Labour and National have found a fight they both want to have, as they use the Christmas Island riots as part of their over-arching PR strategies. Yet for once it's National looking rattled

At least it's a proper battle of different world views. There's no Labour-lite or National stealing Labour's policies here. While the fires burn on Christmas Island, we have to two very different stances on the fate of those detainees.

National has take the line that Australia is a sovereign country and can do what it likes; and given that the detainees don't want a bar of New Zealand, he doesn't want a bar of them. To add fuel to the fire, he's lumped them all into the basket of being rapists and sex offenders (although isn't sure how many rapists and sex offenders there are on Christmas Island).

Labour, on the other hand, says they are New Zealanders in jeopardy and the government needs to show some compassion. A drug mule, for example, would get consular support in a foreign country, so why not these people? And the government wouldn't stand by and respect the sovereign decisions of farther flung countries detaining New Zealanders in this way.

So it's a rare chance to see some light between these parties. And, for once, both are keen to engage in this battle, thinking it suits their purposes. You can see it in their scripted one-liners and battle in parliament today.

Labour's word of the week is, well, weak. Kelvin Davis tried it out yesterday and the brains trust obviously liked it. Now Andrew Little and the entire caucus are using it whenever possible. To add to that, they are criticising Key for having lost his moral compass.


Because Labour has clearly identified that this is where Key's support is soft; voters have long enjoyed camp-waling, 'pee in the shower' jokiness, but Labour thinks they can sell Little as a serious, authentic, moral alternative. And that the electorate is ready to buy.

So in this story Labour sees a chance to ram home their meta-message; Key is weak and swings with the wind. He doesn't step up when it counts. Given how people have trusted his guidance through the GFC, earthquakes and more, it's a tough sell. But it seems to be the only chink in the armour they can see.

What's interesting is National's response. Their reaction suggests they see it as a chink as well; or at least that the Prime Minister needs some assistance on this front.

When the riot started yesterday, National would have quickly realised the story was probably going to lead the news for a few more days. By today the 'Key is weak' line would have been apparent. They either copped it or changed the subject. It appears the Crosby-Textor PR advice was the latter. 

From Key's performance in the House today, it seems National doesn't want to be talking about how its handled the detention policy. It's impossible to avoid the fact that they've achieved nothing and Turnbull is in no position to offer a compromise. With Australia determined to continue its hard line, Key wants to change topics.

So he goes on the attack. He says Labour is "backing rapists" in an attempt to, at least, share the damage. If he's going to look weak, he can do Labour some damage at the same time by painting them as hand-wringing liberals. As with Labour, this fits into his long-term PR strategy.

And anyway, if he muddies the waters enough, he hopes voters will just curse both their houses and the polls won't move. Even better, if he can characterise the detainees as "rapists" and "sex offenders", voters may switch off the issue altogether.

It's a classic Key move.

So we have the battle of the scripts - rapists supporters vs weaklings.

Except Key has had to give ground to do this. He has had to get his angry face out, and unlike his 'get some guts' line over Iraq, this is delivered from a defensive crouch rather than a patriotic high ground. While 'angry Andy' was calm today, we saw 'cranky Key'.

Second, he looks as if he's siding with Australia rather than standing up for New Zealand. Only a month ago he was critical of Australia's stance. He said Australia has "set the threshold in terms of deportations too low" and that Australia's "hard-line view" was "pretty tough". Now, all its doing is locking up rapists and sex offenders, who are "serious criminal offenders".

If so, why did he think just a month ago that "the threshold in terms of deportations is too low"?

So Key's problem becomes that he's now moved from his polite disagreement with Australia to having to defend his mate Turnbull. At least that's the risk. He still framed his criticism of Labour as them backing the rapists while he backs ordinary kiwis at risk from these detainees. But that simply makes no sense, as this riot and any support given to these people makes no difference to whether or not (or in what condition) they end up back in New Zealand.

But the top is spinning, both sides trying to create the impression left in the public mind. It'll be interesting to see which way it falls.

Comments (9)

by Ben McNicoll on November 10, 2015
Ben McNicoll

However bad these people are, I think we can all agree baking them is not the solution. 

by Peggy Klimenko on November 10, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

"I think we can all agree baking them is not the solution."

