Be like Mike: Lessons the National Party could learn from Hosking

by Graham Adams / 25 May, 2018
Opinion.

From radio to the NZ Herald - and even election debate moderator. Mike Hosking has an impressive reach. Photo / Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Mike Hosking

Leaders of the National Party come and go, but Mike Hosking endures. Simon Bridges could learn from him.

It’s hard to believe that only 18 months ago, John Key was the Prime Minister and leader of the National Party. Yes, the National Party is currently fielding its third leader in just over one and a half years.

No one talks much about the National Party being unstable but it may well end up rivalling the Labour Party’s revolving door of leaders over the past decade. It’s impossible to know how long Simon Bridges will be in the job but it is probably directly related to when the public forgets how much the previous National-led administration screwed up.

Once a collective amnesia about National’s legacy descends, the competition for Bridges’ job will intensify. Right now, Bridges is taking one for the team as a whipping boy for the accumulated sins of the Key-English government. The floggings will continue, no doubt, until the nation’s morale improves. None of his rivals will want to take his place until the beatings stop but, when they do, the challengers will strike.

Nevertheless, the National Party has a major asset outside Parliament and a conduit of continuity — Mike Hosking. He continues to faithfully and calmly put the views favoured by the National Party to the public even as its leaders change.

Mike Hosking is the stable, unflappable, enduring force behind the throne who rises effortlessly above the petty squabbling in Parliament’s backrooms.

He is not the leader of the Opposition but he certainly should be recognised as an honorary leader, given his influence as a very persuasive proponent of National Party views.

Mike's magic mic

His reach is phenomenal. As well as his top-rated radio show, there are his columns in the NZ Herald and the video clips of Mike’s Minute, which cover a variety of topics, with titles ranging from “Six months in, this government is out of its depth” to “Govt's housing development will be a dump” to “Ardern has failed miserably”.

And he is a brand. Distinctive. Easily digestible. There is nothing in Hosking’s radio persona to assail the ears and nothing in his printed columns to hinder the eye’s easy slither from top left to bottom right as he calmly and confidently points out what he sees as the failings of the coalition government.

His voice, inflections and politics are so predictable and distinctive that Jeremy Wells — before he became co-host of Seven Sharp — could parody pitch-perfectly the cadences and views of Perfect Mike.

The fact that one of our best parodists chose to parody a media colleague rather than a Prime Minister might seem astonishing. It’s like David McPhail parodying broadcaster Brian Edwards in the 1970s rather than Rob Muldoon. But Hosking invites it and his stature as a political influencer warrants it.

I doubt that anyone would bother parodying Simon Bridges because he’s not very memorable, except perhaps for his strange diction and offbeat views.

He has said recently that he believes in the “trickle-down” theory of wealth distribution even though it evidently hasn’t worked in New Zealand. He also tried to counter criticism of structural neglect at Middlemore Hospital by telling the government to “stop whining” and “just get on and fix it” because National left the new government plenty of money to do the job. 

That is like telling your starving children to stop complaining about the rickets they suffer from because they have been left plenty of money in the will.

This week, Bridges announced it was time to put politics to one side in a bipartisan approach to the spread of the cattle disease mycoplasma bovis. Yet, at the same time, he warned that National would not stop criticising the coalition government over its measures to deal with the outbreak. It’s not clear that he understands what “bipartisan” actually means.

In short, his political tactics are inexplicably clumsy. He needs to take notice of how Mike Hosking handles things — and there is no better example than the different ways he and Bridges have at times tackled the question of immigration.

Mike's immigration lesson: Be grateful

In early May, Bridges used Question Time to launch an attack on Jacinda Ardern for having failed to keep her election promises on immigration. He asked a series of similar questions including: “Does she agree that ‘the rate at which our population is growing is placing unsustainable pressure on infrastructure’, as stated in the immigration policy she campaigned on?” 

This is unbelievably, jaw-droppingly daft given National’s reputation for having neglected to build vital infrastructure for a surging population. Ardern had no trouble wandering through the door he had opened to slug him. She responded: “If we had the infrastructure we wouldn’t be having this debate. [The National] government did not do any population planning, immigration got to the highest level it has in some time, and there was no planning around transport or housing, and we’re having to pick up the pieces from that.”

Bridges was a Crown prosecutor before he was a politician and it’s hard to believe he didn’t see that response coming. Isn’t it a courtroom rule that a lawyer should never ask a question he or she doesn’t already know the answer to? But Bridges had a question sheet in front of him so he doggedly pushed on: “Does she agree on immigration that, ‘It is time to take a breather’?”

Again, it was a yawning opening for Ardern to wander through and whack Bridges one more time for the previous government’s failings over infrastructure.

It was during this exchange about immigration that the Speaker, Trevor Mallard, claims an unidentified National MP described her as a “stupid little girl”. If it wasn’t a figment of the Speaker’s imagination, as National appears to believe, it was probably a cry of frustration — and exasperation better directed at their leader. Bridges couldn’t get Ardern to admit she had broken a campaign promise and, in fact, his fellow MPs can see he rarely gets the better of her in the House on any topic.

And if she is in their estimation a “stupid little girl”, how is it that the former high-flying trial lawyer can’t pin her down? It’s hard to imagine National’s MPs putting up with this poor showing by their leader for too long.

Mike Hosking had a better tack. Like Simon Bridges and the National Party, he is a strong advocate of mass immigration. But he knows there is no point in berating Labour for breaking its promise when you approve of immigration yourself. That just makes you look like someone childishly trying to score points against someone you essentially agree with.

When he tackled immigration at the end of April, Hosking’s tactic was much more cunning. His NZ Herald column was titled “Strange silence as immigration hits 69,000”, with an accompanying Mike’s Minute video. (It should be noted that Mike’s Minute sticks to its time slot as reliably as a gospel preacher at a royal wedding — which is to say not at all. This “Minute” runs to 3:02 minutes.)

Hosking — who pointed out that he has long supported an expansive immigration policy — wanted to know: “What happened to the rage over immigration, eh?” 

The figures show a net 69,000 people arriving, he said, “and yet this week, no outcry. Barely a whimper. Why? Here's my guess — because the majority of the noise was coming from the left. They hated National, Labour promised to change it… Labour hasn't, the supporters are embarrassed so they're quiet and hope it will all go away without anyone noticing.”

But Hosking’s trump card was gratitude. He declared that he was, “in a weird way grateful. Grateful that Labour has clearly woken up to the fact they actually need these people.”

That’s a much smarter tack for Bridges to take in the House. He should make much less fuss about breaking a promise and more about how Labour is tacitly admitting the previous National government was right to import so many people. Indeed, for what other reason would Labour continue with the Key-English policy even after Ardern had promised repeatedly to change it? Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery.

Bridges really needs better strategists on his team or a bound copy of the words of Chairman Mike at hand at all times. It would provide a valuable guide for him on how to deal with every media interaction and every session of Parliament.

It would help Bridges look less ham-fisted but it wouldn’t solve the real problem — Mike Hosking mounts such an effective opposition that he shows up the members of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition who are paid to do the job.

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