Politics

Sometimes you should sweat the small stuff

While delving into the details of how Simon Bridges got hold of Budget 2019 details can bring out partisan nastiness and seem like nothing compared to the lives of real people, process matters and it's good someone is keeping watch, says Liam Hehir.

This column by Bernard Hickey was interesting and, as a friend put it, is getting a lot of online love. There is a lot in it to agree with (for example, the degrading atavisms cultivated by social media). Its essential thesis, however, is that the focus on things like the Budget leak is very inside Wellington and something that nobody outside the bubble really cares about and is beside the point. We should care less about the controversy of the week and focus more on the substantive outcomes of politics.

On one level - an important one - I get it and agree. For years during the Key era, I wrote about the way the dozens of little contretemps touted as “game changers” were anything but, since they didn’t really touch on people’s overall confidence in the government’s economic management. Those pieces were never heralded for their wisdom, quite naturally, since they argued against the always prophesied Watergating of John Key.

But something I don’t think I ever wrote (and think I was careful to try to avoid implying) was that those small eruptions, while not decisive in terms of the overall picture, were not worthy of coverage. The framing of those things as being important for the horse-race or the overall wellbeing of the country was incorrect. That didn’t mean they weren’t bona fide matters for the Opposition to oppose and the press to air and debate.*

Take the wolves out the food-chain ... and the cascading effects will be felt soon enough. It won’t be long before you have deer stripping the bark from the trees in your backyard.

Think about the upcoming re-election campaign of the US President which, at this stage, is likely to focus on the roaring economy. With full employment rates in sight and growth at levels much higher than were under the graceful Obama, the vulgar Trump will argue that all the scandals plaguing his administration are distractions. And it looks like the people tend to agree, given that by some measures Trump has better approval ratings than Obama did at this point in their respective presidencies.  This is not too surprising, of course, given that we all know that the economy is always uppermost in the minds of voters.  

So, if you asked some schoolchildren in America about what they thought was important, do you think they would nominate Attorney-General William Barr’s refusal to release the full, unredacted Mueller report to Congress? If not, does that mean that organisations like The Washington Post should call off scrutinising the potential administrative sins of the Trump administration?  If the answer to that question is no, why shouldn’t those interested in politics engage in a vigorous debate about the possibly partisan shenanigans of the most powerful organ in what is supposed to be a neutral public service?

Is it simply a question of situational ethics? It’s hard to see what else it is, when the same types of questions are threats to the realm in 2016 but distractions in 2019.

Those who engage with political minutiae are a bit like the timberwolves of the political eco-system. Few people in the town think about what happens in the wooded hills on a day-to-day basis and when they do pay attention, pack-hunting might not be the prettiest thing to watch. Take the wolves out the food-chain, however, and the cascading effects will be felt soon enough. It won’t be long before you have deer stripping the bark from the trees in your backyard.

If the smaller fiascos and debacles (over which reporters and commentators actually have some influence) are set to one side to allow more focus on the big, substantive issues (over which they really have none), then we risk inviting vice into the country. By that, I don’t mean the occasional thing which is blessedly treated as a big deal in our quiet country today. I refer instead to the insidious, systematic subversion that occurs when people know there will be no pressure for adverse consequences (the absence of which can actually ruin a country).

It was true under National and it is true under Labour. That may be inconvenient to you when your side is in power, but that doesn't make it any less true.

* This isn't to say that horse-race and (especially) substantive policy coverage are pointless either, of course. There is a place for all three and writing about one does not preclude you from also writing about the other.

This article originally appeared on The Pundit.

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