Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


Election Dirty Tricks

13/09/2005

Election smears and dirty tricks are as old as democracy itself. Much is at stake; participants play hard. The United States provides us with many colourful examples. In Louisiana, currently in the news, a senatorial candidate once accused his opponent of being "a practising homo sapiens", dwelling on the word "homo" for special effect with credulous voters. Issues like prohibition and the Bible in Schools campaigns in New Zealand saw church leaders using snide utterances and damaging innuendo. During the twenties and thirties a professional political organiser called A.E. Davy pioneered political pilfering, making off with several parties' membership lists after falling out with their top brass. Davy made the apparent hacking into National's emails, and Labour's sitting on them for months, look amateur by comparison. During my own political career a leaflet calling me a communist was handed to electors on their way to the polls in 1972; a seedy GP delivered one attacking my National predecessor, then me, as ministers of health; and a hobbledy-hoy mayor whose small local authority was about to be abolished distributed a personal attack that he didn't sign.

While one needs to be wary of people clutching a Bible in one hand and pamphlets in the other, there is nothing unprecedented about the Exclusive Brethren's campaign. They've been at it for years. A former Labour colleague from Christchurch tells me he had to put up with their antics every election. Baptists, too, got involved in the 1967 referendum on drinking hours. The Auckland Tabernacle had a large sign "Stick to Six". They deserved the student who changed the "I" in six to an "e". These days a host of dog collars farm poverty, the real causes of which they studiously overlook. By and large we've learned to live with them. Sadly they are part of religion's growing irrelevance. Political parties are happy if the divine message is supportive, and ignore it if it isn't.

These days the media are equally selective about their angles with stories. The point about the Brethren's attack on the Greens was not whether Don Brash knew it was going to happen. Clearly he was given no specifics. They told him they'd attack Labour, so his initial surprise at discovering they were behind anti-Green leaflets is understandable. What really matters with that pamphlet labelled "Beware" is whether its contents are true. Nowhere have I seen or heard any media analysis of this. Instead journalists chased Don Brash. So I took a quick look at the Greens' website. In amongst a weird assemblage of nostrums and nonsense about bikes and windmills I discovered their rebuttal of the Brethren. The Greens label the Brethren's assertion that they would introduce a capital gains tax on family homes "an outright lie". Yet immediately following that declaration they say that a capital gains tax "could reduce interest rates and house prices". Hello? How come if homes aren't affected? Who's telling lies? Same with the pamphlet's warning that Greens would spend big on "uneconomic and novel" public transport schemes. The rebuttal calling this another lie is again undermined by what they say. One thing is certain: the Greens have trouble with the meaning of words.

Why did the media last week hound the Brethren and Don Brash when they ought to have been examining the pamphlet's contents? After all, in politics and journalism one is meant to focus on the message, not shoot the messenger, however odd he might be. I think I discovered the answer when I noticed that the trade union covering many journalists purchased half page advertisements in the dailies attacking the National Party. It's plain old bias. Our world has changed from the days when papers backed National editorially, and Radio NZ, and TVNZ were scrupulously neutral with reporting. Now virtually all journalists, no matter their inexperience, parade their bias. Have Aunty Helen's frequent phone calls to them, and her invitations to junkets on the 757 when she travels, turned New Zealand's once robust Fourth Estate into government lap dogs? Let's judge them by their own standards: 24 hours after Labour's state house "eviction" notice misinformation surfaced last Friday, no one had investigated which ministers knew what about it. Dirty tricks aren't dirty tricks if played by Labour.

Someone needed to blow the whistle on the Green cavemen and women who want to share Labour's bed after Saturday. If the media wouldn't do their job, who can blame the Brethren for trying?