A third Bill English tape, two debates and a helicopter dominated the final week of the New Zealand election campaign, but they could do little animate a race that seems to be spluttering, rather than surging to the finish-line on Saturday. Maybe the drama and poignancy of Barack Obama’s win in the United States simply sucked the life out of a group of leaders who look pedestrian by comparison, or maybe the trite slogans are wearing thin even for those who are mouthing them daily, but some time in the past few days the spark went out of this campaign.
The final leaders’ debate on TVNZ summed up the mood — both Labour prime minister Helen Clark and Opposition leader John Key were so determined to be polite and respectful that the whole affair looked like a vicar’s tea party. They smiled shyly at each other, repeatedly agreed with each other, and insisted any previous rancour was purely political, not personal. A debate earlier in the week on TV3 was deemed scrappy and combative. But coming just minutes after John McCain’s gracious concession speech and Obama’s inspiring acceptance speech, last night’s debate, if you can call it that, was withered by the shadow of history.
The week started more promisingly, with more revelations about Winston Peters’ shenanigans. The DominionPost reported that former MP and Peters’ adviser Ross Meurant had brokered donations from businessman Philip Vela in return for sympathetic policy. Attention focused on claims Peters had demanded a free helicopter from the Velas to help him campaign in 1999.
“Which politician worldwide would campaign from a helicopter?” Peters asked. “Don’t be so stupid”.
The photos that appeared in the papers the next day, of Peters boarding a Vela-owned helicopter, exposed the New Zealand First leader once again, and may have doomed any hopes of a comeback. The Greens promptly said they couldn’t work in a Cabinet with Peters; Labour went after New Zealand First voters.
A political activist who covertly recorded indiscreet National MPs at their party conference in August released another tape on the eve of the US election, with National’s deputy leader Bill English talking about Obama as too “moralistic”, America, and the need for there to be “someone willing to pull the trigger”. Rumours have been circulating that one tape remains unreleased; a tape featuring John Key and some embarrassing comments. Yesterday the taper was named as Kees Keizer and he hinted at more to come.
The Maori Party’s best headline of the week came with the announcement it wanted to give the poor and elderly a one-off Christmas present of $500 to get them through what will be a tough holiday period. The worst was that it was running behind Labour in the two North Island Maori seats it had hoped to gain this election. ACT suffered a blow on its low-key campaign with news that the man who complained that Rodney Hide’s yellow jacket broke electoral advertising laws, prompting the ACT leader to rail against the “nanny state”, was in fact an ACT party supporter.
It was an example of the chaff that was mimicking political debate this week. With no polls to focus the mind until the end of the week, it seemed neither journalists nor politicians quite knew what to do. But the formula is simple.
National will win the most votes and can count on ACT and United Future for support. Labour will come second, with the Greens and Progressives onside. The questions are whether the centre-right coalition led by National can get enough seats to govern, whether New Zealand First survives to boost Labour, and if the Maori Party can win the balance of power.
Saturday night we’ll know the answers.