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Bill Ralston: NZ would do best to avoid American political nastiness

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

This country doesn’t have much of a history of attack campaigning. Let’s keep it that way.

When we look at the bile spewing out of the White House and Congress, it’s a source of great relief to most of us that we are not American. Our own Beehive and Parliament generally look positively decorous in comparison.

US President Donald Trump appears to have ratcheted up the rhetoric on four young minority-group congresswomen who have been critical of him, labelling them “racist” and suggesting they “go back where they came from”. Three of the four were actually born in the US, so it sounds as if The Donald is suggesting they return to wherever their ancestors originated.

Thank heavens we don’t have a politician advocating that those of us with migrant backgrounds return to the lands of our great-grandfathers. I’d either be in Paisley, Renfrewshire, near Glasgow, or somewhere in southern England. I have the most boring DNA in the world.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Recently, I did an Ancestry DNA test expecting to find some fascinating bloodline that would link me to the royal families of Europe, an Indian rajah or Genghis Khan. Nope. It was just a long line of dour Scots, who scarpered from the place as soon as they could, and some more-sedentary English peasant farmers. I digress.

Maybe the President is not suggesting the women return to an ancestral home in Central or South America, Palestine or Africa. When Trump says they should go back to the “totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came”, he must be talking about Detroit, Minneapolis, Boston and New York, the districts they represent. I hope he’s not looking for votes from those “broken, crime-infested” cities next year.

Leaked talking points for the President about the four women, from the Republican National Committee, contain the charming line, “The despicable rhetoric espoused by the socialist squad and tolerated by national Democrats is beyond disgusting.” The “despicable rhetoric” seems to be coming from both sides and has the nasty effect of encouraging hatred and splitting the US down the middle.

New Zealand doesn’t have much of a history of attack campaigning. You would have to go back to Rob Muldoon’s “Dancing Cossacks” ads in the mid-70s to find anything of that kind and, surprisingly, that ad ran publicly only twice, such was the adverse reaction to it.

Which is why I was surprised to see and hear a Facebook post by Labour, endorsed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, excerpting a testy RNZ interview with National leader Simon Bridges and commenting, “Bridges has talked a big game on climate change, but when push comes to shove, he won’t back the action that’s needed.” The soundtrack played over a particularly ugly darkened photo of Bridges. Another shorter ad suggested everyone agrees with climate-change action except Bridges.

Traditionally, while opposition parties are consistently on attack, governments ignore the Opposition and its leader, preferring instead to be, as Ardern promised when first elected, “relentlessly positive”. I would have thought Bridges was in enough trouble of his own without the Government feeling the need to put the boot into him in such a “relentlessly negative” way.

Ardern is a very effective communicator. She has, until now, relied on putting up logical arguments for the Government’s position on issues, sticking to neutral language and projecting an image of being reasonable. It is a key factor in her popularity.

If Labour is serious about snatching the centrist vote from National, which it says it is, then sneering at and ridiculing its opponents is probably not the way to do it.

This column was first published in the August 3, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.