Politician scores for 2018

It’s that time of year when political journalists rate the politicians on their performances.

Tracy Watkins: After a huge year in politics, one politician stands out

  • Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern 9.5

I think that’s very generous. Ardern has done well at some things – especially her public performances and her rapport with journalists – but despite Watykins’ gushing, I think Ardern still has a lot to prove. As has her Government. That it didn’t turn to custard in it’s first year is an achievement, but just. I’d give Ardern a 7.5 but she will need to sort out quite a bit next year.

  • Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters 8.5

Also generous. Peters did an adequate job when standing in as Acting PM, and hasn’t dragged the Government down – yet. But he has also been smarmy, cantankerous and cranky at times. I think he deserves a pass mark but little more.

  • Finance Minister Grant Robertson 8.5

Helped substantially by a healthy economy he inherited Robertson has done pretty well so far so 8.5 is deserved.

  • Deputy Labour Leader Kelvin Davis 5.0

It’s true that Davis has been terrible as a deputy leader, but he was plonked there and although obviously a fish out of water he has been left in that position. It just doesn’t suit him.  But he has been doing a lot of good work out of the spotlight, in particularly he has helped prison numbers drop by 10%, averting a crisis. He seems to work well doing hard yards rather than floozing around with PR and the press. I’d give him a 7.5 for the parts of his job that matter.

  • Trade Minister David Parker 8.0

Parker seems to have done well in Trade – in particular, he switched Labour from opposed to ratifying the TPPA with barely a whimper from protesters who were going ballistic when the National Government nearly got it over the line. A rare commodity in Cabinet – experience.

  • Housing Minister Phil Twyford 6.5

He is also doing Transport. In major roles he is a big risk for Labour, and 6.5 seems ridiculous given Twyford looks like a dipstick out of his depth far too often.

  • Justice Minister Andrew Little 7.0

Little made some mistakes but has learnt from them, and generally seems to be doing a good job, including working towards some promising looking reforms.

  • Climate Change Minister James Shaw 7.0

It’s hard to know how well Shaw has been doing on Climate Change. He has been largely invisible. His year may be judged better after the outcome of the current COP24 climate conference in Poland is known. We are still lacking clarity on what his energy alternatives will look like in practice – phasing out fossil fuels as Shaw proposes leaves a big hole to fill, and that will need more than idealistic dreams. Shaw has also given little priority to leadership of the Greens, and it shows.  His party looks like two parts now, with three Ministers toiling away while the rest of the MPs still acting like they are Opposition activists still. I’d give him a 6.0 but he needs to start showing results.

  • National Leader Simon Bridges 6.5

Generous. He has had internal party problems (Jami-lee Ross in particular). And he continues to fail to impress with his presentation – more cringe than charisma. And he has made some poor policy and attack decisions. I’d give him a 5 for surviving as leader but he has a lot to learn and a lot of improvements to make if he is to succeed.

  • Deputy Paula Bennett 6.5

I’m not sure what Bennett has done apart from transform her physical appearance. I haven’t seen enough of actual political achievements to think of an appropriate number.

  • Finance spokeswoman Amy Adams 6.0

Probably a fair score, competent but unremarkable. She has a difficult job criticising the Government on finance with the economy going well.

  • Housing spokeswoman Judith Collins 8.0

Really? Collins works with media and social media well, but she got nowhere near a serious challenge to Bridges, and she symbolises leadership-coup-in-waiting, probably intentionally, which is not good for National.

  • Justice spokesman Mark Mitchell: 8.0
  • Michael Woodhouse 8.0
  • Paul Goldsmith 7.5

They have adapted from Government to Opposition better than most.

  • Jami-lee Ross 1.0

Generous. I guess he is still an MP, but in name only, he is still on sick leave.

Party front bench ratings:

  • National 7.5
  • Labour 6

Probably fair. Too many of the Labour front bench are struggling. Watkins didn’t rate Megan Woods, Chris Hipkins, Carmel Sepuloni, David Clark, Nanaia Mahuta, Stuart Nash.

