Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell On The Youtube Leaders Debate

October 15th, 2008

In which Scoop Political editor Gordon Campbell finds the inaugural youtube debate as wet as some of the potential questioners

For a party that places such a premium on excellence, the National Party has received a lot of mileage in the last twelve hours out of mere likeable competence. By avoiding the sort of wipeout that his predecessor experienced in 2005, John Key has been leapfrogged to victory by the media commentariat, as exemplified by this interestingly tortured logic from TVNZ political editor Guyon Espiner : “Key won the first debate – partly because no one expected him too (sic) but also because he had to.” What a guy, what a story. Just like Rocky, he came all the way from that state house, and lasted 15 rounds against the Apollo Creed of New Zealand politics.

And just as in the Rocky movies, a draw seemed like victory for National – in that Labour needs to make up ground, and the debate gave it one opportunity to do so. The evenly matched contest also enabled the media narrative so far – that Labour had begun the campaign in overdrive, while National has been looking flatfooted and amateurish – to be reset. The general consensus now appears to be that by looking competent and confident, Key has got National’s election campaign back on track.

If so, it is now up to Key and his team to provide some content to back up last night’s impression that he is of prime ministerial timber. Because to date, the battle on content has been no contest at all. On successive days, the government has announced the bank desposit security scheme, universal student allowances and an economic stimulation package – complete with a December mini-Budget – to carry the economy through the deflationary months ahead, as the effects of the global meltdown reach our shoes. By contrast, National’s package of short run, consumption driven benefits – tax cuts, reform of the RMA, the reductions to Kiwisaver, science and research and climate change policy and oh, a billion dollar broadband package – were all flagged before the financial crisis even began.

The once over lightly format of the leaders’ debate certainly didn’t help in that respect. The commentators who had previously rationalized the exclusion of the minor parties from the debates – on the grounds that an encounter restricted to Key and Helen Clark would result in substantive debate – could only have been disappointed by last night’s effort. Time and again, the skittering nature of the debate meant skirmishes were largely decided by talking over, or by interjections.
The commentariat has seemed happy enough to play along with the politics of appearance over substance. Espiner again : Key was able to capture the popular essence of the subjects debated so that his statements rose above arcane policy-speak.
Law and order became an exasperation that “shop keepers are in the most dangerous profession” in the country.

[ Reality check : it isn’t. Being a rugby player is.

Espiner again: He tapped into the psychology of the parent who is embarrassed that they can’t pay their school fees. [Reality check : in May, National’s education spokesperson Anne Tolley attacked the $171 million boost to schools’ operational funding as “ pork-barrelling.” Key’s commitment this year has been to raise the level of state funding for private schools. Question for Key : why is funding private schools a more pressing priority than alleviating the embarrassment to ordinary parents, to whom you oppose giving any relief over school fees ?]

In the real world out beyond the leaders’ debate, the global financial crisis has found an unlikely hero – the British Labour Party leader, Gordon Brown, hitherto seen as being the dull head of a tired administration. It turns out that the structure of Brown’s bailout package – it entails a plan for major equity injections and related stakes in British banks, backed up by guarantees on bank debt aimed at getting the lending among banks running again – has now been adopted across Europe as a model.

The Brown plan has even compelled the US to devote $250 billion of its own bailout plan into the same sort of equity stakes in troubled banks that Brown has advocated, much along the lines that Sweden adopted during its 1992 financial crisis. Thanks to Brown’s good example, the battered US taxpayer should now derive a share of any profits that flow in the wake of the recovery plan.

Meaning : experience and ability do count during a crisis, more perhaps than likeability and a readiness to talk to people during an ad break. So far, the jury is still out on the success or otherwise of the bailout packages overseas, but at least the New Zealand government is putting in place a raft of measures to cope with the likely downside effects of the crisis.

