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Election 1999: Much Needed Humour Enters Campaign

As the official Halloween campaign launch days - for both Labour and National - approach, polls show a tightening gap between the two major parties. And finally, as we pass the half way mark of the campaign, some much needed humour (intentional or otherwise) is being injected. Jonathan Hill writes.

A true gem in the election campaign to date came this week with the hilarious announcement from Winston Peters that he favours the introduction of compulsory military service for all 18 year old males - because, get this, they need the discipline. Recognising a super idea when they see one, the McGillicudy Serious Party promptly came out in support of the idea, saying that while it wasn't one of their firm party policies they would be happy to work towards it as part of a future coalition government. Winston will be rapt.

Peters made the announcement, surprise, surprise, to a meeting of superannuatants. It shows, if nothing else, to what extremes he is prepared to go to secure this priceless block of voters.

With the war on between NZ First and the Alliance for the elderly constituant Jim Anderton must be scratching his head in bewilderment and wondering what he can possibly counter with. One-upmanship has overnight become virtually impossible in this battle.

National provided the rest of week five's humour with their appallingly camouflaged 'No Crap Youth Internet Site'. With no National Party logo or any attribution at all to the National Party the site tries to crack some funnies about every parliamentary party. Except National.

I was going to include some examples of the site's 'party guide' and the 'humour section' as well but it is all just way too lame. See it yourself at www.nocrap.org.nz if you must.

Manned by 'The Crew' the site tries embarrassingly hard to be cool, hip and Gen-X. It fails badly and, in response to complaints about the site trying to pass itself off as neutral, National's campaign director Jeff Grant hinted at why. Grant told the Dominion the site was not identified as belonging to National because it was designed "to appeal to young people". So National automatically turns off young people?

If this site is what National think young people want then there is no surprises there. They are clearly very out of touch with their target market. The site is called No Crap. That couldn't be further from the truth.

National was roundly snubbed again by young people this week when the party - now well into election mode - brought forward some changes to the student loan scheme, including interest reductions while studying and repayment adjustments. The move has been widely condemned as cynical by students and their associations.

Student leaders noted that National have had seven years to tinker with the loan scheme and have done nothing other than place their weight fully behind the scheme. Now with tertiary education looking like an issue which is likely to get traction this election, National make changes a month out in an effort to take the sting out of the opposition.

But in terms of electioneering in the campaign to date this move comes a distant third to Winston Peters' compulsory military service plans and ACT's populist 'out with the Treaty' policy.

Both of these policies have a characteristic which is beginning to appear increasingly in the smaller MMP parties. The beauty is that because a number of these parties lack any other support, they can introduce all sorts of policies without running the risk of having their bluff called and having to try to implement them. In the meantime however they can, and are, being used to hoodwink voters.

Tertiary Education Minister Max Bradford is now cancelling invitations to address university students and his visit to Rotorua Polytech this week went down poorly. He was heckled vigorously and students eventually left, leaving a lonely-looking Bradford with only his, now tired, retort that "The Alliance Rent A Mob" is responsible for students' displeasure.

It is not a particularly good look for a government in the middle of an election campaign when a tertiary minister cannot attend tertiary institutions and be treated civilly.

Meanwhile, even though the campaign proper is yet to begin - National and Labour supporters will both be blowing up balloons for Halloween - the promises are really starting to flow now and the money is starting to fly.

Early in the week National announced an extra $175 million to upgrade health services, heading off a later announcement from Labour of a whopping $825 million extra for public health over the next three years. Some of this funding is to come from scrapping the HFA, but Health Minister Wyatt Creech is continuing to claim Labour cannot afford their promises.

Thursday's Pre Election Fiscal and Economic Update shows the economy doing reasonably well, aside from a huge projected trade deficit, and it seems likely now that with the forecasted surpluses and Labour's increase in the top tax rate, both Labour and National will be able to fully cost and above all afford their election pledges. So far.

Labour made some mileage out of the report into the disastrous INCIS police computer project which was released this week, but the gloss of their major health policy launch was tarnished by the outcome of a legal action against their leader Helen Clark.

