Infighting

Everyone knows that dumping on your friends is seriously uncool. It can be kind of fun to call your friends names behind their backs, but it almost always comes back and bites you in the bum.

As with social groups, as with politics. “Infighting, instability etc do far more to damage a party than almost any policy issue”, reckons David Farrar, in his infinite wisdom. Under MMP, your political “social circles” get a bit wider. It’s not just at your own parties that you have to “play nice”. You also have to be civil when you go to parties at other people’s houses. That’s because the media have widened the definition of infighting to include not just MPs from the same parties saying mean things about each other but also MPs from the same ideological blocs doing so.

Back in the day, people said that political parties who couldn’t get their own houses in order were unelectable because “you wouldn’t give someone who can’t throw a good party the keys to the boardroom”. Now, the same is said of ideological blocs. So, the danger of the Greens criticising Labour too much, or Act criticising National too much, is that voters will think, “They hate each other’s guts! How could Rodney and Gerry possibly sit down for fish and chips and chat about how much to slash taxes when Gerry’s thinking about every joke Rodney’s told at his expense?”

So, when our fearless leaders criticised Labour in conference speeches (audio here and here) last month, it was news (here and here). The commentariat nodded sagely at the political logic of the criticism, but suggested the Greens would have to be careful not to overstep the rhetorical mark. In other words, Watch your mouths!

This weekend, it was Act’s turn to put the smackdown on National in conference speeches (here and here), the culmination of a “bag the Nats” strategy pursued enthusiastically for the past three weeks. You can understand why. It must be much more fun making jokes about the intelligence of the people you want to work with than constantly repeating the words “freedom”, “tax”, and “private property rights”.

But Act’s strategy of dissing National has been of a completely different order to what the Greens offered up. So, how’s about we play a wee game of compare and contrast?

The Greens’ fieriest criticism of Labour has been that its policies have failed to deliver to many of its core constituencies.

1. In Jeanette’s Campaign Conference speech

The Fifth Labour Government was supposed to be the dawn of a more compassionate, more egalitarian, more inclusive age. And, for a time, it was. But now, when Don Brash attacks Maori or beneficiaries, Labour doesn’t stand up for them. Labour acquiesces in Brash’s mean-spirited vision for New Zealand and rushes to amend its own policies accordingly … Labour came into government with a heart, a soul and a social conscience. Five years of poll-driven politics have drained it of all three. Only the Greens can re-inject the spirit of the millennium and the vision of a fairer, gentler, cleaner society into what has become a tired, rudderless government.

2. In Rod’s Campaign Conference speech

In 1967, Norman Kirk said “unemployment is as economically wasteful and it is socially unjust? … Kirk must be spinning in his grave. He believed that “the principal function of a government must be to ensure social and economic justice for all families, to protect their physical security and wellbeing in such a way as to assist parents to achieve an independent, secure and happy family life? … Leaving aside the dated language, I share Norman Kirk’s values, and I am sure most New Zealanders still do too. How does the current Labour Government measure up to Kirk’s values?

ACT’s heaviest fire has rained down on National and its leadership in the form of cheap personal jibes and decidedly unfunny jokes.

1. In Richard Prebble’s Letter from Wellington

Don Brash has not said a word in Parliament for two weeks … It appears Brash has lost control of his caucus. He is clearly not leading it … Senior National MPs do not appear to realise that this is an election year. If they continue to undermine Brash the electoral consequences will be devastating.

2. In ACT President Catherine Judd’s conference speech

We’ve tried very hard to get along and be a helpful, supportive partner. But the constant rejections and slaps in the face have taken their toll. We have been feeling a bit like a battered spouse. The National spokesman for bashing ACT [Gerry Brownlee] has been charged with throwing us down the electoral staircase. We’re not too worried about that though. Let’s face it, Gerry is not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.

So, we like to play the ball; Act prefers the person running with the ball. The Act approach is perhaps more likely to get lavish media coverage, but at what cost? Don’t the personal jibes make it harder for voters to imagine a well-functioning government in which the non-bright bulb Brownlee is sitting around a Cabinet table with the smart alec Hide?

Why hasn’t the media made more of Act’s cheap shots? Were the Greens to do likewise with Labour, there would be countless headlines and columns claiming a Labour-Green government would be impossible, the personality and ideological clashes involved too toxic to work. Act, because of Prebble and Hide’s reputation for populist lashings of invective, have more latitude to foam at the mouth with personal attacks. Never mind: we’ll leave them to play in the gutter.

Predictably, the Brownlee bulb gag has the blogosphere aflutter. Jordan Carter opines:

the two parties of the centre-right are more concerned with beating their chests at each other than they are with getting on and convincing the public that they are actually capable of working together in the interests of New Zealand.

Spanblather offers:

there is considerable conflict between [ACT and National] party members at all levels. The current public bickering isn’t helping. They still look like rivals, not complementary partners, and they are running out of time to change their approach…

So, when it comes to post-election courting, which couple has the best chance of getting beyond the first date?