These fallback measures envisaged by Clark and Michael Cullen include the bringing forward of infrastructure spending, making changes to provisional tax for businesses that will assist their cash flow, and discussions with the New Zealand Superannuation Fund to get more of its money invested at home, to make up for the inevitable chilling of investment on the New Zealand stock market. It may not be pretty or popular politics – but then again, likeability is only a luxury in a crisis. It is not a necessity.


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    1. 22 Responses to “Gordon Campbell On The Youtube Leaders Debate”

    2. By Mandy Milgate on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      Thank you Gordon- for the first properly informed media comment on last night’s debate. You were obviously listening – Our so-called commentators have been more shallow than a National economic policy. Key’s detail was sparse, backward-looking & repetitive – please, no more “fresh”, “brought up in a State house”, & “tax-cuts”.
      It’s an indictment on the national intelligence that someone is deemed to win because they were better than expected.A vote for mediocrity I fear – not for fresh innovative policy that we can actually get our teeth into.

    3. By Ian MacKay on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      One interesting part of the debate surrounded the topic of Sharples and the one on the Springboks. In both cases it was not so much the accuracy of the answers, it was questioning John’s honesty/reliability. (Tell your audience what they want to hear and avoid answers that might upset.) I thought that the debate would not help anyone make decisions unless they liked eating candy-floss :)

    4. By Mr Magoo on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      I agree. Key has got away with a lack of policy for soem time. But this seems to be a good thing for them.
      It appears that most of the time they release a flagship policy, it is not really that great for them. One could almost argue that the more policy they release, the lower their approval rating. (something that happens every year)
      The substance of National, as has been the case since before muldoon, is many times worse than the shiney blue polish…like Key’s tie.

    5. By Elizabeth Smyth on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      The debate did nothing to move me in any new direction. There was a lot of “once over lightly” as you say Gordon. I keep noticing the irritating things about both leaders: Helen Clark showing us a sudden smile (showing perhaps her ” youthful and fun” side), then John Key talking about “the love of his life” and his incredibly irritating obliteration of all vowels. These is either due to the superficiality of TV or my own superficiality. Either way, its not looking good. Anyway, thanks for giving us a non “Espiner” analysis of this debate.

    6. By Kevin Welsh on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      How disappointing it is to see so-called Leaders Debates turned into some sort of reality tv freak show. If this is what “Joe Public” is using to make their decision this time round then we deserve what we get.

      As for Guyon Espiner and TV3’s Duncan Garner, calling them political editors not only is a great disservice to those who have held the same position before them (eg. Linda Clarke), it implies a degree of competency that frankly isn’t there. Hacks at best in my opinion.

    7. By tracey on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      It’s one thing watching politicians guided by the emotional buttons choeographed by their PR, it is another when the media cannot see past its own nose. That is the scandal in NZ too many press galleryists interested in being on the inside rather than serving the electorate

    8. By M Stevens on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      Key, to my susprise, performed much better than I thought he would – free of his usual gaffes and awkwardness, but he still needs someone to sharpen up his act on camera.

      The PM was her usual polished self, but the artificiality of her smile every ten seconds or so really grated on me.She’s been over-trained.

      Policies? Well – who watches a TV debate for policies?

      Given the generally low expectations that I htink most people had for Key, the performance he turned in was the winner.

    9. By Emma on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      Brillance Pure Brillance Gordon Campbell,

      Im 27 with 4 children and work a fulltime job as a Sales Exec, 3 of my girls go to fulltime childcare.

      Before the Working for Families Package came in to action i was on the DPB for 5 years, not my proudest 5 years at all. All i can say is Labour is fanatsic for allowing working mothers to start work again with the subsidy changes to Childcare and the in work tax credit. If National was in Government for the past 5 years do you think this scheme would of being passed? im not so sure.
      I found John Key’s comments last night to be wet with no substance, he may be a good business man but can he run a country? any way just my thoughts!

