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Steve Braunias’ Campaign Diary: Day 13

Steve Braunias’ Campaign Diary: Day 13

Sep 18, 2014 Politics

DAY THIRTEEN: IN WHICH LABOUR LEADER DAVID CUNLIFFE SAYS IT’S NOT A QUESTION OF STEAK OR LAMB CHOPS – AND OFFERS THE NATION “A FULL MENU”

Illustration by Joshua Drummond.

 

Election 2014 reduced to a running time of 00:25:12 for episode four of the leaders’ debate last night on TV1 at 7pm! It was a game of one half. Prime Minister John Key said that he just wasn’t into sitting through another hour-long debate; a commercial half-hour he could do, time was money, you have to be careful what you say and so the less time to say things the better, anyway gotta rush, hooroo mate. Did it work? Did he win? Who won? Won what? What just happened? It was all over so quickly but like an accident it seemed to happen in… slow… motion.

The two bionic men, those supremely manicured cyborgs, were as cumbersome as Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man. We can rebuild them! You connect this wire to that wire and pass the soldering iron. Which meant Mike Hosking was Oscar Goldman, a role he was in fact born to play – a lean and hungry weird dude at the centre of things, he could do that blindfolded.

The TV studio was down one end of a hall at TVNZ and ladies and gentlemen of the press were shown into a room at the end of another hall. A man called Brent from corporate affairs said to help yourselves from a platter including salami, pastrami, grapes, cheese and some bread things. Thank you. It sufficed. But it seemed more than reasonable to ask if there was also cake. “There’s pineapple,” came the reply. But pineapple ought really to be defined as savoury, not sweet; the fact of the matter is that TVNZ were somewhat lacking in hospitality, and there was also hardly any beers, bro.

That most rare commodity at TVNZ was about to begin – a television programme devoted to current affairs and that.

That was good with Lloyd Burr from Radio Live. “Beer,” he announced, “gives me gout.” Party like a journalist! But there was no more time for talk of inflammatory arthritis or the semantics of tropical fruit. That most rare commodity at TVNZ was about to begin – a television programme devoted to current affairs and that. O episode four, as described online over at TVNZ On Demand!

Hosking appeared onscreen in front of an ugly set with whooshing lights in greens and yellows and blues and reds. He got right down to it and his two guests came out swinging in slow bionic arcs. It was a fight between good and evil, between steak and lamb chops.

“It’s as simple as this,” Key said, and as soon as the words came out of his mouth you knew it wasn’t going to be simple and in fact wouldn’t make a lick of sense. “If you were to have steak for dinner tonight, go into a supermarket or your butcher and buy steak. Don’t buy a lamb chop. Go in there and buy steak.”

Hosking gaped. He looked more than ever like Oscar Goldman. There was a voice bubble above his head. It read, “John has suffered some kind of mechanical fault.” The three men sat around a small low round table on bar stools. Key was hunched over and his feet barely touched the rung thing of the stool. Little old man, 53 – “I’m quite young!” he claimed, but he didn’t look it, with his bad posture and his feeble mind, raving on about steak and such.

The steak was a metaphor for a “strong and stable government”. Labour were like a raw chop or something. Cunliffe smiled the smile of a man who had other things on his mind. He sat tall with a ramrod back and – hey, what’s that, catching the light? There, above his eyebrow. Yes, there, the left eye. It looked like… it was, wasn’t it?… yes! The dude wore a scar.

A scar, dashing and piratical, curling over his eyebrow like a souvenir of a skirmish involving a sword or something. You should see the other guy! Strange that the polls show Cunliffe’s support among men is low. Taller than Key… stronger, faster… he’d fuck him up if it came down to a real fight.

“You’ve had your turn,” he commanded Key, “and now it’s my turn.” Key slumped in his chair, gave in. Cunliffe went into the four leaders debates fully prepared with documents, with charts, with figures, with briefing papers, with hard data – before last night’s performance, he sat in a green room at TVNZ with three advisors and they thrashed out strategies and approaches. But the best thing to come out of it was that he went into the debate with a couple of lines that might count as zingers.

Zinger one: “National and their rag-tag of right-wing weirdos.” Good line!

Zinger two: “Act is a brand that National runs for policy they won’t put their name to. That’s the purpose of Act.” Okay so it lacked a certain zing. But as a brief summary of known facts, it was hard to beat.

Take that, Key! What have you got? What have you got? More steak? Cunliffe improvised. Improvised! God almighty! It had come to this. He said, “I’d love for working families to be able to buy steak or lamb chops, but the reality is they can’t afford mince.”

Zing! Sort of. Key! What have you got? Anything? Something? Yes. Hosking wanted to know about the extent of the Prime Minister’s knowledge about spying networks in New Zealand, and asked, “How much do you actually know what’s going on?”

Key replied, “Aww, a fair bit.”

Key can do that chat better than anyone not wearing a black top with Adidas stripes on it.

A fair bit! Key’s flair for the blithe and casual aside is without parallel in public life, but it’s an exact match for the dialogue that most informs and influences the New Zealand way of thinking – the post-match All Black interview. Brief, laconic, meaningless and good-natured, the familiar answers of McCaw and co seep into the collective mind, and shape the national chat. Key can do that chat better than anyone not wearing a black top with Adidas stripes on it.

Cunliffe’s scar throbbed under the television lights. He would never beat Key in armed zinger combat. The old man had it all over the buccaneering pirate there. But Cunliffe had his opponent for size and manliness, and looked more than ever like a Prime Minister in waiting. Key said he offered New Zealand more of the same with added cusp. Cunliffe said he offered New Zealand something better than what they have, and added an audacious PS: “I know Winston Peters to be a person who is serious.”

