The Kill List

Joe Nunweek on his most-hated annual news event

There’s only so much open pleas to the NZ media will get you. I don’t care if bored journalists copy-and-paste press releases from PR agencies, I don’t care if news sites run with vulturine clickbait headlines when name suppression orders get lifted, I don’t particularly care if Bob Jones’s estate bequeaths untold thousands of deep-cut unpublished columns to the press one day and they obediently run them all. You have to pick your battles.

But I’m asking you all this for the next go-round this time in 2016. Stop publicising the awful MP rankings that the Trans Tasman Political Letter dole out. Don’t touch them, don’t cover them, select and move to spam.

This ghastly little holiday-time ritual comes annually with its dweebish rankings of everyone from the Prime Minister to the lowest and greenish backbencher, just around the time politics as an actual phenomenon experienced by actual people – tenants, charity workers, beneficiaries, casual employees – starts to rear its ugly head in the tough end of the year.

The rankings drivel on about how Anne Tolley is getting on top of a complex area and prepared to front issues frankly and how Damian O’Connor is a veteran but one who still has some energy left. Green MP Jan Logie must try not to look like she’s about to cry. They’re corrosive to politics as a grassroots and practical process, the horserace writ impossibly arcane for a nowhere corner of the world. Some writers don’t like the ‘presidential’ style of pitting a Prime Minister against a Leader of the Opposition. The Trans Tasman rankings pit all our elected representatives against each other in a leaderboard of nightmares. It absolutely makes me crack it.

What kind of organisation does this, the kind of undertaking of time and effort that should command as much serious regard as a list of 120 Main Trunk line trains or Best 120 Top Gear episodes? Horribly, the rankings are partially credited to an anonymous “highly respected team of Capital insiders”, but the Political Letter itself is published by The Main Report Group, a Christchurch-based company. In its liminal state of Word-formatted physical newsletter and paywall product, you can’t really see most of the Letter, but Kiwiblog’s David Farrar often quotes liberally from its rare-nug insights:

What those who label Key as “Teflon John” or “Lucky John” can’t fathom is the leadership skills the PM brings to the job. These include an ability to communicate unmatched by previous PMs, and an unerring instinct connecting with the issues of the day, allied to a systemic cheerfulness. Key’s own personal chemistry has blunted the inherent rivalry visible in previous administrations where Ministers jostled for advancement. The result is a sense of teamwork between the PM and his senior Ministers unrivalled in NZ’s political history …
Opposition activist, and Labour folk in particular, have a growing obsession with what people like Farrar and his tribal compadre, Matthew Hooton, say about them. Sometime Labour staffer and researcher Rob Salmond recently wrote the Northland by-election was effectively a win for Labour because Andrew Little chose not to compete, and when teased about it by Hooton he, and DimPost blogger Danyl McLauchlin, expressed worries if Little had done, and had inevitably failed to win the seat, people like Farrar and Hooton would have mocked him.

If you’re stumped and uninspired, that’s fine. The Letter appears to be paratext about the paratext, beltway politics for people (who?) that think that existing political insiders in the Press Gallery aren’t insidery enough.

Elsewhere, the MRG pushes “The Monday Morning Eye Opener” (‘proven advice, ideas and tips you can use today…to increase profits and to do your job better’) and the “New Zealand Health and Wealth Report” (“helps develop seven key areas to get the best out of your life….health, money, career, relationships, learning, recreation and spirituality”). A $199 unlimited electronic report for businesses promises to teach you how to be an effective commuicator.

A couple of honest-to-god industry newsletters in energy and logistics pad things out, but otherwise they represent that Grey Sector of the publishing and marketing world you’ll never hear about unless you’re in its crosshairs – invariably the older, the less tech-savvy, the would-be itinerant thinkers fed a mix of aphorisms and freely accessible information as collated secret wisdom. “"Full of good tips for a better life. Motivates and focuses me on the positive aspects of living. Good reporting." writes Andrew of Hikurangi. "Excellent source of imagination with many different views, people from all walks of life, can interpret & take on board." says a Shell manager from New Plymouth.

Like the direct marketers profiled in Rick Perlstein’s landmark “The Long Con”, but without their wilful mendacity, the MRG tows a line in upbeat plainspokeness, one that carries through to the rankings with an air of gleeful tattle. Politicians HATE them! It gives the rankings a sense of telling it how it is, when really they’re just spooling out a number of unedifying, awful opinions, pumping out more content into the world that challenges precisely no-one.

