On last night’s debate between John Key and Phil Goff

Has John Key lied about raising GST? The ‘explanation’ he offered during last night‘s debate was that he had made the promise not to raise GST only on condition that it wasn’t being done to balance the books. (Doing so for some other reason though – like say, a ‘fiscally neutral’ tax switch – had always (presumably) been an option.) Right. And if you believe that, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. Take a look at this clip uploaded in early 2010 and try to find any trace of conditionality. In it, Key says:

“Yeah, National is not going to be raising GST. National wants to cut taxes, not raise taxes…What I’m saying is if we do a half decent job as a government at growing our economy I’m confident that [raising GST] won’t be happening and that’s not on our agenda.”

Not until it was, that is. The subsequent raising of GST and cutting taxes has hardly been a fiscally neutral exercise either, as Key also claimed last night. The tax cuts that primarily benefited the wealthy cost $2.7 billion – and were only partly offset by the $1.6 billion raised from a GST hike that hit the poor the hardest, while leaving a net $1.1 billion revenue shortfall. Is that fiscally neutral – let alone fair? Not so much.

Given a better debate format last night, Key’s wanton rewritings of history might have got picked up. Yet despite having a grand total of seven journalist/commentators/presenters on hand last night, the contributions by these Less Than Magnificent Seven were almost exclusively on matters of style – who looked more relaxed, who looked more nervous, who was being negative etc.etc. Well, this isn’t red carpet night at the Oscars, and journalism maybe should be about more than assessing whose dress looked the best. At this rate, we may as well call in Joan Rivers for the next TVNZ debate.

Special mention must be made of the Claire Robinson contributions, given that she was presumably present to provide a neutral overview. A few months ago, Robinson had been consulted for a fawning Fairfax story headlined : “Key Has a Way With The Ladies” and subtitled “Loaded, Powerful And He’s Got The Swing Vote”:

Massey University political scientist Claire Robinson says he represents values women like. “He’s a doting husband, adores his kids. On top of that he’s a nice guy.” Women are won over by how Mr Key communicates. “It’s that ability to sound like he is talking very frankly without the politics-speak around it, which is a real political gift… He’s not afraid to show emotion and you can read that in his face,” Dr Robinson adds.

Does Robinson think women also like Key’s plans to crack down on the female-headed families on welfare, and the comparison he made last night between today’s welfare numbers and the numbers in the early 1970s – before the Domestic Purposes Benefit existed? Key may think those were the golden days – when women had no financial escape route from domestic violence. But you might reasonably expect a female political scientist to rise above her infatuation with the Prime Minister’s political style, and point out the shortcomings of such an approach. Or point out that when he bangs on about teenage girls on the DPB in order to justify his welfare changes, he is playing primarily to voter prejudice:

In fact, only 3.1 % of those on the DPB are under 20 years of age – and that figure has barely flickered since 2005, when the figure was 2.9 %. Put another way, 97% of the people on the DPB are NOT the ‘very young women’ of Key’s lurid imagination. There are in fact, significantly more people on the DPB over 55 years of age (5.6%) than there are ‘very young women’ receiving this benefit.

Moreover, teen pregnancy is on the decline, as the Salvation Army pointed out earlier this year in its State of the Nation report :

Teenage pregnancies and abortions have fallen during 2009, which is perhaps welcome news that there are fewer unplanned pregnancies. The number of 11–14 year olds giving birth or having an abortion dropped from 122 in 2008, to 108 in 2009….Although this decline is on a very small base, this number of pregnancies is the lowest in at least eight years. For older teenagers aged 15-19 years old, there was a 10% decline in the rate of pregnancies between 2008 and 2009

I know, election campaign debates are said to hinge on issues of style over substance. That’s the nature of so called “ presidential” election campaigns. But I didn’t think journalists and political scientists were supposed to capitulate to that process quite so comprehensively as they did last night.

Viewers can see who looks nervous. They can be left to figure it out for themselves if someone is being negative, or positive. What they may not have at their fingertips – and which the two separate panels of journalists/scientists plus two presenters presumably possess – is expertise about the claims being made by the two participants. The ‘experts’ didn’t provide political expertise last night. They gave fashion tips. On the score, it doesn’t matter whether Key or Goff won last night. The real losers were the viewers.


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