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Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Elections 2017: tabloid politics, peak scandal and campaign bloat

My first response on reading about the “Winston Peters Superannuation Scandal” (because what else are we calling it) was something along the lines “O.F.F.S, not again!” as Mondays news delivered what promised to be another two weeks of my life that I won’t get back.

But, after taking a moment to calm down, I realized that my initial response had merely been a knee jerk reaction, conditioned (like a drooling Pavlov dog) over the last few months by the veritable avalanche of explosive political change and high wire scandal that this once dull election campaign had morphed into; and that things were not going to play out as they usually did.

To start with this did not have the same catastrophic tone as other recent scandals, as an accidental $18,000 oversight which was immediately paid back (Winston’s scenario) has a lot less clout than announcing that you knowingly and willingly scammed the system for funds which you never paid back and then further investigation reveals that you also committed electoral fraud to boot (Meteria Turei’s scenario for example).

Second is that this is Winston Peters we are talking about here: a long term political operator who is as canny as a box of foxes and as wily as a coyote, who has survived numerous attempts to take him down and lives and breathes political scandal (albeit that he is usually the one dishing it up) in the same manner that we dutifully get out of bed and go to work every morning.

So when I was asked later that day about what I thought would happen my response was along the lines of “small potatoes, he will survive” rather than “OMG! He is dead meat” (often my previous response to such situations) and instead of immediately banging something out for this blog I decided to wait and see how things would play out.

And Winston did not disappoint as by the end of the first day he was already on the attack, claiming that this was a hit job by National; denying the sum he repaid and turning the questions back on Bill and the B Team in a master class of political jujitsu which has seen the coverage of the last two days switch from Winston to Bill English and his ministerial harem (Paula Bennet, Judith Collins and Anne Tolley).

But I am not going to be covering events on this matter any further (as they have had endless coverage already) except to say that I was not the only one who thought this was more than your usual "political explosion" and that this was another round of “dirty politics” as usual, as many including both Chris Trotter, Tracy Watkins and myself (with my Neutralizing Winston post a few months back) have noted*.

What is worth discussing here is that how Winston's superannuation scandal illustrates how the whole campaign has descended into a space which has been dubbed “tabloid politics”: a steaming nexus of populist sentiment, personality politics and media massaging that turns political coverage into something like an Episode of the TV shows Survivor (Outwit, Outplay and Outlast) or Game of Thrones (only one shall sit on it).

Of course we have already seen such developments overseas (especially the US) but it still remains surprising to see how fast it has metastasized in New Zealand this campaign.

The trajectory of the recent political media in NZ (Tapegate; Labours student “interns”; Meteria Turei’s benefit fraud; The fall of Andrew Little; The rise of Jacinda Ardern; The rupture of the Greens and the final whimper of Peter Dunne) has shifted from where reasoned analysis (or at least a clear link between politics, policy and politicians) was the standard to becoming very similar to that of the tabloids I so enjoy reading while waiting in the checkout line at Pak’n’Save.

We all know now how these things are will play out: there is the initial breathless coverage, then the swarm of media articles and blog posts discussing and dissecting the matter, and all while the focus of the media’s attention twists and squirms under its harsh glare and is laid bare, one detail at a time until there is nothing left to report or something new is found to focus (or feed) on.

Thus, the difference between a feud between some D-list celebutards and what passes for political coverage during an election (and often day to day politics as well) narrows to the point that you could swap out the names plus key details and the tone, content (or lack thereof) and style of the work would be next to minimal; and no one would notice if it what was happening in parliament was news or an episode of Shortland Street.

And, at times, I have been guilty of such offences and I understand why there are calls for “more discussion on policy rather than personality” but this is not the first election we have had such furore (previously it was Dirty Politics or Kim Dot Com for example) and the current dynamic of modern media in a populist election period is simply going to focus (positive or negative) on what generates attention rather than what needs attention.

And such relentless framing of politics and politicians though this tabloid lens has led to both campaign bloat and what I am calling peak scandal.