I’ll give a special mention to two rooky back benchers who have taken to quite different roles very capably.

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick has done a lot of hard work, especially on drug law reform, and unlike some of her colleagues hasn’t been looking like an out of place activist. A very promising list MP.

National MP Hamish Walker scored the safe Clutha-Southland electorate that had been very controversial last term when Todd Barclay proved unsuitable as an MP. In contrast Walker has been doing the hard yards in the largest electorate in the country working on things that matter to his constituents. He is a model first term electorate MP – work hard locally and keep out of the national spotlight while you learn the ropes.




Media intent on popularity politics dump on Bridges

Political journalists are focussing on Simon Bridges – on how well he is doing as Leader of the Opposition, and whether there is someone in the National caucus who could do better. With National polling very well it would be odd for them to dump their leader, but when in Opposition there will always be MPs looking for an opportunity to step up into the top job.

Audrey Young (NZH): Can National’s strong performance survive the strong death-wish for Bridges?

Who wishes political death on Bridges apart from media wanting some headline stories?

…it is extraordinary that a party on 46 per cent in last Sunday’s 1 News Colmar Brunton poll should be ending the year being subject to speculation about who is going to replace the person who got them to 46.

Who is doing the speculating? Journalists. Why?

Under Sunday’s poll result, National was literally one point away from having the numbers to govern. That is a stunning result for an unpopular leader.

But the political death-wish for Bridges is so strong, especially among some media, that one colleague declared that National’s 41 per cent in the party-commissioned poll was the “real” rating, not 46 per cent.

Young admits that it’s ‘some media’ wishing for a political funeral to report on. Perhaps they want someone more celebrity-like to report on.

The notion that a party could be polling high while its leader is polling as low as 7 per cent is unusual, so unusual that there seems to be a move to “correct” it.

If Bridges is finally forced to step down before the 2020 election, it won’t be because of the large gap between the party and leader but because the campaign against him has forced down the party vote.

After a hiatus, the campaign against Bridges has resumed.

It certainly looks like someone or some people are feeding the media morsels to try to dump on Bridges. And journalists like to feast on leaks, especially ones they get ‘exclusively’.

Tracy Watkins (Stuff): National’s dilemma – can someone do better than Bridges?

Is it a dilemma for National? Or do journalists have a dilemma over who to promote as an alternative leader? Do they want someone more colourful (or at least less bland) than Bridges?

I haven’t seen any media consider how someone like Bridges might perform as a potential Prime Minister. Capability for the job seems to be unimportant compared to reporting either scandal or celebrity.

After an extraordinary, and turbulent, few months there are more brutal calculations to be made – such as whether Simon Bridges can carry them back into power. And if the answer is no – which seems to be the growing consensus – can anyone else do better.

Growing consensus amongst whom? Journalists? It shouldn’t be up to them to make decisions on future political prospects and dump on those they judge to be not up to their requirements.

This is what Bridges’ MPs will be weighing up between now and February.

Some opposition MPs will no doubt always be on the lookout for ways of advancing their political careers, and a few will no doubt think they could be doing better than Bridges. That’s normal with politicians with egos and ambition.

Does it matter if Bridges isn’t popular?

Yes of course. Politics is a popularity contest, after all.

I’m alarmed by that. Of course popularity matters, to an extent.

But isn’t politics supposed to be a contest of ideas, a contest of policies that will affect the well being of the nation and of the people?

Isn’t competence important?

Have journalists been caught up too much in conducting popularity contests – where their popularity with politicians in order to be fed stories (that politicians want to promote) is what matters, and where independent analysis and investigation doesn’t matter any more?

The job of Opposition is of course to oppose. But doing so while giving hope that you offer something better? That’s the hard bit.

Key nailed it. Ardern nailed it. Bridges is running out of time to nail it.

That’s nonsense. Bridges has another year at least to ‘nail it’ (as a potential Prime Minister) – except his problem right now seems to be not his lack of nailing it, but rather getting a hammering from media who seem to have dumped on Bridges.

