OPINION: How the art of politics rewards a sure hand

John Harbord

Too often in the pursuit of profile or making the news politicians and lobbyists over-reach, exaggerate or make an ill-advised attack that risks alienating those who might otherwise be supportive.

The current storm over David Cunliffe’s CV is a clear example. 

The Labour leader has an impressive CV with time spent in the diplomatic service, at the Boston Consulting Group, and at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. 

Quite why he felt the need to claim community service work no one, including himself, can remember, or implying graduation from the Harvard Business School when he didn’t actually enrol with that prestigious School is hard to explain.

Mr Cunliffe’s Wikipedia page threatens to be one of the most heavily edited in recent times as his staff scramble to tidy up his exaggerated claims.

In trying to gloss what was already impressive Mr Cunliffe has called into question something far more valuable, his  truthfulness and integrity.

Greens co-leader Russel Norman is another case in point. 

The Green Party has gone to some pains to paint itself as economically literate and sufficiently statesmanlike to be trusted to form a future government. 

Gone are the days of legalising cannabis and regulating the use of your shower.

Yet all that discipline and hard work to present as serious and respectable can be undermined by a few ill-timed words. 

First there was Mr Norman’s assertion New Zealand’s economic difficulties could be solved by simply printing money – overlooking ninety years of history proving the opposite and the fact the global financial crisis was due in part to the over-supply of easily available of credit.

Mr Norman’s sustained attack on the government for describing tax as a burden was similarly self defeating. 

Ask any household struggling to make ends meet if paying less in taxes wouldn’t make their lives easier. 

And that was before it emerged that Mr Norman had himself repeatedly talked of the tax burden in writing.

Alienating people you hope might support you, in this case low income households, is rarely effective.

Then there was Norman’s personal attack on John Key, comparing the Prime Minister to Sir Robert Muldoon at his worst.  As John Armstrong said:
“Muldoonist? John Key? Russel Norman cannot be serious."

The Green Party co-leader’s assertion that the “divisive and corrosive” behaviour exhibited by the leader of the National Party is akin to that of his most notorious of predecessors is certainly headline-grabbing.  It also verges on the ludicrous.

His economic respectability campaign was derailed by ridicule for exaggerated partisan language.  In the pursuit of attention Mr Norman undermined his credentials.  It is no coincidence successive Labour Party leaders have ruled him out as a potential future Finance Minister.

Allowing the desire for a headline to undermine what you are trying to achieve is not a trap solely reserved for Opposition MPs.  Even the most experienced lobbyists and ‘experts’ are not immune.

It is hard to think of a clearer recent example than the “axe the copper tax” campaign.  In order to make a splash and grab media attention the campaign based itself on two propositions both of which were simply untrue.

The first was calling for the abolition of a tax on copper-based broadband services.  No such tax exists or is even being contemplated. 

The policy may have the economic effect of a tax and a subsidy but so do countless regulations and administrative decisions. 

For example, a RMA ban on subdivision effectively takes wealth from would-be first house owners and gives it to older people.  But that does not make it a house tax. 

The ‘copper tax’ label effectively shifted debate from substance to the choice of expression.

The second was raising the spectre of consumers facing increased broadband costs.  In fact, every option being considered by the government will see copper broadband prices fall to their lowest level in years.

There are grounds to question the Government’s proposed course of action, but as a result of over-reaching to grab attention the campaign is now trying to explain why it didn’t mean to be taken literally but that at the same time people should trust what they say.  The result is a floundering PR campaign.

In the rush to gain profile or make the news simple golden rules get overlooked.  Be honest.  Don’t embellish the truth.  Let the facts speak for themselves.  And in putting together a political campaign or undertaking political lobbying cool heads and a professional approach should prevail.

John Harbord worked for five years in the Beehive, including two years as senior advisor to the Prime Minister and three years as advisor to the Attorney-General.  He is a consultant at commercial and public law specialists Franks and Ogilvie.


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You could argue that we have had sure hand for the last few years. But that isn't going to stop Santa Claus winning the next election by promising anything and everything. It worked to gain the leadership, didn't it.

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If it has the economic effect of a tax, then it is hardly over-reach to call it as it is. Just because some people use one label, no reason can't use another label that's equally valid.

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