A bit Godwin, perhaps?

Tim, does anyone have any information as to the numbers of NZ detainees by crime category on Christmas Island? I heard Patrick Gower going on about "psychopaths" on TV3 news tonight, and quoting numbers of rapists, murderers and child sex offenders, but it wasn't clear if those were just on the island, or across all detention centres and gaols.

by Murray Grimwood on November 10, 2015
Murray Grimwood

Key's comment about the pending ship visit was 'interesting' from a spin POV too. Testing the waters. perchance? As with Nick Smith and the yet-again GE?

Never say die, just wear them down, poll the trend and pounce when it crosses 50% plus noise allowance. Speed process with seeded conmments, rely on the mainsteam media to swallow just about anything...........

But - we will never see the end of detention/refugees/deportees from here on in. Quite the reverse; it will become an unstoppable avalance, likely only curtailed in our part of the world by a possible lack of floaty things. Maybe we should tampa with the potential fleet....



by Tim Watkin on November 10, 2015
Tim Watkin

Alright clever clogs! That's what you get when you do things at work and are rushing... sloppy, sloppy stuff. But the headline is changed now.

Peggy, Paddy seemed to have the numbers on all detainees but sadly didn't say they were for all centres. Some may have been left with the impression that was just Christmas Island, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't add up. I did see a story some weeks back about numbers. Hang on...

by Tim Watkin on November 10, 2015
Tim Watkin

This was the number and crimes of those deported as of October 1... here.

Not sure about who's in detention now, but the suggestion has been they're working their way down towards less serious crimes. What I keep reminding myself is that these can be several crimes that add up to a year's sentence, not just a single crime necessarily. And of course they're served their sentence and been released.

by Alan Johnstone on November 11, 2015
Alan Johnstone

I can't grasp Mr Keys position here. He says "no one needs to be there, they can come home at any time" then follows up with "I'm protecting kiwis from rapists and murders".

It's either one or the other John, you can't have both.


by Peggy Klimenko on November 11, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

"That's what you get when you do things at work and are rushing... sloppy, sloppy stuff."

Hey! nobody's perfect....

I tried that link, Tim, but all I got was a great deal more than I ever wanted to see of the Daily Telegraph. God, that paper's awful! Maybe I was looking in the wrong place on that site.

I also had a bit of a scout around Auntie Google, but couldn't find anything there either.

"...these can be several crimes that add up to a year's sentence, not just a single crime necessarily. And of course they're served their sentence and been released."

Indeed. I'm fairly sure that the PM hasn't mentioned that. I also heard that hard-eyed fellow Dutton deny that any of the detainees on Christmas Island had an accumulation of minor convictions. Yet I'm pretty certain that Morning Report has interviewed at least one such person, and possibly more. So if I'm right, does that suggest that the left political hand doesn't know what the right judicial hand is doing over there?

I note discussion - here and elsewhere - about political strategy, and whether the handling of this issue will push the polls up or down. In my view, the human rights aspects ought to transcend instrumentalism of that sort. I hope that Kelvin Davis and Labour have taken it up because it is the right thing to do, and regardless of what the polls say. Based on their track record to date, I'd have no such expectation of National and the PM.

by Katharine Moody on November 12, 2015
Katharine Moody

But - we will never see the end of detention/refugees/deportees from here on in. Quite the reverse; it will become an unstoppable avalance, likely only curtailed in our part of the world by a possible lack of floaty things.

And why? I like Noam Chomsky on that question;


by Tim Watkin on November 12, 2015
Tim Watkin

Peggy, the paywall seems to have kicked in. This was some weeks back when Key was saying Aussie was being too tough on Kiwis and the Australian press laid into him.

The only bit in front of the paywall is: "ONE murderer, eight rapists, 25 child sex offenders and 42 armed robbers are among the hundreds of Kiwi violent criminals New Zealand Prime Minister John Key claims Australia is treating poorly by deporting them." Funny how the numbers being used against him then, he's using now.

As Alan says, he seems to be trying to have it both ways.

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