Bellwether blues and a political thrashing

I went overseas at the weekend, to that other country up north, beyond the Bombay Hills. Coincidentally, there was a by-election going on, and, as it happened, we were staying in Kingsland, in the Mt Albert electorate. Just around the corner a school, once attended by a young Robert Muldoon, doubled as a voting station.

Across the railway line on Bond St towards the city, a gaggle of billboards lounged like a desultory political rally on the road verge. The Labour sign had been vandalised. It lay forlornly on its back, victim of a some king hit or other. Perhaps an omen.

On Friday, down Sandringham Rd at the Kingsland shops two or three of us met for lunch at the Satya South Indian restaurant.

It nestles among a jumbled crush of frontages and street signage that would not be out of place in downtown Bangalore. You'd go a long way to find a Masala Dosa that good.

It was raining. A campaign van went past, blaring from a loudspeaker. A sign on the side affiliated it with the Union of Fathers. The message failed to penetrate the windows of the cafe. We were busy with other things anyway. We sipped our Taj Mahal lagers and chewed the fat over a Lamb Vindaloo.

It was warm up there in the big smoke, despite the drizzle. The locals were all geared up to vote. Being polite we did not ask for whom, but then we probably didn't have to. We were there for a concert, the politics an incidental sideshow, but chatter pertaining to it fluttered in and out of conversations.

Melissa Lee had been a disaster. The debate as to her candidacy traversed the question of "why"?

Was it because she was Asian? Was it a punt? National felt it needed a woman? It seemed like a good idea at the time? The Sarah Palin factor without quite so many oopsies?

It hadn't taken long to dispel the latter with her early uber-gaffe - the one about the Waterview motorway being a good thing for the electorate because the (brown) crims from South Auckland would be going too fast along the motorway to bother with casual burglary. This, evidently, was a woman with her foot on the accelerator and no idea where the clutch was, let alone the gear stick.

It got worse, not because she wasn't putting her heart and soul into it and proving a feisty competitor, but because she is a political ingenue and appeared to have been given few, if any, driving lessons.

The other big issue was Rodney Hide and his Super City proposals, closely aligned to John Key with his "Banks for Super Mayor" blunder. People were perhaps inclined to forgive him the odd such slip-up, but some of them didn't much like the look and feel of what was clinging on to his coat-tails.

National's political managers might think they're on to a good thing with the good cop/bad cop, National/Act New Zealand routine.

The valiant bellwether Mr Hide pushes the boat out to test the water on right-wing fantasies such as total privatisation of local council assets and services, or the three strikes and you're inside (for life) sentencing review, and Mr Key responds to the resultant backlash by saying that it's not National Party policy.

The notion is floated, Mr Hide reinforces his brand, and Mr Key has a concept introduced without having to own it himself. Ingenious. Winners all round - except (memo to National's brains trust) the voters are not stupid. They can see what's going on and many don't like it.

On the night in Mt Albert they said as much. OK, it was a solid Labour seat, but a well-informed, relatively unknown candidate (62%) thrashes a vivacious, energetic Asian woman National contender to within an inch of her political life (17%). In the aftermath, she is left to face the music with not one of the party's big guns there to support her.

Pundits have downplayed the relevance of the Mt Albert loss to National. But the Government's political management, from the choice of Ms Lee to its support of her campaign, was at best underwhelming, at worst damaging.

Add the profile and apparent influence of Mr Hide and the Act agenda, particularly in Auckland where 25% of the populace lives, the Richard Worth affair, Christine Rankin, and the odd slip of the tongue by the man himself, and some might say the hiding indicates Mr Key's sheen has been at least a little smudged.

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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