    10. By matt on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      Although I agree entirely with the above comments about the superficiality of the Leaders’ Debate and the general incompetence of TV “political editors”, I feel that your column (and the comments of some bloggers) perhaps over-emphasises the amount of media manipulation of voters’ views. I heard this morning on National Radio a comment from their correspondent about the “tone” of the election campaign changing following the debate last night. This “tone” may well be heard (as it were) by members of the media who are daily involved with the campaigns, but I don’t think it reaches the majority of the public. The media is not the total arbiter of political opinion: the public will vote in accordance with their self-interest, class loyalties and personal connections to policiticans. If there is a general move away from support for the Government, there are substantive causes for that; not merely the influence of certain individuals in the media.

    11. By Chris on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      Re: M Stevens comment as above.

      ‘Given the generally low expectations that I htink most people had for Key, the performance he turned in was the winner.’

      Thats the sort of tripe people have been commenting on Colin Espiners
      take on the debate

      I’ve got issues with everyone assuming Key did so fantastically because we assumed he’d suck basically. Thats not a fair way to judge a debate, be honest with yourself. Thats the same mentality people had of Palin Vs Biden, if palin didnt stuff up she had done well. Watch the debate and what she said was rubbish and she was consistently shot down.

      Judging this farcical debate as Key doing well because he smiled nicely and said the right emotive stuff is moronic. But then again thats all Peter Dunne needed to do in the ‘worm’ debate of 2002, and they got 7 MPs as a result! what a joke! New Zealanders clearly have a habit of voting towards a smiling face, albeit lacking of any political substance.

    12. By Honest John on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      If Keys won the debate (as claimed by the one eyed Espiner) then Clark wasn’t there! No policy, no answers to questions and full of blust, bluff and bulls hit won’t get my vote John. You must REALLY show why we would vote for you and yours, and at the moment, the Labour Party have the wood on you. (And don’t forget Fat Cat Winnie is after you and your chirping Yellow Canary mate.) November is closer than you think John when WE tell YOU not the other way around.

    13. By Clark The Clear Winner on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      TVNZ’s right wing bias is anti-democratic. One can smell John Key’s shoe polish on Guyon’s breath. If Guyon is indeed a political commentator then where was his informed dissection of Key’s non-existent policy? Where was his analysis of John Keys dishonest facts and figures? All we got from this so-called political commentator is spinmeistering of the worst kind. According to Guyon, Keys won because he did npt lose. Oh really? Only according to Guyon and the National Party SS who donated tens of thousands of dollars to Telecom last night.

    14. By Clark The Clear Winner on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      TVNZ’s right wing bias is anti-democratic and one can smell John Key’s shoe polish on Guyon’s breath. If Guyon is indeed a political commentator then where was his informed dissection of Key’s non-existent policy? Where was his analysis of John Keys dishonest facts and figures? All we got from this so-called political commentator is spinmeistering of the worst kind for according to Guyon, Keys won because he did not lose. Oh really? Only according to Guyon and the National Party SS who donated tens of thousands of dollars to Telecom last night. Ha ha.

    15. By Atom Ant on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      Clearly Key won the debate. There’s no other explanation for the bitter complaints from the left including the Lefts leader.

    16. By James on Oct 15, 2008 | Reply

      Right on for drawing parallels between the Palin-Biden debate and this sorry matchup, Key was definitely Palin.

      Expectations matter a lot definitely. But being perceived as a bumbling idiot shouldn’t really affect ones judgement on the outcome should it.

      Clark won that debate hands-down although Key did perform credibly. Strangely though, My expectation of Key was that he would be at least moderately competent given his prior success as a currency trader, you have to be able to talk the talk in that profession…

      Key and his frightful bunch of 90s front benchers, the same lot who presided over the mess that happened last time National was in power… I hope NZ voters come to their senses and avoid voting that lot in come election day.

      Labour are far from ideal, but they are also a far better option than National could hope to be.

    17. By Robert C on Oct 16, 2008 | Reply

      GC. Not just Espiner – virtually everyone I’ve talked to who saw the debate has been very impressed by Key.  I see a comparison to Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay. Pre Olympics, sports fans knew Tyson Gay was fast and in form – he’d set a great standard, yes he’s a medal hope. Perhaps one to bet on. But wait who’s this young unheard-of guy Usain Bolt, they say he’s fast, they say he has potential. But I’ve never seen him perform. Then in his first performance he doesn’t break any records – but qualifies with such professional ease that suddenly, you realise there’s something special going on. That’s what Key delivered last night and it changes everything.