Campaign bloat, both a physical and psychological condition, was first described by Hunter S. Thompson in his classic book Fear and Loathing: on the campaign trail in 72 where he detailed the adrenal high and subsequent crash that afflicted people (mostly political junkies like me) who got too far into politics and politicians during an election campaign.

The symptoms of the bloat are detailed here but suffice it to say that like any good addiction the first hit is free and oh so sweet but it soon takes more and more of that “good stuff” to get off on and soon you are either a hard core junkie or a trashed wreck (or both). And once you are wrecked, your ability to react to or get a buzz off whatever was juicing you up is gone and you’re numb to any further “shocking” revelations which come down your news feed.

At this time, I am dangerously close to that condition. I feel my hands clenching and unclenching as I grind my teeth when I get that first sting of another twist in the saga of (insert politicians name here) before losing all interest in the whole torrid affair, because there are only so many torrid affairs one can have (and this is not my first), before reacting with indifference to the eventual fate of the situation which leads to the next step in the process: peak scandal.

Like peak oil or peak beard (or here) we have now hit peak scandal. For the public, already weary of the brainless antics of political parties and politicians, the indifference has grown to where being a politician is viewed as the same kind of career direction and lifestyle choice as that of a child sex predator and no one really cares any more (about the politician or the politics not the kids (they still care about the kids).

Peak scandal is just that, we are now at the zenith (or nadir) of the populist political cycle this election and the chickens (or Chechens or Chihuahuas or whatever) are coming home to roost as we near the moment of truth on polling day.

And when you mix campaign bloat with peak scandal you get what we have in the US (with its hyper partisan political and social situations) or Italy or Australia (with shifting political instability as the norm) as both the general public and the political junkies lose their taste for the once exotic flesh of politics and switch off to learning the skills required to participate in a democracy (those of open and reasoned debate mixed with tolerance and compromise).

And you might switch off to politics but politics will not switch off to you. Politics will read that indifference and stagnation and give you what you want in the form of places like the US or Australia where its tweets from The Don 24/7 or burkas for breakfast with Pauline Hanson.

So, to help ease back on this noxious potential outcome I am going to dedicate the last month of my political coverage to avoiding any scandal**, no matter what, and to doing my “gosh darned” best to keeping my blogging on an even keel until after polling day.

But it won’t be easy, as old (drug) habits die hard and the potential for the perpetual motion engine that is populism, to crank out tectonic and paradigm shifting events is nearing Sorcerer’s Apprentice levels of activity and with no sign of stopping.

Both you, the reader and the media, can help in these circumstances by retaining a critical edge when discussing politics and not “feed the beast”, so to speak. Don’t give in to your vicarious urge to just watch the proceedings play out and then pass moral judgement from on high or engage in “verbatim regurgitation”*** and nothing else.

Instead take your creative gushes and marry them with wit and intellect to balance out the populist energy with something that advances the discussion forwards and not down into the troll cave.

I am a supporter of the populist mood and tone of our times but I am not down with the trenchant anger and partisan futility that emerges when the elites seek to hold back needed change or when the public (often ticked off from seeing needed reform stifled by said elites) remove themselves from the debate and desire nothing more than to be spectators, or agitators, in the political process because that’s where peak scandal, tabloid politics and campaign bloat come from.

*-For the record I do think this is the work of Nationals dirty politics crew because the timing is just too good to be true despite the protestation of Paula Bennet. They are probably not in ensconced as close as they used to be to the PMs office, to ensure "plausible deniability" of course, but if this is the best they can do they then its clear that the National Party brain trust spent more than $18,000 dollars on a bunch of low grade Law school drop outs who cant even get their weasel words right. Very low rent!
**-even if Bill “what’s wrong with that man’s face Mummy?” English was to rip the flesh mask off to reveal the reptilian underneath before charging into the crowd of reporters in the press room with the sole intent of tearing the head off at least one of them before Parliament security brought him down .
**- watch all of it and you will get my point

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