The 11th of November started out as a typical day on the campaign trail for National. By that I mean an excuse for the shameless peddling of staged photo ops. Make no mistake, National are not alone in this. The increasing ‘Presidentialisation’ of Politics and adoption of a Market Orientated style of campaigning has meant that most political parties have adopted a decidedly ‘personalities over policies’ approach to this campaign. The crucial point here is that while it is expected that our political leaders will engage in thoughtless self-promotion from time to time on the campaign trail, how they manage these photo ops is crucial.The strategy behind John Bank’s cuppa with the Prime Minister was clear. With ‘the left’ making gains in the polls and the Act Party teetering near political oblivion the meeting was supposed to function as a lifeline for the Act campaign. Banks is now seemingly guaranteed a win in Epsom, signalling to the right that they can be comforted in the knowledge that casting party vote for Act will no longer be ‘wasted’. National needs a viable partner on the right to allow them to maintain their centrist position, and this will be especially crucial in 2014 unless Colin Craig and the Conservatives emerge as a viable alternative to Act.
So what went wrong? Its fairly obvious to anyone that the pair were unaware that their private conversation was being recorded. In all fairness the pair are entitled to have a private chin-wag, but for two politicians who are used to peddling ‘common-sense’ they could have used some in regards to what they chose to talk about with a media throng looking on. While the existence of these tapes is troubling for National and Act, possibly reminding voters of the Exclusive Brethren scandal during the 2005 election, it was the Key campaigns response that may have caused the most damage politically.
As John Armstrong rightly points out, John Key cannot insist that he has nothing to hide while at the same time doing his utmost to ensure that the content of the tapes is never made public. Key has seemingly forgot that he is in the middle of an election campaign. In modern campaigning trust is key. NZ politics is far from eye-catching and as such voters don’t retain much more than what they gleaned from skimming the news headlines. As such, a leaders personality is increasingly more pervasive than their policy position and because of this voters need to trust that that politician will do the right thing in office (as they often have no idea what they are actually up to).
The suspicion surrounding these tapes will diminish voters trust of Key. As the Nat’s campaign so far is decidedly more “Vote John” than “Vote National” this is particularly troubling for them. National has has two choices: ride out the storm and hope for the best or release the tapes and attempt to control the story.