The Hangover Election

Jon damns the media coverage in this campaign, reviews the Clark era, and picks his standout moment of election night.

I wrote the following piece on Thursday last week and submitted it to the Sunday Star-Times the following morning. Despite a few anxious moments along the way there was no reason to change it on the night. I understand this piece was published in the Times' first edition but not its second, so for any who did not see it on Sunday I thought I'd reproduce it in full:

"Three years ago I was asked to write an equivalent piece to this one, so I decided to go back and read it to see what progress our politics has made. Last time round we had the galvanising figure of Dr. Brash and the twin issues of tax and race dominating the campaign. The minor parties felt the squeeze, Brash stumbled, then stumbled some more, and Helen Clark prevailed by a hair’s breath to lead a third term government.

What I most recall from three years ago was the intensity of the campaign and its rancorous, never-ending aftermath. Although Clark would claim she has continued to make solid progress towards making us a more inclusive and prosperous nation her last term has been mired in controversy from its very beginning.

The exotic governing arrangements; the Auditor-General’s strange obsession with one aspect of campaign spending at the exclusion of all others; the Electoral Finance Act debates; and the ongoing campaign which engulfed Winston Peters this year rendered Clark’s and our politics as directionless.

Clark’s government was forced to play defence throughout so it is no surprise that the change wave has crashed upon it with a thud. Whatever the future holds, it seems a good time to place on the record my view that Helen Clark has been the most demonstrably all-round competent Prime Minister I have observed in my adult lifetime, harking back to the Robert Muldoon era.

Clark has been a superb manager during what have been, until now, largely benign times and she and Michael Cullen’s prudent management of public debt, reducing unemployment to historic lows, and establishing a savings regime represent a laudable economic legacy. As a liberal I also celebrate prostitution law reform, civil unions, the Section 59 amendment, and Labour’s genuine commitments to fostering greater social inclusion and equality under the law.

Additionally, Clark’s sure touch in foreign policy locates her as our best outward-facing prime minister since Peter Fraser.

Labour’s weakened position is linked to Clark’s chief failure as a leader, her inability to offer us a compelling narrative about the purpose of her government. Clark, in my estimation, learned the wrong lesson from David Lange’s rhetorically-led leadership. She viewed his approach as unsustainable over the long haul, but Clark always possessed a firmer foundation than Lange so she should have tried to articulate better – through her rhetoric – her government’s purpose.

On National’s side, the relief from being within touch of shedding nine years of failure must be palpable this morning. The turning point which finally allowed National to position itself to win can be sourced to Brash’s fall. John Key’s softer image cleared the way for better communication with female voters, amongst others.

His repositioning efforts – on race, on asset sales, on foreign policy, on Working for Families, and so endlessly on – reduced the size of both him and National as a target for Labour. His narrative was always a compelling one and while doubts remain let’s all wish John Key well and challenge him to be the best that he can be.

The minor parties were frozen out of this tepid campaign, again. It has been a mind-boggling feature of the networks' coverage of this campaign that unless it involved some contrived scandal or ‘End of Days’ blowing about a gross Maori Party-induced overhang, the minors have been effectively cut out of our campaign discourse.

Despite this disgrace the Greens have prospered. Green advertising was so effective that it prevailed over media neglect. In Russel Norman the Greens have the only individual who speaks, thinks and acts like a new generation leader, often to the discomfort of others. Its future is assured.

Not so for Winston Peters and New Zealand First. I will lament his loss and I suspect that the very media who have canned him will now court him. They still need him in the absence of any charisma elsewhere available.

Our campaign was conducted within the context of global economic insecurity. We have a new Prime-Minister-in-waiting who will need to apply his skills amidst much uncertainty. If Key has learned his history he will take us into his confidence and he will do what he says he will do. Once he has gained our trust his choices will expand.

Notwithstanding the economic situation we also have great challenges at home. One hopes that both main parties can put their intensely maladaptive partisanship to one side so that we might make better progress. In this difficult situation the people need confidence that our political leaders can rise above their narrow political self-interest.

I said a few nights ago on TV3 that the peaceful circulation of elites is a wondrous reminder of the strength of our democracy. I hope Kiwis everywhere celebrated our freedom to choose yesterday. But given the low quality of political discourse during the campaign; given the difficult times ahead of us; and given the uninspiring leadership on offer, I already feel the first pangs of a post-election hangover."

Postscipt: For me the standout moment of the night was Helen Clark's gracious and truly brilliant decision to step down as leader. As a leadership scholar, a leader's exit is the crucial final piece of the jigsaw about the nature of their ambition and whether it has been corrupted or not. In one stroke Clark has shored up her legacy. She has been a grand dame and I salute her.