Is the real problem here that Bridges is not popular amongst political journalists? Do they prefer destabilising leaks – they certainly seem to be encouraging them, if not be design by their actions – more than the honest toil of someone trying to lead the Opposition?

When Bridges became leader it was assumed the chances of his making it to the election were slim. It’s the way the cycle works. But those chances are getting slimmer all the time.

That’s alarming crap – alarming because journalists seem to be trying to build a case for slimming Bridges chances nearly two years before the next election.

It’s impossible to predict what will happen in that time. Personally I’m not a fan of Bridges, but I’m less of a fan of journalists trying to influence what may happen in party leadership. I think that’s a far bigger problem than who is leader of a party not in Government.


Staggering support for National, but Bridges staggering

When journalists openly ask if a political leader is a ‘dead man walking’ there should be cause for concern. That is what is happening after a bad week for Simon Bridges, who is still encumbered by an ongoing inquiry (which was self inflicted) into the leak of his expenses.

Tracey Watkins:  Is Simon Bridges a dead man walking?

Ardern is the wind under Labour’s wings. It’s not  much of an exaggeration to say that, without her, this Government would be in desperate trouble right now. She has made its bumbling and a string of disasters survivable.  She is at the height of her powers.

Ardern looks strong, but Labour are labouring. In contrast, Bridges continues to stagger while National seems to be maintaining it’s strength as a party.

There is a dearth of independent polling these days – polls are expensive and traditional media companies are strapped for cash – so we can only go by anecdotal (and highly partisan) accounts of internal party polls.

But the constant seems to be that National’s support hasn’t really shifted around much since the election.

That is staggering for a party that has just been swept out of power after nine years. It is even more staggering given Bridges’ apparent lack of connection with voters.  The message is getting cut-through, even if Bridges can’t.

Perhaps people who are being polled see National’s longer term prospects as being much better than Bridges’. That could suggest that Bridges is seen as irrelevant and expendable.

Bridges’ position is far less secure. Brand National is the wind beneath his wings, the party holding its support despite him, rather than because of him.

That puts Bridges in a particularly precarious position. If a view takes root that he is adding nothing to brand National, he becomes expendable, in a way that Ardern is not.

If a view takes root amongst journalists that Bridges is a dead man walking (figuratively and politically of course) then it is going to take a lot from bridges to turn that around, and so far he has shown no real sign of even a little glimmer that he has what it takes to lead.

He has only one ace card: disunity is toxic. But that card holds its power only for as long as National’s support holds up. So Bridges can’t afford to squander any of the goodwill or legacy that has kept National’s poll ratings in the mid to high 40s for much of the past decade.

The problem for National is that if Bridges starts to drag party support down with him it will be much harder for a replacement leader to turn that around again – unless they have immediate charisma and success like Ardern last year, but that was in extraordinary circumstances.

His personal poll ratings are low, and his favourability ratings (anecdotally at least) are said to be heading south. He is struggling to connect with voters, while up against a popular leader who is still in her honeymoon period.

He has been handed the poisoned chalice of leading National in opposition after nine successful years in government, and is being asked to fill the very big shoes of Sir John Key and Sir Bill English.

There is a very long line of ambitious politicians at his back whose seats in Parliament are reliant on his performance. They will turn on him in an instant if he puts their livelihoods under threat.

None of those problems is insurmountable or exceptional, though history would suggest they should be.

Not just their current livelihoods – those who are ambitious may see Bridges as an impediment to them getting back into, or into, power.

We all know it is rare for governments to be voted out after just one term. And the flipside of that coin is that it is not unusual for a new Opposition party to churn through several leaders before finding one who can lead it back into power.

Leadership is a lottery – you never know how well someone will do the job until given a chance. Bridges has so far been quite disappointing, and his recent stuff ups – an his judgment in these looks poor – may be his leadership death warrant.

Ardern’s success in New York re-established her as in charge – but NZ First’s need for oxygen won’t go away.

The economy, meanwhile, has remained in Labour’s favour. But there are some big election-year timebombs ticking away: a possible capital gains tax, a health sector shakeup, and law and order.

