Playing fast and loose with the facts

Judith Collins and Gerry Brownlee have shown National's eagerness to play reckless and disingenuous games. Let's hope they're not rewarded for doing so, writes Shane Te Pou. 

Adopting a 'bark at every passing car' strategy, the National Party under Judith Collins is certainly making a lot more noise than it managed under her two predecessors.

All guns are blazing, body count be damned.  

Take Gerry Brownlee's baffling appearance on RNZ's Morning Report the morning after the Newshub-Reid Research Poll showed the party languishing in the mid-20. Rather than brushing the survey off as an outlier and pivoting to more favourable territory - the tried and true political response to dire numbers - Brownlee instead complained at length about its merits. He made two arguments notable for being entirely disingenuous: that one in 20 opinion polls are known to be "rogue" and this must be one such case; and that a survey published in Stuff the day before showed National in a much stronger position.

The first point smacked of desperation; the second, sheer disinformation. 

Brownlee, a consummate insider with deep campaign experience, has been an MP for 24 years. He is the party's campaign chief and there are few, if any, politicians in the country who have spent as much time sifting through opinion polls. So when he cited the Stuff survey to counter Newshub's numbers, he knew exactly what he was doing - namely, completely misstating the facts. 

It's brazen populism, a ploy aimed at winning votes from economically distressed Kiwis by dangling the illusory prospect of easy cash. It's craven and reckless. 

The Stuff research was not an opinion poll at all, but a mass opt-in survey to which any random web surfer could respond. It has no more or less scientific validity than a Facebook questionnaire on which Friends' character you most resemble. Brownlee knows this, but he made the case anyway - plainly hoping host Corin Dann wouldn't point out the glaring flaw (he didn't) and that the audience would fall for it. 

At the very least, Brownlee's effort hints at a troubling willingness under Collins for National to play fast and loose with the facts. 

Two days after Brownlee's Morning Report interview, Collins herself headlined the most egregious example yet of this Trumpian strain of populism - something I had hoped we would avoid as assiduously as Covid. 

Grasping at policy straws but determined to shape the campaign narrative come what may, Collins announced on Wednesday a plan that would allow New Zealanders to withdraw up to $20,000 from their KiwiSaver accounts to invest in small business start-ups. BusinessStart is a transparently bad idea, one that's drawn near-universal condemnation from experts on retirement savings and small business alike. The cynicism and wrongheadedness of the plan came into full view later that day when Collins tweeted this at the PM: "Why is the Labour Party Leader so much happier to see people on the dole than setting up their own business?"

The bad faith framing of the issue is bad enough - Ardern never said that, and never would - but I guess it's pretty much the kind of rhetorical trickery we've come to expect during an election-year silly season. What's far worse is what it reveals about the policy itself. Collins is saying this: in an economy bad enough that people cannot find a job, they should instead tap their meagre retirement savings to take an entrepreneurial punt. And not just to the tune of $20,000; as experts have noted, you would burn closer to double that when you take into account lost interest earnings.  

For most people in today's economic climate, it's inconceivable that a new business with only $20,000 in seed capital could generate enough income in the short- or medium-term, if at all. Even in good times, the majority of small enterprises fail; at this juncture, a programme like BusinessStart would lead to a bankruptcy boom - all while depleting New Zealand's already inadequate national savings. 

I refuse to accept Collins doesn't know all this. She may borrow from his playbook, but she is no deluded ignoramus like Trump. This makes even more disappointing her willingness to tout this economic snake oil to dominate a media cycle or two. It's brazen populism, a ploy aimed at winning votes from economically distressed Kiwis by dangling the illusory prospect of easy cash. It's craven and reckless. 

Terrible policy ideas will come up in politics from time to time, just like bad opinion polls. Over the past week, as they go about saving the furniture, Judith Collins and Gerry Brownlee have shown National's eagerness to play reckless games with both. Let's hope they're not rewarded for doing so.

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