Gordon Campbell On The Youtube Leaders Debate

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.