The phrase ‘presidential-style election campaign’ is bandied about a lot these days. Its intended meaning is that voters are as much or perhaps more influenced by the personality and media image of party leaders as by their parties’ policies. This was clearly not, or at least less the case in the pre-television era when party leaders were generally seen in the flesh only at public meetings or very occasionally on cinema newsreels. Parliament was first broadcast in New Zealand on thebut offered neither the intimacy nor the capacity for exposure of the television close-up. Radio without pictures is sound without sight. It can be hugely informative but the listener is deprived of a large chunk of helpful non-verbal information.
Keith Holyoake was the first New Zealand Prime Minister of the television age. In 1971 in my book The Public Eye I wrote of his on-screen performances:
‘The studio Holyoake was everything that an interviewee should not be – evasive, pompous, patronising, overbearing, long-winded, repetitious, pretentious, boring.’ The trouble in part was that no-one had dared to tell him just how awful he was. That changed in 1970 when the recently knighted Prime Minister accepted an invitation to be interviewed by me on his life and times on the popular current affairs programme Gallery. Much against the wishes of his press secretary Arthur Manning, Gallery producer Des Monaghan and I sat Sir Keith down and told him the unvarnished truth about how he came across on the box. Though he still sounded as though he had a marble in his mouth, the outcome was a frank and in places quite moving interview. Unbeknownst to me, my career as a media trainer had begun.
The ability or lack of ability to come across on television would affect every subsequent pretender to the role of New Zealand Prime Minister. It quickly became apparent to me that Kiwis, particularly (but not exclusively) Kiwi males, placed a high premium on perceived strength of character and purpose in their leaders. Sensitivity did not rate high on our political radar. At the extremes we preferred and still prefer the bully to the wimp. And we based our judgement largely on how our party leaders came across on television. Hence the national thumbs up for Kirk, Muldoon, Lange, Clark and the thumbs down for Marshall, Rowling, Palmer, Moore, Shipley, Goff, Shearer
And yes, there’s more to it than that. Governments are voted out on hugely unpopular policies and voted in on the back of hugely popular policies and irresistible bribes – often one and the same thing. But if a party leader fails to make it on the box, the electoral outcome is rarely, if ever, positive. It’s as if we really believed that the (TV) camera never lies. So what are we to make of Cunliffe and Key. Neither, it seems to me, appears to convey the sort of strength of character and purpose that you would associate with a Kirk, Muldoon or Clark. Cunliffe is fiercely intelligent, highly articulate and generally handles himself well in television interviews and debates; Key is also highly intelligent, not particularly articulate, but in his recent major interview with John Campbell showed himself to be a skilful debater.
Intelligence, articulacy, skill in argument – these are all measurable, objective criteria. But it’s when you get to matters of character, of how each man comes across, that the picture is less distinct. Cunliffe calls Key ‘shifty’; Key calls Cunliffe ‘tricky’. Both are probably right – they’re politicians after all. But it’s not the full story. In the world of ‘Who would you most like to have dinner with, go fishing with, share a bach with, play golf with, go on holiday with’ journalism, Key has it over Cunliffe. People think Key is ‘nice’; ‘nice’ is not a word commonly applied to Cunliffe. ‘Nice’ may not cut it in politics, of course. Ask David Shearer. But it’s not a liability either. Not being trusted is an entirely different matter. On our daily Ponsonby/Herne Bay strolls, Judy and I receive both solicited and unsolicited opinions on politics and politicians. One theme is dislike of ‘rich prick’ Key, another is distrust of Cunliffe. When you ask for evidence to justify this distrust, you get: ‘Don’t really know exactly… can’t quite put my finger on it… just something… something about his face maybe.’
In the world of presidential-style election campaigns could the outcome then come down to one candidate being perceived as ‘nice’ (albeit ‘a rich prick’) and the other regarded with suspicion because there was ‘something about his face… maybe.’ Maybe. I have the strongest feeling that this election really isn’t going to be about policies at all, but about personality – the perceived personalities of the two major party leaders. More than any other I can recall in my half century in this country, this election will be won or lost on the box. Shifty John Key versus tricky David Cunliffe. Personally I wouldn’t trust Key as far as I could throw him, but you knew that already. Might pop down to the video store and take out the box set of The West Wing. I’m into real-life documentaries.