Many of these things will play to National’s strengths.

So Bridges may not be a dead man walking – yet.

But it will be hard for him to shake this question – especially as he seems to have little popular support, even on the right.

On party aligned blogs it can be as interesting to note what they don’t post about as much as what they do post.

Kiwiblog, the only serious sizeable National friendly blog, has avoided discussing Bridges. In recent posts in a big news week for Bridges David Farrar mostly criticises the Governemt, and has mentioned other National MPs:

Constructive Opposition

The Herald reports:

Two Opposition MPs are proposing long-awaited changes to the law governing the $50 billion apartment sector, drafting an overhaul which they hope the Government will support.

Nikki Kaye, Auckland Central MP, and Judith Collins…

Jonathan Young on Greenpeace

New Plymouth MP Jonathan Young writes…

Farrar covers the Jami-Lee Ross story Ross on leave and mentions Bridges, but says nothing about the ‘very embarrassing’ comments or the flak that Bridges copped as a result.

I have looked back to 26 September to find a post featuring Bridges to any extent – Did the PM mislead the House – you decide – and that is largely an attack on Ardern.

I don’t really recall seeing anyone giving Bridges much if any praise (I did post about a rare better than ordinary performance in Question Time a few weeks ago).

Will Bridges recognise that he is failing to make headway and poses far more risk than benefit for National?

If he doesn’t, a change of leadership may depend on whether another National MP wants to take the risk of challenging to take on the bigger risk of being a first term Leader of the Opposition.

This may leave Bridges in the hot seat through until the election. That will pose a problem for National – not even under the popular leadership of John Key were National able to get enough votes to get over the election line on their own. This seems even more unlikely under Bridges’ leadership, especially with no potential coalition partners apart from the solitary Seymour.

If there is no change of leader National will be gambling on Labour (and Greens) being more unpopular than the staggering Bridges.

Signs that Government has lost composure

The Government has had quite a bad week or two, and their last month or two hasn’t looked that flash either.

Tracey Watkins details a number of ways the Government seems to have lost it’s composure in Housing solutions out of reach:

  • Ministers have fumbled the housing issue – badly. This week’s “announcement” about the Government forgoing Housing New Zealand dividends seemed particularly untidy.
  • The shine has come off some of its star performers, including Key’s personal favourite to succeed him, Paula Bennett. If housing is the Government’s achilles heel, it has become Bennett’s  bêête noire.
  • There are questions about whether Housing Minister Nick Smith – one of a dwindling number of faces from the last National government in the 1990s – is on borrowed time.
  • Ministers appear embroiled in an escalating war with the bean counters across the road at Treasury, rubbishing the advice of their paid boffins on everything from bowel cancer screening to the 90-day-trial period.
  • A $2 billion programme to renew the state housing stock, and let’s forgo the HNZ dividend while we’re at it? Pah, why not! Even if it’s not so long ago that Finance Minister Bill English was reminding everyone dividends were useful for imposing commercial discipline on Crown-owned entities. A view that is, by the way, as core to National ideology as saving the whales is to the Greens.

Watkins asks why the Government appears to be struggling so much.

National is certainly running hard up against the realities of a third term. The country’s problems are well and truly theirs to own, and fix. 

There are too many seemingly insoluble problems, like housing affordability, which lurches from bad to worse with every $50,000 hike in the median house price.

There’s no doubt that housing – too few houses, too much pricing – has become a major problem for the country and for the Government.

Even National will grudgingly admit to its own polling showing housing is ranked in the top “four or five” concerns of voters.

The aggrieved air with which Government ministers tick off the list of housing measures taken so far is a sign of mounting frustration that none of it appears to be penetrating – either in terms of curbing prices, or in shifting perceptions that the Government has done nothing.

The battery of measures rolled out so far includes more emergency housing, special housing areas, bigger first-home grants, freeing up surplus land, reforming the Resource Management Act, and tax rules to clamp down on foreign based buyers and speculators. The Reserve Bank did its bit, rolling out loan to value ratios that, perversely, only made it harder for first-home buyers to scrape up a deposit.

