Never give in to election fatigue

I spent last Friday in the company of people Sir Geoffrey Palmer jokingly referred to as ‘Wellington tragics’.

We were in Wellington for the launch of The 9th Floor book, RNZ’s incredibly successful series of interviews with five former Prime Ministers. It was at this event that Palmer made that quip about the kind of people who’d turn up for a political book launch on a Friday night. ‘Wellington tragics’ was his way of isolating that small group of people from the rest of the New Zealand population who he believes don’t understand or care enough about the way the country is governed.

We’d come down from Auckland for the event (I’d be keen to know what Palmer would call us for doing that) and while we were looking forward to the night, I had been saying to a few people that week that I was suffering from a case of ‘election fatigue’. I’d listened to RNZ’s Caucus podcast on the way down and was starting to wonder if I was ingesting too much political media, rehearsing my ‘election fatigue’ line in my head in case I needed it that night.

It was a typical Wellington day, windy and grey, and we took the long way into the city around the bays. The wind was the unrelenting kind, smacking you in the face as you rounded each corner. It served as an appropriate although somewhat Bronte-esque metaphor for me as I listened to Newsroom’s Bernard Hickey on The Panel talking about covering this year’s election, noting the increasing speed of news gave him and others less time to provide perspective or in-depth analysis.

Later on, as the wind continued to howl outside, with Te Marae at Te Papa shuddering a bit, I sat on the floor with the other tragics and listened to the four Prime Ministers, Jim Bolger, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Dame Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark with the book’s co-author and series presenter and interviewer Guyon Espiner, be interviewed by the other co-author and series producer, Tim Watkin.

It might have been an unforgiving and nasty evening outside but inside, a room full of people was immersed in a world of magnanimous humour, dignity and statesperson-ship. It was political yes, yet it also wasn’t, with very little talk of the current campaigns. It felt like a reprieve from the politics of today and, at the risk of running out my licence-to-tend-towards-the-dramatic, it was almost religious in its tone – not a fervent, whipped up revival session but a respectful and liberal broad church where people came to make peace with their differences.

Each Prime Minister reflected on participating in the series, with everyone bar Palmer having initially expressed some hesitation about doing the interviews.. All had the kind of perspective on their tenure that can only be shaped by hindsight and for a brief hour it also felt like we, as audience members, had the luxury of time to reflect on our own roles in the body politic.

Clark mentioned the thing that had been occupying my mind that day, the changing media landscape, mentioning that in the 70s, her advertising and communications strategy comprised an ad in the classifieds that said ‘Don’t let Morrinsville become Moronsville. Vote Clark’.

Bolger delivered an impassioned plea for Māori to have a bigger place in politics, reflecting on his role in negotiating the Ngai Tahu settlement, and suggesting if we had an upper chamber it should be 50 percent Māori. He also championed diversity and more immigration.

The Prime Ministeral panel with Guyon Espiner and Tim Watkin are introduced at Te Papa for the launch of The 9th Floor book. Photo: Troy Rawhiti-Forbes

Shipley really highlighted the value of The 9th Floor in giving their voice to the events of each of their times in the role. A reprieve from the more common scenario for all of them which is to read or hear about what others thought of it.

Palmer was liveliest when discussing his deep-seated belief that we all need to be more engaged in politics and to better understand how we are governed and how we can be involved. His hands flew as he insisted we all had a role to play in our democracy and his words on that subject have stuck with me the most, providing a more powerful smack in the face than the Wellington wind.

The 9th Floor, in all its guises, is the product of time – time to create it and subjects who’d had the time to reflect. It is an undeniable success and will be part of New Zealand’s political canon for years to come. It exemplifies many of the best characteristics of a free media and a healthy democracy and it would be easy to walk away from Friday’s event bemoaning the state of all other media or to isolate it as an exception to the rule when it comes to contributing to my ‘election fatigue’.

It would also be an easy conclusion for me to wrap this piece up using The 9th Floor as the ultimate compare-and-contrast to the news cycle I listened to Bernard talk about that very same day. But to do so would be to ignore two things and sell the impact of the event on me short.

First, it was an enormous privilege to be at that launch. But being there has only highlighted what an enormous privilege it is to be able to access all forms of media, discourse, debate and discussion as we head into this election. In New Zealand, as opposed to many other nation states, the fourth estate is exactly that, a functioning pillar of a healthy democracy and engaging with it is engaging in our democracy. Live streamed, live tweeted, live blogged, fast-paced, quickly turned around news blasts should all be celebrated as part of the media mix we’re allowed to freely access.

Secondly, moaning about ‘election fatigue’ because of all of that lovely media is some messed up privilege at play and Friday only served to remind me of that. To have the time and capacity to indulge in such a large diet of media that directly informs my views and knowledge on political matters isn’t something I should ever take for granted. In many studies on political disenfranchisement, media consumption directly correlates to socio-economic status and while Palmer is right in his call for all of us to be more engaged, many people in New Zealand don’t feel they have much reason to engage with politics and that is not something we should ever stop acknowledging and talking about.

My next column will be immediately after the election. If over the next two weeks, you have the opportunity to share your knowledge or give hope and encouragement to someone who doesn’t think their vote counts, please do. It’s too important not to and it would be great if we could give Sir Geoffrey a reason to expand his definition of the politically engaged to something beyond a bunch of ‘Wellington tragics’.

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