Guest Notes

Kiwi notes

23 September 2017

9:00 AM

23 September 2017

9:00 AM

Shadows on the cave wall

Kiwis, punching above their weight on the world stage as per, have taken democracy to the next level by turning their triennial parliamentary election into a television game show.

With an eye on recent developments in the Northern Hemisphere (Trump, Brexit), cash-strapped Kiwi TV networks grabbed this year’s election campaign for seats in New Zealand’s 52nd parliament by the nuts.

Since the first primitive television in Ancient Greece around 350BC when viewers watched the shadows on a cave wall cast by figures moving in front of a fire, as described by Plato in The Republic, there has been tension between actual reality and perceptions of it. Admittedly, this was back when technology was just another Greek word. Many centuries would pass until, in neighbouring Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, lecturing his aides on media and politics, said: ‘Don’t you understand that if something is not on TV it doesn’t exist? Not a product, a politician, nor an idea!’

Plato, Berlusconi, Trump — the idea that links them is reality television, an oxymoron like ‘military intelligence’ which is also a thing as well as being a contradiction in terms.

Reality television is everyday life hot-rodded into a game show with commercial breaks. Capitalising on the western democratic convention of holding general elections for institutions like parliaments, reality TV works on the principle that the main purpose of democracy in modern times is to have elections, not the other way round as many outside the media still seem to believe.

Messy results (Belgium), nasty surprises (Trump, Brexit) and disappointments (Corbyn, May, Macron, Turnbull, Abbott, Rudd, Gillard etc etc) are avoided with clear-cut winners from contests based on elimination.

The pretence that political polling accurately represents actual voter intentions is abandoned in the new Kiwi model. Predictions based on polls have a long history of inaccuracy. No-one predicted the Spanish Inquisition. Donald Trump’s win came as a surprise to everybody except the Russians.

Likewise, no-one predicted the day that poll-driven fruit cakes would be joined by poll-driven polls. The breakthrough came from Kiwi TV networks using the polls to drive up audience ratings as is their God-given right.

‘A dramatic and devastating poll tonight’ advance-tweets Mediaworks’ hyped-to-the-max political editor, Patrick Gower, on Tuesday 12 September when the Newshub-Reid Research poll puts National on 47.3 per cent, up 4 per cent, ahead of Labour on 37.6 per cent.

Two days later, TVNZ’s stolid-to-the-max political editor, Corin Dann, reports Colmar Brunton has Labour on 44 per cent, up 4 per cent on National on 40 per cent. Another two days pass and Radio New Zealand, running an averaged ‘poll-of-polls’, puts National at 41.9 per cent, Labour on 41.6 per cent and proclaims ‘Election on a knife-edge’.

Now neck and neck with National, Labour had been on 24 per cent six weeks earlier, prompting its discouraged leader, 52-year-old union lawyer, Andrew Little, to hand the party’s leadership over to his deputy, leftie career politician, Jacinda Adern, a vivacious 37-year-old with outstandingly good teeth.

After being used to eliminate one contender, the polls become performance measures for the ‘live’ leaders television debates which are decided on quips, gaffes and zingers. ‘Show us the money’ was a winning zinger for John Key in 2011. His successor, Bill English, is more of a policy wonk. Invited to score himself after a debate with Adern, English tried to remind journalist Lisa Owen of what they were supposed to be doing.

‘How did you go in that debate?’ she chirruped. ‘Who was the winner? And what do you give yourself as a score out of ten?’ ‘Oh, I just focussed on the issues,’ said the prime minister. ‘It is a competition, Mr English,’ she scolded him. ‘Only one winner.’ ‘Well, no. The competition is actually the election,’ he replied. ‘The point of the debate is that voters get to hear different points of view on the issues that matter to them and and they will go and make their decisions. So, win or lose in the debate it’s what happens on the ballot paper.’

But Owen wasn’t listening. ‘What’s your score out of ten?’ she insisted. Giving up, English modestly rated himself a ‘six or seven’.

The prime minister’s desire for detailed examination of the issues was at odds with his government’s decision to abandon the use of state-owned television and radio for political parties to present their policy platforms at the start and conclusion of the campaign. The broadcasts, a chance for all parties to communicate directly with voters unmediated by show pony journalists and uninterrupted by commercials, were judged as boring and out-dated by media and politicians, both groups drooling at the $4 million public funding available for election broadcasting being switched into social media campaigns, primarily on Facebook and Twitter.

Drained of shouting and colourful rhetoric, serious political debate on issues is inevitably dull and boring. Television’s response, as seen on The West Wing, is to have politicians in small groups walking briskly up and down corridors holding coffee while spouting aphorisms.

English, who started out as a policy wonk in the Treasury, should have been pleased with the first party leaders’ debate on the state-owned TVNZ’s TVOne channel.

‘As a contest of ideas and issues, it was fine,’ said Mark Jennings, a former news boss at the rival TV3 channel. But as television ‘it was dire’ and lacking ‘any sense of theatre or drama. The audience, small, mute and mainly sitting in the dark, might as well not have been there.’

They might as well have been watching shadows on a cave wall. Stumbling out into the harsh light of reality outside the cave on Saturday they will cast their votes to determine where Mr English will be sitting when he and his fellow 120 MPs eventually resume their boring debates on issues and policies in the relative obscurity of their own debating chamber.

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