But nothing has worked.

I don’t think that’s a fair comment. Some things have worked a bit. But nothing is working well enough to get anywhere on top of the problem.

If there was a lack of urgency on the Government’s part previously that was understandable.

The wealth effect of rising house prices is well documented. Kiwis have been back to their old tricks, spending up large on the mortgage. That doesn’t just give the economy a tick, there’s a big feel-good factor as well.

But prices are now so out of whack with reality that the risk of an economic shock could easily be sheeted back to this Government.

National are already suffering from their ineffective handling of housing issues. If there’s a house price crash before the next election voters are likely to give the incumbent Government a double whammy at the polls.

And housing isn’t the only growing problem.

Booming immigration courts a backlash on two fronts: jobs and housing.

Immigration is an issue that is being cynically stoked and deliberately inflamed by opposition parties.

And there’s bigger problems looming with growing threats of an anti-Muslim backlash due to international terrorism and ‘tough talk’ from people like Donald Trump.

Can a tiring and jaded looking Government turn any of this around? Currently it is looking unlikely.

Journalists blame polls for their wrong guesses

This may seen repetitive, but again polls have been blamed for being wrong over the Australian election and for predicting the outcome incorrectly, this time by political journalist Tracey Watkins at Stuff, who should know better.


And journalists shouldn’t report on polls as if they are supposed to be predictors. Polls and pollsters should not be trying to predict unknown votes in the future.

In Lessons for Key in Australian election? Watkins wrote:

Australia has been plunged into political turmoil, its election result in the balance, Aussie prime minister Malcolm Turnbull fighting for his political survival. Sound familiar?  

Whether it’s Britain, the United States, and now Australia, voters are defying convention, the expert predictions, and even the polls.

Voters may well have defied the polls (whether voters are effectively telling both politicians and polls to get stuffed is another issue) but mentions the polls alongside ‘expert predictions’ when they are totally different things. Or they should be different things.

But a chill must have passed down John Key’s spine all the same.

If New Zealand follows the new world order he could be out of a job little more than a year from now.

Of course, the polls all say otherwise and Labour is hardly looking threatening. And yet.

The polls don’t say anything about how people may vote in over a year. They try to measure opinion accurately at the time they are taken, and by the time they are published that is always in the past.

And polls have known margins of error and even those have a lack of confidence in being 100% approximately accurate. They have a statistical 1 in 20 chance of being further askew.

The polls predicted Britain’s Brexit vote would go the other way.

The polls didn’t predict the Brexit vote incorrectly, they didn’t predict anything.

It is journalists and pundits who use polls to try to predict election outcomes. This is lazy and it is prone to a much higher margin of error than statistical polls.

And when journalists and pundits get their predictions wrong they blame the polls.

They are using polls as scapegoats for their own failings if they are themselves trying to predict the outcome of an election or referendum.

Polls may give us a useful indication of trends in public opinion, but the closer you get to an election the greater the chance of polls being seen to ‘get it wrong’.

Polls don’t and can’t measure the opinion of ‘undecideds’. Which way undecideds vote can swing markedly in the weeks and even days leading up to an election. Polls are too slow to reflect significant late changes and are looking back anyway, not forward.

Understanding how polling works is basic stuff that political journalists should understand. But they are either ignorant of polling 101, or they choose to misuse polls.

Take a Financial Times Brexit poll of polls as an example of what they polls are telling us and what they aren’t telling us.


Some journalists may take that as a prediction of the referendum result but 48-46 is nowhere near as precise as it may appear.

Combined polls like this are usually weighted to give greater prominence to more recent polls but even those are already history. Opinions may have moved on already and often will have.

48 versus 46 in a poll doesn’t actually mean 48 versus 46. There are a number of inaccuracies.

