Labour seems to believe that it’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission. With the missing figures in the Press Debate, they’ve sought forgiveness for failing to perform on the night, with predictable effect, and yesterday on the wireless with Paul Henry, Labour’s finance spokesperson David Cunliffe remarked about Police minister Judith Collins that if she were the last woman on earth “the species would probably become extinct”. That’s a couple of pretty big steps beyond the usual (and also unjustified) fat jokes about Gerry Brownlee and others, and it’s the sort of behaviour we’d expect in Berlusconi’s Italy, from some of the viler denizens of the lunatic fringe, or perhaps from Paul Henry himself — but it is not conduct becoming a former minister and possible Prime Minister-in-waiting.
I anticipate we’ll see a cringing apology today or tomorrow once the media cycle gets hold of it, but it’s too late — the damage is already done. Some lefties will inevitably claim that having a bit of “mongrel” is crucial to win back “Waitakere Man” (more on this later), or will point to examples of comparable outrage on the other side, but again, it doesn’t matter: Labour is dead in the water if it holds itself to the standards of the rabid right, and this reeks of desperation more than it does of strategy. As Pablo wrote recently, negative campaigning isn’t always a losing strategy, but it has to be done right — and this isn’t. [Edit to add: this sort of behaviour also negates a tactical advantage of being able to criticise Key for his media engagements, such as with Tony Veitch.]
As Labour partisans take great delight in reminding me, I have no knowledge of the inside of Labour’s organisation, and all my Kremlinology about its dysfunction is based on near-obsessive observation of what public evidence is on display. With that caveat, let me advance a thesis: Goff is actually coping pretty well with the campaign so far, but Cunliffe is not. After all, Goff’s only major failure has been an inability to produce costings for the fiscal policy — Cunliffe’s portfolio. Goff, as leader, bears ultimate responsibility for not demanding a better performance from his finance spokesperson, but since Goff has enough on his plate as it is, producing those numbers was surely a responsibility delegated to Cunliffe and his people, and they did not do so. Whether we interpret Cunliffe’s outburst about Collins as (charitably) cracking under pressure or (less charitably) the mask of civility slipping, it looks like he’s feeling the heat more than Goff who is performing better than most people expected (and knows it).
Just a final word about Waitakere Man. Yesterday Stuff.co.nz ran a wee video package they called the bloke test in which journalists asked Key and Goff the same set of questions in order to measure their purported blokiness. This has been widely derided (mostly by the same people who think Labour is running good strategy) as an exercise in vapid idiocy, but that’s not so. Just as much as we have a right to demand political and institutional competence from our leaders, we have a right to judge them on their instinctive, bedrock responses; and this was a case where two leaders were asked a series of unpredictable personal questions and expected to answer them off-the-cuff.
While its utility in measuring “blokiness” is highly dubious, this exchange contained a lot of other information about how the leaders respond to pressure, to humour, their attitudes towards social transgression and their place in society and a sense of who they “really” are. In a representative democracy where voters can be expected to have neither the time nor the expertise to become proficient in every policy field that impacts them, they rely on other indicators to determine who is more likely to make appropriate decisions in their stead. I’ll leave the interpretation of who “won” the Waitakere Man test as political rorschach, but suffice it to say that anyone who thinks this sort of thing is irrelevant trivia needs remedial classes in voter behaviour.