Steve Braunias’ Campaign Diary: Day 6
DAY SIX : IN WHICH THE PRIME MINISTER AND THE LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION TALK ABOUT HAIRDRESSERS, PIES, AND DOGS – AND JOHN CAMPBELL LEAVES BEHIND A VALE OF TEARS AS HE DEPARTS THIS WORLD FOR THE NEXT
Election 2014! No, that’s not right; that’s not accurate; the great big orangey graphic thing glowing in the TV3 studio at last night’s leaders debate read DECISION 14. Much better. It sounded like a science-fiction film. In the not-too-distant future, in an empty, boring landscape, two cyborgs stare straight ahead and try to fuck with each other’s minds – the not too distant future began at 8.40pm at the TV3 emporium on Flower St when John Campbell moderated the hour-long debate between Key and Cunliffe, New Zealand’s two most powerfully chemically modified bots.
The studio was kind of underground. Ladies and gentlemen of the press sat in a boardroom up some stairs and watched the programme on a big screen. Complimentary snacks and refreshments included heaps of Coronas, bro. Also Huntaway wine, and the nibblesome highlight was surely the cold prawn wrapped up tight with a slice of rockmelon.
One hack held the slice and did only the prawn. He ate and ate and ate. Melon debris lay piled up on a napkin in front of his fat dazed face. O gross and rancid specimen of the fourth estate! O well journalism is doomed anyway so you may as well eat of the sea while you can.
The minutes ticked towards 8.40pm. The gross and rancid specimen trotted along the TV3 hallways. Suddenly, rushing the other way, tall, handsome, magnificent, was David Cunliffe. Specimen, blurting: “Good luck!” Cunliffe, harried: “Thank you, sir!” Sir! His stride increased and those long legs covered a lot of ground, fast, until he got to the where he needed to go and rammed open the door of the gents.
Improper to speculate but was his urgent call of nature the need to vomit? Was he losing it on one of the biggest nights of the campaign, had the crucial importance and crazy stress of it stirred the intestine and rushed to his throat? He looked green around the gills… All we safely know is that Cunliffe and Key were sequestered before the debate on separate floors; the PM’s nose was not violated by the possible stink of his opponent.
The gross etc resumed his seat and his see food and eat it diet. The press gallery were also in attendance – the petite of frame Brent Edwards (RNZ), the husky of voice Jessica Williams (Radio Live), and various inky hacks from daily media. You could have cut the tension with a knife or just used it to saw a spring roll in half. The mood was sober, collegial. They had deadlines. They prayed for zingers.
They got zingers! “Battle of the zingers,” tapped the black nail-polished fingers of Andrea Vance (Dominion Post.) But who had the best zingers? Who won? What happened? What happened? What happened, above all, to John Campbell, that his life seemed to flash before him, and ahead of him, too, in some spooky mystic time-space continuum?
Nothing much happened between Key and Cunliffe. They talked a lot about policy. Policy! The political media are routinely spanked for neglecting policy issues in favour of gotcha! reporting; but the debate was about policy and nothing but policy. Well, you know, with rhetoric and that. And zingers, thank God.
The policies under review were tax, housing and the minimum wage. Detailed, rigorous. Key: “I know my numbers!” They talked about whether hairdressers in Foxton (that would be Reflections, Lorraines, and Hair4U) and Levin (that would be eNVy Hairdressing and Hair Say) could afford it if the minimum wage went up from $14.25 to $16.25. Cunliffe: “We must grow the pie.”
And so on. But the deeper tone and existential hum of the event were elsewhere. They were hidden in plain sight. Follow the paper trail! Key only had two pages of A4 paper on his Perspex lectern, while Cunliffe brought with him what looked to be the original manuscript of The Luminaries. He did chapter; Key did short verse.
One of Key’s zingers was his assessment of Labour’s capital gains tax policy. “It looks like a dog, it barks like a dog, it smells like a dog. It’s a dog.” Of course! His two pieces of paper – they were the sing-song lines of Lynley Dodd’s woofy masterpiece, Hairy Maclary.
Cunliffe stayed with the epic visions of his weighty Catton tome. “New Zealand, a place where talent wants to live… I say this solemnly… I will tell you what’s meaningful,” etc.
Windy, disciplined prose, or brief, memorable poetry? Tall, or shrunk? Cunliffe towered over Key. Labour’s leader looked All Man, in the prime of his life; National’s leader, with his bowed head and a slump to his shoulders, looked like he was beginning the sad, final journey to old age. He was shrinking before our eyes.
But a stranger metamorphosis was happening to John Campbell. It was bewitching, inexplicable. It was as though he had walked into a complex plot devised by Franz Kafka – or, in keeping with the sci-fi fo-fum vibe of DECISION 14, someone like Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury or Philip K Dick. Do androids dream of electric sheep? What’s the frequency, Kenneth? So many questions.