  • It is rounded, so 48 could be anywhere from 47.51 to 48.49 and 46 could be anywhere from 45.51 to 46.49.
  • Typical margins of error are 3-4 % so 48 plus margins of error mean it could be anywhere between 44% to 52%, and 46 could mean 42-50%
  • Add the rounding and 48 could be 43.51% to 52.49%, 46 could be 41.51% to 50.49%.
  • Statistically there’s a 1 in 20 chance those results could be more inaccurate.
  • There could be typically up to 10% or more of ‘undecided’ and ‘refused to say’ responses.
  • Opinions could and often do change the closer you get to an election.

And this shows that some people vote tactically (differently to what they want), so may vote differently to what they would tell a pollster.

And there may be some people who deliberately give pollsters false opinions as a form of protest at polls or politicians.

Polls have known inaccuracies – and these are significant when opinion is evenly divided. And  they don’t predict election results.

Some journalists try to predict election results – and either ignorantly or deliberately blame polls for their inaccuracies.

In depth reporting during Parliamentary recess?

Some response to Tracy Watkins’ suggestion for opposition parties as posted here:   A recess challenge for Labour.

Fox is the hard working Maori Party list MP.

Ditto, and I reckon most of us will be. Kind of a strange column. Must invite Tracey to spend a recess week with me.
My reading of it is not so much MPs not working, but MPs not keeping media attention.

I think this is a very good point from Robertson.

Instead of journalists writing columns about what they think politicians and parties should be doing perhaps that time would be better spent investigating and reporting on what Members of Parliament are actually doing.

Most MPs work very hard. Some seek and get media attention, and that is not necessarily the hard workers, and it is not necessarily the meritorious work being reported on.

Take this column from Claire Trevett yesterday in Small parties under pump as polls loom:

There is precious little oxygen in the rarefied atmosphere inhabited by Government support parties. If evidence was needed it came this week when Dunne tried to remind people of his existence by issuing a press statement setting out the three policy themes he would be focusing on in the lead-up to the 2017 election.

The themes were: an economy that provides fairness, choice and opportunity; establishing core environmental bottom lines; and embracing and celebrating a modern, multi-cultural New ZZZZZzzzzzzzzzz.

It was effectively a campaign launch. It fell with the impact of a feather.

Dunne didn’t defame an opponent, he didn’t stoke up racial or ethnic intolerance, he didn’t say something quietly to a reporter who told another reporter who made it into a major story about a Minister.

MPs who quietly and diligently do their jobs without providing sound bites and click bait for media don’t only get ignored most of the time, they get criticised for being boring.

Going back to what Watkins wrote, it seems she wants opposition parties to provide political media with some headlines during a quiet time, a Parliamentary recess.

I agree with Robertson, more in depth would help a lot, but journalists seem averse to doing the boring hard work that is required to inform the public of what is really going on.

“Dangerous territory for Little”

Andrew Little’s insinuations of impropriety that implicate the Scenic Hotels company and Niue resort trust and board members have ventured into dangerous territory according to Tracey Watkins in Smoke and fire or smoke and mirrors?

Little is right when he says that it is his role as Opposition leader to ask questions when a big political donor is awarded Government contracts.

But suggesting it “stinks to high heaven” takes things to a different level.

Even if there hadn’t been a number of steps between the minister and the decision to award the contract, Little’s claim appears to rest on the assumption that everyone involved in the process – from senior diplomats, to government agencies and senior politicians – was either swayed by the donation, or leaned on by the minister.

In the absence of a whistle blower, or any documentation, leaked emails or other evidence so far to support that view, that’s a pretty serious accusation. Seemingly, it relies solely on the fact that Hagaman donated money to the National Party.

This is dangerous territory for Little.

Directly getting involved in dirty politics – making serious insinuations but having little or no evidence of impropriety – might have been standard tactics for a blogger but is dangerous territory for a major party leader.

Political donations are a murky area and it is easy to score quick political hits off those who make them. The number of donors appearing in the yearly list of knights and dames makes most of us cynical about both regimes. So too the number of corporates who regularly show up as political donors. People would more likely believe in the tooth fairy than think you can get something for nothing, particularly from politicians. So suspicion, particularly about policies benefiting party donors, is healthy.

For sure.

But our donations regime is at least more transparent than it once was. If anything, the Hagaman donation proves the disclosure regime is working as intended.

