Gordon Campbell on Act’s problem with taking personal responsibility

If it does nothing else, this election will be a test of whether marketing really can turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse. Although it barely registers a pulse, the Act Party has been the beneficiary of saturation coverage in the NZ Herald over the past fortnight. True, not all of it was positive. There was for instance, a Herald editorial headlined “Act needs to come up with fresher ideas than flat tax” which makes you wonder why the newspaper had already devoted so many column inches to…Act’s flat tax idea. Then again, that also seems to be a pattern. After gifting Colin Craig with similar saturation coverage for his ideas on smacking, the Herald rounded that effort out in mid January with an editorial headlined “Craig needs to do better than revive smacking row.”

Still, as Danyl pointed out recently in the Dim-Post, someone has to speak for the 0%. As he says, Act earned fewer votes at the last election than the Mana Party. How lucky they are. Despite railing against the evils of government in general, Act manages to subsist quite readily on handouts from the current government in particular. Meaning: Act’s election prospects depend entirely on (a) John Key virtually gifting it the seat of Epsom and (b) the Key government refusing to implement one of the main findings of the MMP review. Ever since the mid 1990s, National had called loud and long for a review of MMP, only to then shelve its findings once it realised the review’s key recommendation would hurt its electoral chances. The review had called for lowering the MMP threshold to 4% in return for scrapping the “coat-tails” provision whereby a ratio of other candidates can get into Parliament if their party holds an electorate seat. Act has been a prime beneficiary of this provision.

Regardless, Epsom candidate David Seymour still talks about Act “winning” Epsom, without any visible sense of irony. To capture the flavour of Act’s peculiar sense of victimhood, I suggest listening to last Friday’s edition of RNZ’s Focus on Politics. At the party’s recent annual conference – which was attended by “more than” 100 people – Act’s new leader Jamie Whyte slammed the media for raising something that Whyte has advocated in the past and asking him whether he still advocated it. (Ordinary people have a term for that: they call it “research.”) Yet when Whyte freely said yes, he still believed that incest between consenting adults should be legal and then copped political flak for it – he blamed the messenger, and portrayed himself as a victim of media machination. For example:

RNZ continuity announcer: Mr Whyte said that he had been drawn in and distracted by the question, and shouldn’t have indulged the interviewer.

Whyte [from the conference speech]: I suspect I had a good run from journalists for the first wee while, because they thought they were covering a funeral. How can you put the boot into somebody who is leading a party that has zero support? The media was just curious. Why would someone with a paying job swap it for being the unpaid leader of a political party that they had written off? So, I was lulled into a false sense of security. This is easy, I thought. You just speak openly and honestly to reporters and you get good press. Well (laughter) this week I was done over by the media. I was given a Gotcha question and as most of you probably know, I walked straight into it…

And so on. Done over, hard done by, not his fault. This is mighty rich coming from a party that campaigns against the dependency mindset, and is nominally against blaming others for the outcomes of your own bad choices. In this case, Whyte slagged journalists for bringing up something he had said before, asking him about it, and reporting his response. (Standard practice, whenever a new player emerges on the political scene. Previously stated positions are all that exist on the public record.) Yet evidently – for Whyte – a “Gotcha” question is any question that results in him giving a politically embarrassing response. Misfortune is always someone else’s fault. Does this explain why Act is so tough on welfare, and blind to the workings of privilege? It could be just residual guilt, for its own closeted weaknesses in those areas.

We should all be worried, though. Because if National gets re-elected, Jamie Whyte will almost certainly be a Minister in the next government. One looks forward to how Whyte will handle a question line from the likes of RNZ’s Mary Wilson. On the evidence to date, asking for accountability will be seen as a Gotcha question. For Jamie Whyte, the buck seems always likely to stop elsewhere.

So we have a global surveillance state. And the Malaysian airliner that’s gone missing was flying somewhere off the coast of Vietnam, heading for China. Surely, some satellite or spy plane was monitoring this part of the Vietnam to China corridor, 24/7. Yet when it is something of interest to ordinary folk – as opposed to the interests of the intelligence agencies – we’re suddenly back in the 1950s: didn’t see it, can’t find it.