Gordon Campbell on Key and Clark refusing to debate

The debate about the television debates rages on. In the television election debates this year, it seems that Helen Clark and John Key will only be presented in a one-on- one format by TV3 and TVNZ. In effect, the networks have let Clark and Key veto any debate that involves them being seen on the same stage as the leaders of the six minor parties. Should they be allowed t6 get away with this ? Of course not. After all, TV3 had planned to hold an inclusive ‘ all in play together’ debate, but has now tamely canned that idea, because the leaders of Labour and National have decided to dictate the rules of combat. Just like they do in Uzbekistan.

Over on the HonkyTonk Lagoon site, Amy gave some good reasons for feeling pissed off at this display of major party arrogance :

In MMP. it’s the party vote that determines the composition of Parliament. At the Leaders Debates, said leaders are there as representatives of their party, to convince you to give your vote to their team (and not them personally). All the parties should be prepared to discuss all the issues, not just those prioritised by the major parties – who, after all, fit increasingly closer together on the political spectrum….

We already know National would like to trample all over MMP, but they haven’t had their referendum yet. Labour’s complicity is even more aggravating, given their supposedly egalitarian values and also their reliance on the support of valuable minor party partners, particularly during their last term.

The perception that the choice is simply between Labour and National – apparent in the rhetoric of politicians, framing in the media, and polls consistently showing the minor parties currently in Parliament struggling to break the magic five percent threshold – is frustrating.

Totally agree. Presidential-style politicking is on the increase – and personality and leadership ability do matter – but lets not capitulate to it, wholesale. Yes, sometimes ‘the eight people on stage at once’ format can be a shambles. It can become a fashion parade where – in 2002 – Peter Dunne managed to manipulate the unlovely sight of Labour and National to advance his own modest cause. That’s democracy – it is often untidy. All this, IMHO, is less of a problem than simply caving into the Clark/Key argument that in this country there is an A team, and a B team – and the B team should be made to play elsewhere by itself.

It is a jackup. Labour’s best chance of closing the gap on National is if it can expose John Key as a lightweight Sarah Palin airhead, and it is gambling on a head-to-head debate to make that happen. National wants to govern alone, and doesn’t want to risk having Key going off message – two reasons for it to avoid being on stage with all the others. Most of all, neither Labour nor National want to face an angry Winston Peters in prime time. Again, the networks should not be complying with their strategic designs

There is a compromise solution. Let Clark and Key have their one on one debates, but dispose of the journalists. Let the panel of interrogators be comprised of the six minor party leaders. They know the weak points of Labour and National, and they know what they want from their prospective post-election partners. Such an arrangement would have chemistry – hell hath no fury like a small party scorned. Such a line-up could even give us out in viewerland some inkling of how those secret post election dealings may be conducted. Its worth a shot.

The other debate this week of course, is tomorrow’s showdown between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. Palin has lowered expectations of her competence so thoroughly that if she survives anything short of evisceration by Biden, she will claim victory. The stilted format of these debates will help her. There just won’t be the opportunity for the quick follow up questions that Katie Couric used on Palin to such devastating effect.

Biden is a motormouth, and in recent days, he also made a fool of during an interview with Couric, by saying :

“When the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed. He said, ‘Look, here’s what happened.'”

Except….Roosevelt wasn’t the US president in 1929 and television didn’t make its public debut for another ten years. One thing to keep in mind when Palin and John McCain rabbit on about victory in Iraq being all but won, and the military surge being such a success – think about this small Reuters item, which indicates that the Iraqi government has just passed a law allowing doctors to carry guns.

Doctors have been as particular target of insurgents out to de-stabilise essential services, and 176 of them have been killed in the last five years, with many more kidnapped for ransom. The government decree, as Juan Cole has explained on his site is a bid to tempt back to Iraq the 8,000 medical doctors who have fled the country since the US invasion. As Cole says :

The problem I see with this decree is that many of the physicians have been personally threatened by armed militias. So you’d have to believe you were a quick draw, a good shot, and able to mow down several guys with AK-47s before they could get you, before you would go back.

This sort of stunt, and the situation it is meant to address, both prove how terrible is the situation in Iraq still. If it were ‘calm,’ the physicians would come back without firearms. If the police and government amounted to anything, the doctors would not have to pack heat themselves. Another thing that works against the physicians’ return is that they can survive in Jordan and Syria. Even though they cannot get formal work permits, they can hire on to clinics as ‘consultants’. If they have capital, they can also invest locally (in Jordan at least, an investment of $100,000 gets you a residency visa).

To the Republicans of course, victory simply means that fewer American troops are being killed. Victory is not about Iraqis being killed, or still living in horrendous conditions five years after the invasion without a functioning government able to provide basic services.

Such is the power of the Republican self deception though, it is becoming unacceptable during this election campaign for the Democrats to describe the situation in Iraq in negative terms. Forget about the gaffes. In the debate tomorrow, Biden may need to be especially careful not to speak the truth.