      It gives the entire party momentum, it solidifies what to a lot of us was an unknown quantity before. It means that the sense of leadership and broad support for National has a new force and suddenly people feel more confident making that choice. And vice versa for Helen. Perhaps we were once proud of our leader, and might have thought she was streaks ahead of anyone. Is she really better than Key? Is she?

      It’s fascinating watching the Clark-led leviathan in it’s last days. Helen throwing her toys out of the cot today is only going to make more of her supporters question her leadership as the appropriate style going forward.

      I have voted for Helen before. But the sense is she’s been incumbent too long, and the strain is showing. The post-debate rhetoric she threw around today is cementing her demise as she looks ever more the control freak and less the collected leader.

    18. By James on Oct 16, 2008 | Reply

      Atom Ant: I see no “bitter complaints”.

      However if there are complaints perhaps they would be about the media calling it Key’s win when it clearly was not?

    19. By insider on Oct 16, 2008 | Reply


      you obviously missed the reference to the right wing bias of the main media and certain journalists’ close relationship wiht Key, just a few posts above your own.

      And of course no hint bitterness in criticising the debate moderator, dismissing the TVNZ 2:1 audience poll response (must be those pesky fairies texting in the garden again) and saying Key nearly cried and threw a tantrum. No, none at all.

      Did it ever occur to you that people might genuinely not share your opinion? Just once? No…? Not even a little tiny bit?

    20. By Paul Robeson on Oct 16, 2008 | Reply

      Thank goodness for the dour Scots!

    21. By brian marshall on Oct 17, 2008 | Reply

      I turned to my partner who has not decided who she would vote for.
      Her opinions are that when they talked over each other, she couldn’t be bothered with either.
      Apart from that, she liked John Key’s answers much more Helens answers.

      To all that accuse the media of right wing bias, I detect a significant left wing bias in most media except the NZ Herald.

    22. By Melanie on Oct 18, 2008 | Reply

      The Media are definitly backing National in My Opinion. Here’s why.

      No one seems to be covering this story about Key, the Nats and NZ First which if it got proper media coverage would loose him an large part of the female vote and probably a good part of the male vote overnight.

      Guest Column: Abortion: Putting it back on the agenda

      Last year in parliament, NZ First and National attempted to appoint 2 anti-abortion doctors to the head of the “Abortion Supervisory
      Committee”. Abortion is still against the law but available through the exception’s in the act. One of these exceptions is for “the mental health of the mother”. This exception is how most abortions in NZ are approved.
      There is no need for a political party to change the law to shut down abortion services in NZ.
      Anti-abortion doctors appointed to the head of the “Abortion Supervisory Committee” could shut down abortion overnight by interpreting
      this exception differently.
      This has already been attempted in parliament last year.
      All 7 NZ first MP’s and 21 out of 35 National MP’s “Including John Key” voted to do this last year (see copies of Hansard vote in
      parliament below). Luckily labour and the greens all voted to appoint labour’s moderate doctors. If National are elected they will attempt
      this again with the full support of John Key and Bill English. When questioned about this on bfm radio “John Key kept repeating that they
      didn’t plan to change the law. He knows of course that they don’t have to change the law to shut down abortion. All they have to do is to change the interpretation of one of the exceptions i.e. of “the Mental Health of the mother” like they have already attempted to do by appointing doctors who will interpret this exception differently.

      There are links to the Hansard Votes,crimes act etc, on this issue in the article on No Right Turn.

    23. By brian marshall on Oct 22, 2008 | Reply

      Quoting no right turn is like quoting the Labour party directly.

      Abortion is a very touchy subject. Nothing would turn a government into a one term government than fiddling with the law, so I don’t think it’s likely to be changed as Key said.

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