Labour's public upset over the TVNZ debate moderator is a sign of more ill-discipline and prompts the question if it's time for a rejig in David Cunliffe's office

Labour has been bleating about Mike Hosking being used as moderator in a TVNZ election debate. There is even the unconvincing talk that Labour may boycott the debate if Hosking takes that role. As the story goes, Hosking called Cunliffe a moron because he gave his state of the nation address on Auckland's anniversary day and has demonstrated a pattern of antipathy towards Labour over a sustained period. 

Hosking, as we know, is a flagrant Tory sympathiser, in New Zealand’s low-octane shock-jock sort of way.  

Exposing him as such is, I'm told, Matt McCarten's latest genius ploy. 

Here’s the thing, though. Everyone in New Zealand with enough interest in politics to sit through a televised debate knows full well that Hosking dislikes the Labour Party, adores Key and probably thinks Cunliffe is a moron or worse. But this is not bad for Labour and Cunliffe. This is great for Labour and Cunliffe.

Debates are about expectations. If people think you’re going to do well, you invariably do poorly. If the public expect a trainwreck, more often than not you come out the “winner”. It’s not really about the substance of these debates – they rarely have much of that – but about how the contestants performed compared to expectations leading in.

If you had never heard Obama or Romney speak beforehand, you would have almost certainly concluded that the President, a much more charming and eloquent television performer, won the first debate in 2012 handily; in fact, the perception was that his performance was so diabolically bad, and Romney’s so comparatively strong, that it could have cost Obama re-election if not for Hurricane Sandy and the '47 percent' video.

Four years earlier, most pundits said Sarah Palin out-performed Joe Biden in the Vice Presidential debate, presumably because the then Governor of Alaska strung a sentence or two together without winking and didn’t, as the media had anticipated, spend minutes at a time staring into the wrong camera.

Similarly, John Key didn’t beat Helen Clark in 2008’s TV debates because he came across as smarter or more accomplished than the incumbent; he just did a pretty good job, and that’s all people needed to see.

So, if voters see Hosking line-up Cunliffe with hardball after hardball and the Labour leader comes out unscathed, it’s a triumph for Labour. If it’s a less than stellar performance, Hosking’s well known bias is a helpful buffer against the negative consequences. Kiwis will work that out without being told via anonymous leaks in advance which makes Labour look like sore losers before the ref has even pulled on his jersey. 

So why is Labour whining about this? Why is Grant Robertson commenting on the issue at all, as he did in the story on Stuff this morning, revealing yet again a shocking lack of media discipline? And why, oh why, oh why, is Matt McCarten inserting himself into the process when doing so clearly raises expectations in an unhelpful way for his boss, and totally undermines the authority of Simon Cunliffe, Labour’s chief press sec (and David’s cousin).

Another self-evident observation: what possible good can come out of picking a public fight with New Zealand’s highest rating broadcaster (TV and radio)? How will this act of hostility play out in the increasingly unlikely event Cunliffe makes it to the Beehive, or even if he stays on as Opposition leader as he apparently plans to do (albeit over a string of dead bodies which, laid head to toe, would extend the length of the North Island). Will he boycott Hosking, or will the whole thing just feel a bit awkward for everyone concerned?  

US political analogies have limited relevance in the New Zealand context and I am guilty of overusing them because I have just returned to New Zealand from there after many years. In fact, the propensity for upstart political staffers the world over to imagine themselves the Tobys or Sams of their generation, or for candidates like Cunliffe to orate, mock-heroically, as if auditioning to play President Bartlett in a Broadway revival of the West Wing, is a particular bugbear of mine.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that US political campaigns contain some useful lessons for us, not least that when candidates begin to look unelectable due to political mismanagement – and when own goal after own goal triggers bad news cycles on a constant loop – the party, who cannot legally remove the nominee him or herself, often intervene to sack the campaign advisors and install some wiser heads. Many argue that exactly such moves saved Clinton’s reelection in 1996 and prevented John McCain from losing the GOP nomination in 2008.

Turfing Cunliffe would be insane, just as it was to put him there in the first place.

However, Labour’s dumb decision by going public on debate negotiations is just the latest example of why it might be past time for it to rejig and rejuvenate the team around him.

