• Will He, Won’t He?

    While much of the country is focused on the Rugby World Cup, there is at least one group of people with a quite different contest at the top of their minds.

    With less than six weeks till the general election, the campaign managers for the major parties will be scanning the horizon for opportunities to advance their cause. While much that will be thrown up by the news stories over that period is unpredictable, other events are already well established in the calendar. Plans will be already well advanced to squeeze every last drop of political advantage from each of them.

    That work – as I know from my own experience of election campaign management – will have been going on throughout the World Cup tournament. The Prime Minister’s campaign team, during what John Key laughingly described as an election-free zone, has most reason to feel pleased with what they have achieved over this period.

    The rugby has provided not only a feel-good factor, but also a number of photo opportunities for the Prime Minister to confirm his role as the nation’s cheerleader. Not everything, though, has gone his way.

    The NRL Grand Final did not quite deliver the triumphant climax that the Prime Minister’s trip to Sydney demanded. And there have been difficult moments; the bungled attempt to put words in the mouths of Standard and Poor’s on the credit downgrade did not play well, and the public concern about the apparently ineffectual response to the Rena disaster must be placed on the debit side.

    The government has, not without reason, argued that the Rena is an operational matter, and is the responsibility of the appropriate authorities. The problem is, however, that a Prime Minister who succeeds in basking in the reflected glory of things that go well will sometimes find it difficult to skip away from those things that go badly.

    The campaign team will have been pleased, though, at their success in shifting the blame for the World Cup opening night transport fiasco on to Auckland local government; and they will now without doubt be eyeing up the possibilities presented by what we all hope will be a triumph on Sunday night.

    The stakes here for the campaign team will be high, and warrant a big play. But so will the risks if they get it wrong.

    They will be encouraged by an earlier success in the World Cup scenario. The match against Japan at Waikato Stadium presented an entirely appropriate occasion to recognise – through a minute’s silence – the terrible natural disasters suffered by both countries this year.

    It also allowed the Prime Minister, accompanied by the Japanese Deputy Prime Minister who may or may not have been aware of his supporting role in the drama, to walk on to the field and – having been unable to resist a cheery wave to the crowd as he did so – then be televised standing next to Richie McCaw and the All Blacks as the national anthems were sung. Of such moments are successful election campaigns made.

    But Sunday night is a different proposition altogether. There is, after all, a precedent, and one which will tempt the Prime Minister’s team greatly.

    Many people will remember the 1995 World Cup final in South Africa. The most enduring memory of that occasion is not necessarily Joel Stransky’s drop goal that won the match in extra time, but the appearance of Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok shirt, to greet the South African players and wish them well.

    The moment was full of symbolism. Here was the father of the nation, the newly elected President of the whole of South Africa, the man who had represented through a lifetime of sacrifice the ultimately successful struggle against apartheid, wearing a uniform that symbolised for most South Africans the hated minority that had oppressed them for so long.

    It was confirmation of the great generosity of spirit of the man that Nelson Mandela should choose to signal to his supporters in this way that South Africa was now one country – the rainbow nation. Here was one of the greatest men of the century showing huge magnanimity to his former oppressors and leading his new-born country to a new future.

    Does John Key dare to emulate this example? Would the NZRU and the All Black management play ball? Would the television companies cooperate? Is a politician seeking votes quite the same thing as a Head of State celebrating and confirming the birth of a new nation which he had brought into being? Nelson Mandela was after all giving something of himself to the Springboks and his country, not expecting to get some benefit for himself.

    These are the questions the campaign team will be agonising over. There will of course be thousands of supporters wearing the All Black jersey to signify their support on Sunday night. Why shouldn’t the Prime Minister do likewise? But how far can he push it? There will be more than one issue to be decided on Sunday night.

    Bryan Gould

    18 October 2011