 

A long September. The days go by so fast, and so does 00:25:12. When the debate finished, the ladies and gentlemen of the press waited in the TVNZ newsroom for Cunliffe and Key to come out for a stand-up. Hosking walked by. Oscar Goldman’s job was done. Simon Dallow walked by, and then One News political editor Corin Dann arrived.

“Hello, Liam,” said Steve Braunias’ Campaign Diary: Day 13.

“No, that’s my brother who writes for the Herald who you’re thinking of,” he said.

“Hello, Corin,” said Steve Braunias’ Campaign Diary: Day 13.

“Hello,” he said.

And then Cunliffe arrived. He was asked what he thought about the moment Key patted his arm during the debate. He said, “I didn’t notice the caress.”

The caress! Lyricism in the TVNZ newsroom. Sources, reliable sources, say this has never previously occurred.

It took Steve Braunias’ Campaign Diary: Day 13 to put the question everyone actually wanted to be asked: “What is it, Mr Cunliffe, steak or lamb chops?”

Cunliffe’s style at the stand-up is to stare directly at the camera. He ignores his questioners; it’s not normal, but he keeps the gaze firm and steady. He kept the gaze firm and steady even as Liam Dann – sorry, Corin Dann – started shouting at him. Dann! So meek and so mild whenever he crosses live from Parliament with his reports about someone said this on one hand and someone said that on the other hand. But now he wanted to know, he really wanted to know, what Cunliffe’s position was on whether he would rule out a confidence and supply thing with the Internet Mana Party. He hollered, he yelled, his tone was bitter and demanding. Dann! Dann, The Man.

But it took Steve Braunias’ Campaign Diary: Day 13 to put the question everyone actually wanted to be asked: “What is it, Mr Cunliffe, steak or lamb chops?”

He replied: “The full menu.”

Zing! And with that, he was gone, and Key arrived. Key’s style in stand-ups is to look at whoever asks the questions. It’s intimate and friendly and normal.

“Prime Minister, what’s your problem with lamb chops?”

He beamed at Steve Braunias’ Campaign Diary: Day 13, and said, “If you want a steak, get a steak.”

And then he came up with a zinger. In a discussion about the issue of whether the NSA spy on New Zealand, he said, “If Barack Obama wanted to know something about New Zealand I suspect he’d just give me a ring.”

Key, king of the zingers; Key, the zing king. The whole spy thing – Operation Spearfish, Project Hootie and the Blowfish, all that – came down to a quick blithe off-the-cuff remark about the President of the United States of America calling up to ask for some information that was probably in New Zealand’s best security interests so what’s the goddamned big deal. He smiled. He looked happy, relaxed – he looked young.

 

To the green room for a quick exclusive interview with David Cunliffe. Labour Party leader, leader of the Opposition, resident of Herne Bay, pirate – the full menu, except that he has to wait till Saturday to see whether he gets the main meal of Prime Minister.

This has been one crazy motherfucking campaign.

Oh, yeah. This is one campaign that – I mean, who would have thought? Who would have thought.

Key comes to these debates just with one assistant, his PR, and apparently paces up and down by himself before the show and sorts out his likely plan. But you come armed with numerous advisors, and there’s a feeling that you go into the debates looking over-prepared.

At the end of the day it’s only me in front of the camera. But yeah it’s my first time up, and I recognised I had a big hill to climb. I was up against a proven opponent who’s done it many times before.

How good is he?

He’s quick on his feet but he’s light on substance.

He’s good with a quip.

He’s good with a quip. But he’s light on vision. I don’t want to demonise him; I don’t find him an unpleasant person, and I don’t think he means badly. But I think somewhere along the way maybe he’s lost his way.

How come your team of brilliant strategists didn’t think to give you some better zingers?

The strengths that I have is that I speak absolutely from the heart; as people get to know me, they know I am absolutely genuine about why I am in this job; I have a good command of policy; I bring together a team; and I can be incredibly courageous under fire.

Sweet. What about zingers?

I can come up with a few good one-liners too!

Oh yes?

I am probably being a little bit careful because for every great one-liner you come up with, you can come up with another one which doesn’t sound so great in the morning.

A clanger. A fizzer. A lead balloon.

Yeah. I’m probably holding myself back a bit.

You’re always saying mean things about Colin Craig but why not credit the dude with running a fantastic campaign?

He’s had a lot of money to spend. You get quite a lot of publicity off a million bucks. I am not going to damn him but he’s had masses of billboards that he’s paid for. I detest big money in politics wherever it comes from, whether it’s Colin Craig or Kim Dotcom. I put them in the same boat.

You called Act weirdos. Fair call, but what about Dotcom’s mob? Aren’t they weirdos too?

There’s been plenty of words used about Dotcom himself, but there are some pretty hard-working characters in the Internet Party who saw the possibility of advancing progressive causes through his support. History will judge whether that’s a good idea or not. But Kim Dotcom and Internet Mana have nothing to do with the Labour Party, and we won’t have them in government.

Gizzus a zinger. Leave us with a zinger.

Haw, haw! Okay folks! You’ve got two days to make up your mind! And this will go either way depending on what those of you who sometimes are couch potatoes decide to do. Because the chips are now down.

 

He didn’t leave us with a zinger but he gave it a shot.

He said he was going to have a quick debrief with his team, and then go home. Strange to think of him being taken through the city to his house in Herne Bay. Strange to think of a politician having a life, and his own bed.

A long September, and Cunliffe had reason to believe that next year would be better than the last.

 

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