Here’s some gems from the last few rankings:

“Clever, ambitious but sometimes a bit sour faced” (on Amy Adams, National in 2011)

“Passionate about her portfolios and loves to work. But Labour really needed its Labour MPs to be a bit more visible and less of a girly swot” (on Maryan Street, Labour, in 2011)

“Nice version of Sue Bradford” (on Jan Logie, Greens, 2011)

“Poor old Katrina, an intelligent and capable woman but needs to be more aggressive to make an impact” (on Katrina Shanks, National , 2012)

“One of the dullest speakers in the house, painful to listen to. If you can stay awake, he sometimes has something to contribute.” (on David Clendon, Greens, 2012)

“Will have to do more if her greatest achievement will be just to achieve the moniker of ‘first profoundly deaf MP in Parliament’ (on Mojo Mathers, Greens, 2012)

“Earnest, solid and boring but she’s got some deadly dull portfolios” (on Jo Goodhew, Minister of the Community and Voluntary Sector, Senior Citizens, and Women’s Affairs, 2013)

“Has slightly improved his delivery in the House, but coming from a very low base.” (Kanwaljit Bakshi Singh, National, 2013)

“A former police officer who knows what he’s talking about. What he has to say is vastly better than the usual waffle.” (Mike Sabin, National, 2014)

“Smile, please. He has worthwhile points to make. It’s just so depressing listening to him.” (David Clendon, Greens, 2014)

“She has been ineffective in social housing – but did crack down on tenants, telling them not to be too picky.” (Paula Bennett, National, 2015)

“Pushed extended hours for bars during the World Cup and did what she could to act on criminals returning from Aust” (Amy Adams, 2015)

And so on. To peruse half a decade of these rankings is to enjoy tidal levels of glib about genuine political plights (state housing, offshore detention camps, cack-handed charter school experiments in poorer communities) that ‘Capital insiders’ will never have to engage with. Working around the shape of what they don’t like, it’s possible to construct the Political Letter’s ideal politician – not too emotional, good at public speaking in an upper middle-class Kiwi register (blokey but not too provincial, not shrill, no accent, not deaf).

And that means good at public speaking in the grandstanding cut-and-thrust of Parliament, because these rankings didn’t and don’t particularly care if elected representatives are doing things like working hard in select committee or, god forbid, their constituencies. If you do have portfolios, make sure it’s an exciting cloak-and-dagger one like foreign affairs, not old people or community sector work. Last year, Danyl McLauchlan actually ran the numbers, and it’s zero surprise that the best way to perform on these lists is to be a middle-aged white man in Cabinet.

I have zilch idea on how much attention politicians actually pay to this annual list, but I hope it’s none. Partly because it’s ad hominem snark from people whose personal great yearly achievement is a list of MPs from the 123rd largest country in the world, partly because it would be horrible to take a lot of its advice. It could be argued that most politicians already spend too much time in the capital already, scoring points and face-time with those in the know. That’s time with the prevailing ideology of their parties and their main associated lobbyists and interest groups, and not with the groups they’re directly brought in to represent.

Think about how often it is that you actually see an MP go HAM against their careerist self-interest to get something done in their own backyard. Think too on NZ’s worldbeatingly hopeless and un-coordinated approach to anything like regional development. Talking about politics in a way that puts a premium of the corridors of power is directly harmful to places like Northland, the West Coast, Kawerau, and Gisborne.

(A note on constituencies, too. The Political Letter’s power stans are as happily oblivious as anyone else covering politics to the fact that list MPs might have groups of people they represent or that this might be valuable and time-consuming work. Apparently they do good work with their communities, the editors surmise wryly about the likes of Singh and Mathers, persistent bottom-ranking MPs. Whatever your views on their politics, those efforts are important and made possible by the MMP system we’ve got. Save for geographical enclaves of Sikhs or people with disabilities suddenly forming overnight, neither politician would be there).

Most of all, beltway trash lists like this do a disservice to the public. They don’t come down hard on politicians, an ongoing and complex process that involves interrogating a person’s beliefs, statements and actions over time. They’re just broadly, lazily cynical, and serve to reaffirm the larger irrelevance of politics as it's discussed and communicated to the wider population. Even I feel less inspired to vote and participate after reading these lists, and I hate it. If you work in a newsroom and have a say in how to pad out the content come the start of summer, do us all a favour next year. Run sponsored content for an app for regular voiding, or a Step Dave retrospective, or a funny 404 link. Just not this. Just don’t engage.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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