Little hasn’t revealed any political secrets, he has pointed out two publicly known dots and suggested they are joined.

So Little was right to ask the question but wrong to leap to judgement before the Auditor General decides even whether to take a look.

If every big donation is going to be decried as dodgy there seem to be only two alternatives – either barring donors from tendering for Government contracts, which is probably unworkable, or a fully state funded regime, which is where the first option ultimately leads anyway, given the inevitable drying up of campaign funds.

But State funding opens a whole other can of worms, one that comes at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to taxpayers.

It’s also just as likely to become a football and just as open to abuse.

Anyone who doubts that should cast their mind back to the Labour pledge card scandal of a few years back.

Which is the other problem with where Little may be going.

The public’s suspicion about wealthy donors is probably only rivalled by their scepticism over politicians putting their hands out for more money.

So what were the reasons for Little’s attack?

Was it an attempt to scare donors away from  National?

Is it a sign that Labour are struggling to get donations from companies so don’t care about scaring them off political donations?

Or was it just an attempted political hit job? To try and plant seeds of bad political perceptions? Or a gamble, hoping that something might be flushed out of the woodwork?

Politics getting too nasty

In Political Week Tracey Watkins asks Max Key cyberbullying a sign that politics is getting too nasty?

It’s one of many signs. You only need to look at political pages on Facebook, Twitter and political blogs like Kiwiblog, The Standard and Whale Oil to see that signs have been growing for years.

Politics was already too nasty. It’s just being allowed to get nastier.

Is politics getting nastier? Prime Minister John Key talked about his concern this week after son Max revealed some of the ugly abuse he has copped on social media.

Some have dismissed this because ‘Key is nasty’ and because Key used to associate with Cameron Slater etc etc. But that is a poor excuse for others being nasty.

It’s a symptom of our increasingly hard-edged politics. Yes, we’ve seen it before – during Helen Clark’s tenure the hatred got just as ugly, personal and visceral towards the end.

Nastiness towards Clark may have abated a bit but I’ve seen plenty of it continuing at Kiwiblog over recent years.

But in general the opportunity for nastiness to be seen has increased substantially since 2008.

When Helen Clark was prime minister an ugly rumour or meme may have been shared among a comparatively small circle. The internet has exploded since then and smartphones make us connected in a way we have never been before, amplifying and exaggerating everything

So while back in Clark’s day the memes and personal attacks were circulated mostly among those who held roughly similar political views, the potential audience these days is exponentially huge and politically indiscriminate.

And as people get away with nastiness and aren’t challenged on it then it increases.

One meme apparently doing the rounds on Facebook, for instance, has Key standing in front of a flag bearing a silver fern which slowly morphs into a ponytail.

That nastiness it not just directed at Key personally, it is dirty politics thrown at the flag referendum and at all those who want a clean flag choice.

It has always been seen as something of a truism that personal attacks boomerang in New Zealand politics because the public find them so distasteful. We saw that to an extent at the last election when a concerted assault on Key by his opponents – while not personal in its nature – ultimately fuelled a backlash that helped propel National back into power.

But those who think dirty politics might achieve something keep trying it. Or else they don’t car and just like being nasty.

The big question has been whether social media and its massive reach in some way tips that thinking on its head.

That is still unanswered.

A major problem is that our top politicians appear to act nastily towards each other in Parliament and vie media.

So plebs in social media take that as a signal that dirty politics is normal and an acceptable part of democracy.

To stem the nastiness our leaders need to send different, strong signals. So should our leading political blogs and prominent social media participants.

The nastiness in our politics can be stemmed and turned around, but it will require leadership and determination.

Nastiness will never be eliminated, but it should be seen as negative and unwelcome in a healthy democracy.

Attacks may reduce public access

Tracey Watkins at Stuff points out the obvious – if angry people keep physically attacking politicians and their (our) property the public will probably have less access to our MPs.

It already happens to an extent – a couple of years ago I could just walk in to one of my local MP’s office, now they have to keep it locked even when someone is there because of protester behaviour (that recently included graffiti attacks).

