English's second language

House Party

Ben Thomas

In a National Party conference weekend marked by controversy, the most scandalous revelation your correspondent uncovered at the Friday Leader's Cocktails was that there were in fact no cocktails on offer; only wine and beer.

That was possibly a stroke of luck for the Tories, though. If Bill English and Nick Smith had been inhaling mojitos all night, the subsequent covert recordings from the function supplied to TV3 could have been much worse. They may have picked up background noise from an impromptu Gerry Brownlee karaoke performance, for instance.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying the scandal that did erupt - the audio files of English and the Smiths, Lockwood and Nick - was outrageously overplayed by the media and National's parliamentary opponents.

The story was as follows: an unknown person, who claimed later to be unaffiliated with any political party, attended the Friday night social event posing as a National Party member and engaged the three senior MPs in conversation around left-wing touchstones: state ownership of Kiwibank, nuclear power and Working for Families.

The conversations were recorded and played on the broadcaster as evidence suggesting that National had a "secret agenda."

Fine. Except the recordings disclosed no such thing. They were evidence of absolutely nothing except a slightly looser verbal style than MPs would present in a formal media interview or Parliament. This is a story about language.

At it's most basic, there is syntactic precision: there was little effort made in the media to differentiate a secret recording of a conversation (as in this case) from a recording of a secret conversation (which may have yielded something much more interesting).

This immediately made listeners reach (and over-reach) for some indications of the hidden and esoteric.

But at the other extreme was a failure of the media in its role as interpreter of the language of politics.

English conceded he would eventually prefer to sell off Kiwibank "but not now."

In fact absolutely nothing in English's comments was inconsistent with National's declared policy. Lockwood Smith was accused of revealing the hidden agenda when he said "Once we have gained the confidence of the people, we've got more chance of doing more things."

He even said, "We may be able to do some things we believe we need to do, perhaps go through a discussion document process - you wouldn't be able to do them straight off."

In other words, National may have a secret plan to, er, consult with the community and gauge public opinion before implementing new policy.

There would be no surprise if National used its first three years of a hypothetical government to try to convince the public that some asset sales were in the country's best interests.

It would obviously be preferable to try and do this through reasoned dialogue with the electorate and discussion documents, rather than shouted sloganeering about "selling the family silver" during a six week election campaign.

There is a very relevant example of a major political party in government pursuing a deeply unpopular policy in the face of public opposition, and refusing to abandon it despite repeatedly being told it is not what voters want. It is the Labour government's push for state funding for political parties.

Labour has never campaigned in an election on this policy but it is a fond wish of the prime minister and her party.

It's also a policy that is widely detested by the public, and has been soundly rejected every time its prospect has been floated either through official comments or strategic leaks.

(Your correspondent offers no opinion on the merits or otherwise of state-funding. Dipping into government coffers may mean a better range of refreshments at Leader's Cocktails, but that's not the point.)

The idea was dropped from Labour's internal review of election funding which ended up in the Electoral Finance Act after public opposition, and English this week referred to cabinet papers approving costings for state-funded political parties for the 2008 budget in March.

These plans were also shelved, but Annette King confirmed in the House on Wednesday that securing state cash for political parties remained a goal for Labour.

That the government of the day and media have held up statements suggesting National will do the same thing as evidence of anything except business-as-usual shows a bizarre proclivity to muddy the waters.

Journalists have heard the kinds of statements Smith was making from both parties on off-the-record-briefings and know what they mean.

(As a digression: English's comments were newsworthy, because they filled in a space that was implied in outline by the stated policy. It was useful to have his long term preferences on record, but it was not shocking.)

Labour is relying heavily on what can be dubbed the "Hollow Men" narrative about National. This is a rather nebulous concept that something about the way National conducts politics - from its polling, to its policy formulation, to its campaigning to it's actions if in government - is somehow uniquely deceitful and dangerous to New Zealand.

It also revolves around the idea that secretive forces are at work on what is essentially a conspiracy.

But the loudest proponents of this pseudo-theory behave in a way that increasingly makes it unclear who the victims of conspiracy are meant to be.

Last month Nicky Hager and Alistair Barry's documentary version of the Hollow Men debuted, featuring extensive stalker-style footage of Don Brash's oblivious former speech writer Peter Keenan, taken from outside his property filming close-ups into his lounge and his backyard.

In 2006, unknown Labour-aligned sources followed and recorded video footage of John Key at an outdoor market and posted lampooning footage to websites.

It's really not clear who National's opponents would have us believe is the victim in this story, and who is the perpetrator.

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2 Comments & Questions

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I also think there's been a certain amount of (willful?) disingenuity about the realities of grown-up politics, especially in parties like National and Labour that aren't personality cults or made up of single-issue fanatics.

To put it bluntly: Any politician - or party activist - who tells you they agree with every clause and punctuation mark of every policy their party has ever held is either a mindless hack or (more likely) lying. I think it would be fair comment, Ben, to say we both know folks in the Labour Party who wish that a more aggressively left-ward direction had been taken in all kinds of areas over the last nine years. I don't see anything wrong with that. But they also get the idea of caucus/Cabinet collective responsibility, the brutal calculus of passing legislation and the tiresome convention that majorities rule -- even if you happen to think the majority is a pack of morons.

And the hyping of the Nick Smith comment was simply bizarre. You mean National's election strategy includes trying to focus attention on those areas they think voters will respond positively to, and away from perceived weaknesses? Next you'll be telling me the shocking news that fire is hot, water is wet and the sun goes down at night.

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I believe the mother of all secret agendas was the demise of THE PRIVY COUNCIL ?The other one was the support of HELEN CLARKE FOR THE ANTI SMACKING BILL.After all she is on record saying she would never be involved in that type of legislation!! To me NZ is a democracy when to most media it only applies to LABOUR? Go BILL go well !!

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