The point is that John Campbell’s face… that smooth, familiar face… that face, as much a part of our lives as a favourite chair, not that we want to sit on that face… his face began to change, and alter, and age backwards and forwards.
Truly! It began to occur in the first part of the debate. Was it the yelling back and forth between Key and Cunliffe? Was it having to command of Cunliffe: “Stop!” And, again: “Stop!” Stop right now, thank you very much! John needed someone with a human touch. He wanted to slow it down baby. These and other lyrics from the great Spice Girls song “Stop” blared inside his head; electric sheep grazed on the fields of his subconscious; and when he turned to the camera, he suddenly looked at least 100 years old.
Poor old John! So old. Did he wear the bottoms of his trousers rolled? It was a shocking sight. He had aged rapidly. Nurse! Nurse, come quick. And perhaps she did in the commercial break, mainlining him with a shot of adrenaline or some such potent restorative, because he came back looking refreshed. He came back looking his actual age. But that didn’t last long.
His face then began to… look younger. John, 30! He was lighter on his feet, his waist spread less. Then: John, 20! My God! He looked great! He was up for anything, also sensitive. Then: John, 10! Boy John! John-Boy! A marvellous child, at play. He was really enjoying himself.
He told his guests, “You are debating with a passionate intensity. When we come back, we will talk tax in all its manifestations.” Precocious boy! He came back looking about 30. He stayed there for most of the rest of the evening – until the very end, when he wept.
In the very final portion of the programme, a poll of 14,000 viewers revealed that 72 per cent had already made up their minds which way they would vote on September 20, and 28 per cent were still undecided. O not-sure-yet 28 per cent! Which according to a calculator is 3920 people from the poll of 14,000! Just enough wiggle room for Cunliffe to move into, to win; for Key to move out of, and lose – so many permutations.
And then Cunliffe made a closing statement. He was confident, ringing. “We will lift New Zealanders up!” Key made his closing statement. He made a hash of it, a Freudian slip. “We’re a country that’s really going ahead. We’re a multi…” The mind had gone blank. He filled it in, thus: “A multinational country.”
Doh! Not what he meant to say it all! The face twitched. Goddamn it to fucking hell! Language caught up with the chemically modified brain, and he corrected himself: “A multicultural country.”
Campbell looked at his two guests with love in his heart. “A lovely way to end,” he said.
Yes; it would have been a lovely way to end; but there was more. He faced the camera. He began to rave.
“I do want to say something on a personal note. And this is that people should vote. Now…” He paused, and looked away. He tried to control his emotions, arrange his thoughts. He looked 45, 50. His rubbed his hands; he set his jaw; good. He was ready to continue.
“There’s been lots of tribal enmity. There’s been lots of unpleasantness. There’s been lots of anger, and lots of acrimony, and lots of horrible things being said.”
He meant Election 2014. The Hager Election. DECISION 14. Call it what you will, it has been toxic and revelatory, thanks to Nicky Hager’s astonishing book, Dirty Politics, and its sorry, important story of attack politics orchestrated from within the National Party.
He looked 50, maybe 60.
“But actually at the end of all this process we are deciding who is going to run this country. Our children’s country. Our mum and dad country. The country of the people we love.”
He looked 70, maybe 80. Dare he eat a peach? “I want to show you a photo to end tonight.” The famous image of a man standing in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square filled the screen.
“See that man? He stood in front of the tanks and they probably mowed him down, and if they didn’t mow him down then he will be probably rotting in a Chinese jail.”
The image stayed on screen. You couldn’t see Campbell’s face, but you heard his voice. He had choked up. He could barely continue; but he must; it was duty; he had A Message for the People.
“And this man did that because he believed in precisely the democratic freedoms that we take for granted! I don’t care who you vote for, but vote for someone!” His voice was breaking. His heart was breaking. O wise old John who has seen the sufferings of the world, and heard the mermaid singing, each to each – “And if you don’t vote,” he concluded, “try explaining. To. That. Man. Why. Not.”
He reappeared on screen to wish us all farewell and sweet dreams. Dear God! Nightmare on Flower St! He looked more lizard than human, an ancient tuatara. He was wizened, bruised. Thin wizened lizard. He had been through the wringer of life. This was his Network moment, with a sensitive twist – he was sad as hell, and wasn’t going to take it anymore. Puffy-eyed, red-faced, trembling, he looked approximately 10,000 years old. Nurse! No, don’t worry. It’s too late. Witnesses, very reliable witnesses, said that after the show, Campbell departed this world and left only a vale of tears. O wet puddle!
As for Key and Cunliffe, they legged it into the night in waiting BMWs. Key’s went faster. Cunliffe’s was weighed down with the blasted pages of his speech notes. Another day done; rest thee well, O cyborgs.
Illustration: Joshua Drummond.