Rugby World Cup make or break for government

by Jane Clifton / 02 July, 2011
Among the hustle and bustle of international events in New Zealand, National stands to gain as politics takes a back seat.

It might seem unlikely from this cacophonous vantage point, but it’s quite possible that, during the coming election campaign, there won’t be much room for actual politics. I know. Something to look forward to. It’s hard to overestimate just how crafty the Government has been with the timetable leading up to the November 26 poll – although, as with all self-serving swifties, this has the potential to rebound on National, but more on that shortly.

The official spending-regulated campaign period begins in just nine weeks, so from that point on, all politicians will have to start minding their Ps and Qs, even to the point of rationing their logoed Biros and restraining their tweets. (Still, at least we’ll be spared Rodney’s yellow jacket this time. Although it’s a thought – nothing else has worked for Don Brash yet.)

A week or so after that, the Pacific Islands Forum gets under way in Auckland. And anyone tempted to dismiss this as yet another pointless hand-wring about democracy in Fiji and the blighted water table of Kiribati hasn’t thought things through with the stoat cunning that the Government has. For a start, this is the forum’s 40th anniversary, so we can count on a lot of colourful hoopla in Auckland, using up much media time. We might also anticipate a higher than normal count of foreign dignitaries who feel obliged to mark this milestone for a minor but generally well-thought-of regional bloc.

Also – oh, look! What a felicitous coincidence – the forum ends on the very day of the first Rugby World Cup fixture, the All Blacks versus Tonga. And look who else is playing for the next six-and-a-bit weeks. Well, pretty much everyone. So it’s not cynical speculation to say we can expect a) a reluctance on the part of a number of forum participants to go home as soon as the forum is over and b) an influx of goodness knows who else, from royalty to rock stars to corporate titans.

We are highly susceptible to the sight of superyachts in our harbours and – although most of us think we’d be happy never to hear the phrase “in time for the Rugby World Cup …” ever again, by the time it’s actually happening, a wave of hopelessly ingenuous enthusiasm will probably infect all but the flintiest of us. All of which will use up huge tracts of media real estate.

It might not all be good news, of course. There could be traffic jams, ticket fraud, naughtiness in bars late at night. Various sector groups will take advantage of the ready-made audiences to mount protests about various issues. And let’s not even tempt fate by pondering what could happen on the field. Or not happen.

But the overarching effect will likely be a severe rationing of political noise. There’s only so much drama most of us can pay serious attention to at a time. Spring-summer is already a distracting period for most people. Schools and tertiary institutions will be in heavy exam mode. The summer sports season will be getting under way, daylight hours will be lengthening (daylight saving kicks in halfway through the rugby), gardens will be needing attention, summer holidays will be being planned. And arriving ever earlier as it does in a commercial sense, Christmas will already officially be here, with retailers more desperate and clamorous than ever before.

What room is left on the agenda will most probably be dominated by (please, God) progress in Christchurch, and by much officially generated campaign noise about the MMP referendum.

So tolerance for the Calvinistic thoughts of Don Brash, the conspiracy theories of Winston Peters and the bleepings of Hone Harawira will be lower even than usual.

By then Labour will have – surely to goodness – costed a policy platform centred around taxing the rich and restoring job growth without blowing new holes in our ropey budget surplus prospects. But barring major ructions in the party between then and now, these policies will still be coming from Phil Goff. He’s up against a lot of competition.

Meanwhile, despite John Key’s wise precautionary ban on MPs and staff troughing it up in corporate-box land, it is unavoidable – and we can be sure they won’t be bestirring themselves to avoid it – that Key and other senior ministers will be doing ceaseless meet-and-greet with sports stars and dignitaries. Be rude not to.


Of course, Opposition MPs will get a look-in. The Beehive receptions for the various teams will probably result in Bellamy’s being entered into the Guinness World Records for sausage roll and deep-fried surimi nibbles production.
But the overwhelming imagery, politically, will be of John Key as the beaming host, first of a reasonably global sort of political gathering and then, basically, of a massive party.

Devilish cunning – but not without risk. The forum could implode with some unforeseen crisis – and frankly, what Pacific crisis have we ever been able to foresee, despite our supposedly superior intelligence in the region?

The Rugby World Cup could prove underwhelming. What if there are matches to which hardly anybody turns up? If overall ticket sales are embarrassingly low? If the foreign press turns septic – as, for some reason, foreign rugby writers are curiously apt to do.

Tourism-sector gougers offering usurious charges and shoddy service could easily give this country a bad name. All manner of ghastly things could happen. And then whose fault will it be? The ­Government’s.

Even if it all goes swimmingly, there is an inherent risk in a grinning, partying Prime Minister looming large on the TV screen night after night. Unless he is supernaturally restrained, voters could quickly resent the discrepancy between life in RWC-land and in Christ­church. Or life on the unemployment benefit since the latest slew of redundancies. Or life in the small business firmament, with people still keeping their money in their pockets. Or life in big business, with the high dollar still sapping our export vigour. Despite all the joyful noise and colour to come, these problems will still be with us. And whose fault will we deem them to be? The Government’s.

What? No smile?

The other risk is that somehow within the next couple of months, Labour will finally get its show on the road and begin to narrow the poll gap with National. Labour badly needs a game-changer, and has so far been unable to generate one itself. For the next few weeks, it will have to redouble its efforts. Discontent with progress in Christchurch seems the most handy political lever, but the risk of being seen to be making political capital out of ­people’s misery by rarking up that suffering makes this a tricky exercise.

Labour also has another front to guard against: the Greens. They seem to be making progress in marketing themselves as a peace-of-mind alternative for left-leaning voters who are frustrated with Labour.

The Rugby World Cup should give the Greens a useful backdrop to do a bit of “shaming” politics. This playing and partying is all very well, but there are pressing issues being neglected while we obsess about Dan Carter’s disobliging hamstring or whether Ma‘a Nonu’s playing schedule leaves him enough time for the hairdresser.

There is, however, one thing for which nobody – not even Winston – will reasonably be able to blame the Government. Or Rogernomics, or Ruthanasia, or the Muldoon legacy, or asset sales, or the outmoded allegiance to the British monarch – or even MMP. But even so, if events at Eden Park on October 23 do not play out as we hope, or if, heaven forfend, events leading up to events at Eden Park on October 23 disappoint us, the Government may still be punished, simply because such events have an illogical but undeniable impact on the mood of the country.

Suffice it to say that the man whose opponents like to call John “Smile and Wave” Key won’t be doing any waving, because he won’t want anyone to see how tightly he has his fingers crossed.
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