Comments (13)

by Tim Watkin on July 25, 2014
Tim Watkin

Absolutely agree that election debates are all about expectations, and Key is vulnerable as Clark was in 2008 to high expectations; Cunliffe can benefit from the reverse and have people reconsider him as PM matrerial if he can match it with Key. But he has to be within cooee, or it'll be too late.

Anyway, Cunliffe needs to embrace every potential game-changer moment of this campaign – there will be few and the debates are certainly one. So the threat to withdraw is as sincere as Brownlee's offer today to resign.

But Phil, Chiefs of Staff do negotiate the debates, so nothing unusual about McCarten taking on that role. Eagleson does the same for National.

by Phil Quin on July 25, 2014
Phil Quin

Tim -- I am no expert on what the Nats do, but it has typically been the role of the chief press secretary on the Labour side.  Made a couple of queries to double check my recollection of this and was met with confirmation.  Either way, it's by no means the strongest argument in my article, nor is it central to my thesis.  I may have let my longstanding chagrin at the Massive Over-Rating of Matt McCarten Phenomenon get in the way of a cogent argument. Cheers, Phil. 

by Ross on July 25, 2014
So, Phil, no criticism of Hosking doing the interview? You criticize Grant Robertson for speaking on the issue but did you actually hear what he said? He made a joke of it....which kind of disproved your argument that Labour are up in arms about Hosking's role.
by Ross on July 25, 2014
The key issue surely is to allow the party leaders to debate the issues in a fair and meaningful manner. You might think that Hosking will make for a great front man but having listened to at least five minutes of his self-opinionated rants leads me to believe otherwise.
by Phil Quin on July 25, 2014
Phil Quin

Ross, Labour clearly meant to plant a story whining about Hosking and threatening to boycott.  If you don't get that, perhaps you and I read different media accounts.  The point of my article was that Hosking's bias is real and that is has the potential to help, not hurt, Cunliffe. But maybe you didn't read my column either. 

by Ross on July 25, 2014
Yes Phil I did get the point of your article. I just didn't get your comment about Grant Robertson, whose comments you don't seem to have heard, nor did I see any criticism of Hosking whose idiocy, presumably, we should grin and bear.
by william blake on July 25, 2014
william blake

It seems like a bit of a piss take from TVNZ, why throw a blatantly partisan commentator at an election debate?  Just for the ratings?

Instead of saying a biased debate is some kind of opportunity how about looking at it realistically, like the dealer working from the bottom of the deck at the casino.

besides could viewers really stand that much smugness on their screens?

by Rich on July 25, 2014

How will this act of hostility play out in the increasingly unlikely event Cunliffe makes it to the Beehive

A lot of TVNZ management and broadcasters having to find new jobs, preferably overseas, I suspect

by Ken on July 26, 2014

Come on, McCarten isn't so stupid as to think having this argument in public would be a good idea. This is ill-discipline for sure, but via loose lips from the Labour front bench.

by Andrew Osborn on July 27, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Hosking a 'shock jock' - even a low octane one?


If indeed he is a fan of Key, that is nothing particularly special - he merely concurs with about 70% of voters at the moment.


by stuart munro on July 29, 2014
stuart munro

Hosking is rubbish - TVNZ make themselves a laughing stock treating him as anything but a ratings teaser. The debates are or should be relatively serious and Hosking simply isn't up to it. His inevitably blonde fluff girl would do a better job.

by Peggy Klimenko on July 30, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

@Stuart Munro: "The debates are or should be relatively serious and Hosking simply isn't up to it."

That's also my conclusion. I won't be watching; I'd certainly like to see a debate between Cunliffe and Key, but preferably not one moderated by a cipher.

by Kat on July 30, 2014

After reading Phil Quins comments in the Herald today is it no wonder the MSM bias is brought into question. Its this form of lowbrow commentary that is in question, all slur an inuendo with no facts to back up the assertions. I will give someone at the Herald credit for having the nous to remove it, at least from the front section.

How many would like to see Cunliffe and Key just debating themselves, easliy arranged, two chairs, microphones and cameraman. How they conducted themselves just talking to each other would be very interesting. They could have a number of questions each to ask the other. Any reasonable MC could then enter the frame for the summing up and close out.

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