermines the authority of Simon Cunliffe, Labour’s chief press sec (and David’s cousin).

Another self-evident observation: what possible good can come out of picking a public fight with New Zealand’s highest rating broadcaster (TV and radio)? How will this act of hostility play out in the increasingly unlikely event Cunliffe makes it to the Beehive, or even if he stays on as Opposition leader as he apparently plans to do (albeit over a string of dead bodies which, laid head to toe, would extend the length of the North Island). Will he boycott Hosking, or will the whole thing just feel a bit awkward for everyone concerned?  

US political analogies have limited relevance in the New Zealand context and I am guilty of overusing them because I have just returned to New Zealand from there after many years. In fact, the propensity for upstart political staffers the world over to imagine themselves the Tobys or Sams of their generation, or for candidates like Cunliffe to orate, mock-heroically, as if auditioning to play President Bartlett in a Broadway revival of the West Wing, is a particular bugbear of mine.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that US political campaigns contain some useful lessons for us, not least that when candidates begin to look unelectable due to political mismanagement – and when own goal after own goal triggers bad news cycles on a constant loop – the party, who cannot legally remove the nominee him or herself, often intervene to sack the campaign advisors and install some wiser heads. Many argue that exactly such moves saved Clinton’s reelection in 1996 and prevented John McCain from losing the GOP nomination in 2008.

Turfing Cunliffe would be insane, just as it was to put him there in the first place.

However, Labour’s dumb decision by going public on debate negotiations is just the latest example of why it might be past time for it to rejig and rejuvenate the team around him.