Riding the beast, Michael Laws

New Zealand Votes: The General Election of 2002
ed J Boston, S Church, S Levine, E McLeay & N Roberts
Victoria University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0864734689

I was on the baños in Baños, Ecuador when the 2002 election results were conveyed to me. I had been on the loo for much of the morning as a consequence of enjoying way too much local hospitality the night before. That included my first helping of the local delicacy – cuy. Cuy is guinea pig that has been skinned, gutted, staked, then left to grill over hot coals. When it resembles charred roadkill it is fit to eat. Wrong. It is never fit to eat. But the things you do when you have a reality tv crew filming your every movement.

I had actually contracted giardia and you can guess my condition. So the news that Peter Dunne’s party had gained seven per cent of the party vote and Winston Peters damned near 11 per cent ….  Well, it sort of fitted. Like when on a bad acid trip you accept all manner of stimuli knowing that normality will eventually return.

But in this case it didn’t. Because the 2002 general election was probably the most bizarre in living memory. It was so awful as to be compelling, so diffuse as to be comical. It was like viewing some vast battle from a hilltop – so many random encounters were underway that you had no idea of where to look or what was happening.

There was the imperial Helen Clark, supposedly strutting to victory, only to be knee-capped by the pesky anti-GE Greens and that cursed munchkin John Campbell. There was the National Party imploding – so spectacularly that you suspected sabotage until you realised that the people doing it had been Nats since the day they were born. There was the Alliance – a party that had imploded – with only Jim Anderton making it to the escape pod. But wait there’s more. There was Winston Peters’ curious adoption of a UK child’s cartoon as both his symbol and his message. There was Act trying to sustain the Nats one day and cannibalise them the next. And, finally, there was United Future who only gained traction because Peter Dunne charmed TVNZ’s fickle “worm”. And they say that reality tv is far-fetched.

Which is why books like this are written. They seek to make meaning of the chaos, and suggest an order to it all. Which is nonsense, of course. Elections are like war – there are veils of fog and you try to get as many of your troops through the minefield as humanly possible. Nevertheless, I liked this book. If only for the self-justifications from all the various party apparatchiks as to why their campaigns went so spectacularly wrong. And it’s interesting who wrote them – party president Mike Williams penned Labour’s but National left their piece to media functionary Tim Grafton. One party was out for revenge and the other to forget.

The chapters are divided into five main sections – overview (mostly gibberish by political scientists), tactics and strategies, the candidates, media coverage, and the results. Without question the most illuminating section relates to the media and particularly Tim Bale on the impact of television on the 2002 general election. Bale’s complaint is that of those of us who take politics even moderately seriously – that the people running television news and current affairs are basically morons.

Which is, to an extent, true. Both TVNZ and TV3 ran the 2002 election as if it were a parliamentary version of Big Brother. They not only controlled the coverage but also set the daily agendas, manufactured the crises, interfered in the process (via the appalling “worm”) and basically tried to make the party leaders and MPs something that they’re not: entertainers. Indeed I was a part of this process. With David Lange, Pam Corkery, Joe Bennett, and Chris Trotter, my job was to cast a cynical and critical eye over the previous political week and make a few salient observations. Ah, too easy, thought I. And that’s exactly what everyone else on the panel thought too. So began our weekly contest of one-liners.

But then television has a point. Elections are boring. And if TV1 is obliged to charter programme, then it can be forgiven for trying to stem the mass exodus of viewers to other channels. Which means making the final product as zappy as possible. Not easy when your raw talent is a Michael Cullen, a Bill English or a Jim Anderton.

There are other good parts to this book that will make it mandatory for political science students and policy wonks. The use of statistics is not simply factual but insightful. So too the chapter by Jonathon Boston and Stephen Church on the coalition negotiations after the election. And if you really want to know how strange a campaign gets – read Hekia Parata’s account of her quixotic charge at Wellington Central.

There is only one flaw to this book – a common failing of all such academic texts. You have to be a player – a candidate or an insider – to properly appreciate how all-consuming, how intoxicating, how scary an election campaign really is. Because any campaign – local or national – is all about managing crises of varying severity. You’re never totally in control of the beast that you ride. The only good thing is: neither is anyone else. As a consequence, campaigns are a test of the visceral as much as the intellectual. A book like this can never adequately capture that kind of chaotic spirit. But, as an eye-witness account, New Zealand Votes is a thoroughly professional piece of work.


Michael Laws was MP for Hawke’s Bay from 1990-96 and New Zealand First campaign manager for the 1996 general election. 


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