Politics is a process of constant change. Harold Wilson coined the phrase “a week is a long time in politics” in the 1960s – but in today’s version, the week has certainly been reduced to days, if not hours, in some cases.
All of which makes the game (I hesitate to glorify it as an art) of political speculation that much more pointless, and the consequent credibility of the speculations and those who make them close to minimal. For journalists and commentators this makes their jobs even more precarious – not only does a more instant, competitive and interactive media environment mean they are under constant pressure to find a unique “angle” to every story, no matter how mundane, but also the durability and credibility of their more outlandish analyses and predictions is greatly diminished. This morning’s potential blockbuster may well be old or inaccurate news by midday. David Lange’s famous observation of the Parliamentary Press Gallery behaving like “reef fish” remains an accurate description.
However, there are occasions where the story becomes slightly more durable and the analysis and commentary sustained and penetrating. The ongoing revelations from the so-called Panama Papers are such an example.
Admittedly, the story has changed from its first breathless reportage. There have not been the shocking revelations that were anticipated originally about the involvement of New Zealand rich-listers or political and business high fliers in massive tax evasion schemes. However, the details that have been forthcoming about the way in which New Zealand based foreign trusts or corporate structures are being used by some to evade tax responsibilities elsewhere, or simply hide capital altogether, and the involvement of New Zealand firms in facilitating such practices are very disturbing. They raise legitimate and serious questions about how robust our disclosure rules are, especially when it is revealed that a company director banned in Hong Kong is able to carry on in New Zealand because no-one apparently asked the right questions. Hardly surprising therefore, that the government, after a somewhat lackadaisical response to the early revelations, is now promising to clean things up swiftly.
However, media and commentariat reaction to the Labour/Greens co-operation announcement has been more in the breathtaking drama mode we have sadly become used to. There has been little mention of the basic challenge of how both parties can work together, given their historic differences. The harking back to the Labour/Alliance co-operation arrangement of the late 1990s heralding the Labour/Alliance government that was to come completely ignores the fact that it was the Alliance that effectively brought down that government barely two and a half years later in 2002. An inconvenient truth that distorts the narrative, perhaps?
Nor has there been any mention of what National might do – indeed, they almost seem to be portraying National as a static, immutable object, unable to react to any change in its potential circumstances. But, as the Prime Minister has shown, even latterly on the Panama Papers, and more broadly right throughout his term, when any issue has looked tricky for National, he is remarkably adept at not only adjusting to the new situation, but also quickly getting ahead of it. So why would he be any different in this situation? If a week in politics is a long time, writing up as fact likely election outcomes and governments formed, let alone picking Cabinets, about 18 months before an election is a monumental stupidity. It may have sold newspapers once, but in today’s more sophisticated age it merely condemns those responsible to well-justified scorn and ridicule, and turns more people off taking media commentary seriously.
Political punditry and speculation is a time-honoured side-show of the political process. But to have any hope of being taken at all seriously its needs a far firmer foundation than the current version consistently demonstrates. Apparently, Keith Holyoake used to tell new MPs to learn to “breathe through their noses” – advice our commentariat could well benefit from following, if they even knew who he was.