In the Wellington Courts Clark settled a defamation action against a surgeon who she incorrectly accused of malpractice in August. Her lawyer read a lengthy and unconditional apology and retraction to the surgeon on Clark's behalf and it has been reported that a sum of money was also paid. National made a great deal out of the ordeal, saying Clark's credibility was compromised, and the comprehensive media coverage of the incident has been more bad news for Labour. Especially damaging at a time when Jenny Shipley's popularity is soaring.

Clark was also looking on shaky ground when she complained that she had not been invited onto Crossfire and said Colmar Brunton Polls were usually better for the right.

ACT are claiming as a personal victory that the radio frequency auction, which had previously been on hold, is to go ahead and that there are to be no specific bands set aside for Maori. Both the government and ACT have come out strongly saying that the FM bands could not be classified as a Taonga as they were unknown to Maori when the Treaty was signed.

Thus far the fact that this has very little to do with the legal arguments involved has escaped most participants notice and, surprisingly, even the Labour Party's.

The most disappointing news of the week is that 340,000 Kiwis have still not bothered to enrol to vote and they are fast running out of time. Enrolments must be posted or completed at a Post Shop by Wednesday October 27 or by calling 0800 36 76 56 if you are to appear on the electoral roll.

People will then have up to and including the day before polling day to enrol to cast a special vote.

Around 87 per cent of Kiwis have enrolled to vote but 13 per cent of the population could have a massive bearing on the outcome of this election. The low voter turnout will likely be to the detriment of the minor parties.

Another deadline which is fast approaching is the cut off date for the printing of the voting ballot forms on November 3. If any electoral accommodations are to be made with candidates withdrawing their name from the ballot sheets it will have to be before then.

It looks unlikely that this will be much of an issue though. The Alliance's Phillida Bunkle is continuing to get a hard time in Wellington Central over her commitment to stay in the race against Richard Prebble.

The Alliance must be concerned that withdrawing Bunkle would be unpopular with Alliance supporters nation-wide and could further erode their fragile party support base. However the option of continuing to run and aiding a Prebble victory must be of equal if not more concern.

The Alliance need a way to withdraw Bunkle while still claiming the moral high ground. The question is if you do it once in one seat, why not again in another? The seat of Coromandel being the likely second scenario. One way out for Bunkle and the Alliance would be to try and negotiate a deal with Labour whereby Bunkle steps aside in Wellington Central in exchange for Labour endorsing Jeanette Fitzsimons or stepping aside in the Coromandel.

Although Fitzsimons doesn't want any cross party help in the seat the move would give credibility to both Bunkle and the Alliance and strengthen their commitment, in the eyes of the public, to a change of government and centre-left coalition. The left right now need the help of the Greens who in the latest NBR Poll reached their highest polling of 3.6 per cent. Labour could offer them some support easily, and it would do the Alliance great credit to be seen to broker the deal - if any deal was to be had.

The Alliance need to show the public they are not being heavied by Labour. And, as Labour would be crazy not to entertain such an accommodation eventually during the campaign - especially if it is a close run thing - then the Alliance could gain through publicly masterminding such a potentailly pivotal deal.

With Winston Peters consistently holding the balance of power in the polls it would be a major coup for Labour if they could get by with Green support instead of NZ First's.

The announcement of 400 jobs being lost in the Bendon withdrawal from New Zealand was bad news in terms of timing for the government, and we can expect to see this closure referred to throughout the campaign - if only because underwear rates, as proved in Tukugate. The Alliance are likely to make the most noise about it as they are the only party assured of a seat in Parliament who are actually advocating the imposition of tariffs.

Winston Peters took his customary swipe at the media this week, everyone attacked everyone as per usual - and the billboards are now up (with some coming down just as fast). This mid-way stage of the campaign has been rather mundane as parties gear up for the last two or three weeks when the all out assault on voters hearts and minds will be in high gear.

Feedback to jonathan@scoop.co.nz -

- This weekly Election 1999 column is available for syndication to print and internet media.... please credit www.Scoop.co.nz


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