The detainee spin battle: Backing rapists vs immoral weakling

Labour and National have found a fight they both want to have, as they use the Christmas Island riots as part of their over-arching PR strategies. Yet for once it's National looking rattled

At least it's a proper battle of different world views. There's no Labour-lite or National stealing Labour's policies here. While the fires burn on Christmas Island, we have to two very different stances on the fate of those detainees.

National has take the line that Australia is a sovereign country and can do what it likes; and given that the detainees don't want a bar of New Zealand, he doesn't want a bar of them. To add fuel to the fire, he's lumped them all into the basket of being rapists and sex offenders (although isn't sure how many rapists and sex offenders there are on Christmas Island).

Labour, on the other hand, says they are New Zealanders in jeopardy and the government needs to show some compassion. A drug mule, for example, would get consular support in a foreign country, so why not these people? And the government wouldn't stand by and respect the sovereign decisions of farther flung countries detaining New Zealanders in this way.

So it's a rare chance to see some light between these parties. And, for once, both are keen to engage in this battle, thinking it suits their purposes. You can see it in their scripted one-liners and battle in parliament today.

Labour's word of the week is, well, weak. Kelvin Davis tried it out yesterday and the brains trust obviously liked it. Now Andrew Little and the entire caucus are using it whenever possible. To add to that, they are criticising Key for having lost his moral compass.


Because Labour has clearly identified that this is where Key's support is soft; voters have long enjoyed camp-waling, 'pee in the shower' jokiness, but Labour thinks they can sell Little as a serious, authentic, moral alternative. And that the electorate is ready to buy.

So in this story Labour sees a chance to ram home their meta-message; Key is weak and swings with the wind. He doesn't step up when it counts. Given how people have trusted his guidance through the GFC, earthquakes and more, it's a tough sell. But it seems to be the only chink in the armour they can see.

What's interesting is National's response. Their reaction suggests they see it as a chink as well; or at least that the Prime Minister needs some assistance on this front.

When the riot started yesterday, National would have quickly realised the story was probably going to lead the news for a few more days. By today the 'Key is weak' line would have been apparent. They either copped it or changed the subject. It appears the Crosby-Textor PR advice was the latter. 

From Key's performance in the House today, it seems National doesn't want to be talking about how its handled the detention policy. It's impossible to avoid the fact that they've achieved nothing and Turnbull is in no position to offer a compromise. With Australia determined to continue its hard line, Key wants to change topics.

So he goes on the attack. He says Labour is "backing rapists" in an attempt to, at least, share the damage. If he's going to look weak, he can do Labour some damage at the same time by painting them as hand-wringing liberals. As with Labour, this fits into his long-term PR strategy.

And anyway, if he muddies the waters enough, he hopes voters will just curse both their houses and the polls won't move. Even better, if he can characterise the detainees as "rapists" and "sex offenders", voters may switch off the issue altogether.

It's a classic Key move.

So we have the battle of the scripts - rapists supporters vs weaklings.

Except Key has had to give ground to do this. He has had to get his angry face out, and unlike his 'get some guts' line over Iraq, this is delivered from a defensive crouch rather than a patriotic high ground. While 'angry Andy' was calm today, we saw 'cranky Key'.

Second, he looks as if he's siding with Australia rather than standing up for New Zealand. Only a month ago he was critical of Australia's stance. He said Australia has "set the threshold in terms of deportations too low" and that Australia's "hard-line view" was "pretty tough". Now, all its doing is locking up rapists and sex offenders, who are "serious criminal offenders".

If so, why did he think just a month ago that "the threshold in terms of deportations is too low"?

So Key's problem becomes that he's now moved from his polite disagreement with Australia to having to defend his mate Turnbull. At least that's the risk. He still framed his criticism of Labour as them backing the rapists while he backs ordinary kiwis at risk from these detainees. But that simply makes no sense, as this riot and any support given to these people makes no difference to whether or not (or in what condition) they end up back in New Zealand.

But the top is spinning, both sides trying to create the impression left in the public mind. It'll be interesting to see which way it falls.