Watkins reminds of the obvious in Politicians are people too and warns of “a black day for everyone” if safety means less public access to our politicians.

But suddenly it’s no longer enough to talk. People feel compelled to chuck stuff at our pollies to make a point. Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce copped a dildo in the face. Gerry Brownlee got a load of brown stuff tipped over his head. Even Key got a faceful of glitter.

Funny? Not really. It’s nasty, it could eventually get dangerous and no matter what your politics no politician deserves to be hated so much it’s okay to throw stuff at them. They’re not cartoon characters, they are real people. Heckle them, ear bash them, vote against them. But in every day life it’s not normal to biff something at people just because we disagree with them.

Of course it’s not new to chuck stuff at politicians. ACT MP John Boscawen wore a lamington on his head. Don Brash had mud biffed at him at Waitangi. Former finance minister Sir Michael Cullen had eggs thrown at him by a bunch of angry West Coasters.  And former ACT leader John Banks had some particularly nasty stuff thrown his way.

But in today’s heightened security awareness, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the latest incidents will force a rethink about the ease with which the public can access our politicians. And that would be a black day for everyone, MPs and public alike.

It’s good to see that some journalists are now recognising the potential problems of dangerous behaviour that media coverage might encourage.

An all out light bulb campaign?

Tracey Watkins seems to think that truth doesn’t matter, all that’s important is getting dirt to stick.

National’s health and safety legislation its lightbulb moment

National’s health and safety legislation has turned into a running gag and political liability on the scale of Labour’s fart tax, and lightbulb ban.

And frankly, after the worm farm debacle, people will believe the worst.

Labour was swept out of power in 2008 on the back of a backlash against measures perceived as “nanny state”, some of which were equal parts myth.

There are no signs in the latest polls of National being swept anywhere. But when the rot starts setting in it is often over the small things, like school playgrounds, rather than the big things.

The health and safety legislation was borne out of the best of intentions in the wake of the Pike River mining disaster.

But politics have intervened.

It has become a runnimg gag because media are running the gag for the Opposition.

The Opposition are hardly innocent of playing politics with the issue, of course – but they are just doing what Opposition parties do best, and making hay while the sun shines.

Time will tell whether the latest attempts to damage Key and National have been successful or not.

The gags keep coming.

School playgrounds – some people believe they the next victims of the health and safety legislation.

“Some people believe” meaning Labour MPs and their allies in the education  sector are doing their best to make people believe them.

It no longer matters whether it is true or not that school playgrounds will have to close thanks to the Government’s health and safety laws.

Or whether it is true that school camps will be banned, outdoor games are under threat, or that people will have to wear a harness while using a ladder.

It’s enough that people believe it.

That’s a terrible commentary on how our politics and media works.

As for the legislation banning bullrush or school play grounds as claimed on Wednesday? A Google search suggests this is hardly the first time the Bullrush shroud has been waved.

It seems to have been banned many times over the years in response to various laws or legal precedents.

As for school camps, they were already under scrutiny after the deaths of an instructor and two pupils who drowned off New Plymouth’s Paritutu Rock while taking part in an outdoor education centre programme.

The Outdoor Education Centre was found liable and ordered to pay almost $270,000 in reparations – enough to make any school nervous about their liability in the event of another tragedy.

But National will carry the can regardless. Because the legislation is now seen as so flawed, any claim will stick

The voting and polled public have been proved wrong time and time again during the seven years of the Key Government.

There are no signs in the latest polls of National being swept anywhere. But when the rot starts setting in it is often over the small things, like school playgrounds, rather than the big things.

Labour’s strategy seems to be based on finding and promoting the small thing that breaks National’s hold on power.

Buit there’s a major problem with this. National’s support keeps holding up despite many embarassments and hiccups = because the alternative is seen as a worse option.

Labour have quite a way to go to make national seem worse than Labour. Especially if they keep lowering the standard.

For every Natiomal light bulb moment Labour highlight they keep showing they don’t have any idea how to turn the power on their own.