In case you’ve just returned from Saturn, there was a debate on the Island last Saturday that nearly ended in bloodshed, albeit of the broken-nose variety.
The debate itself was all good fun, with a delightfully ambiguous outcome, but a comment made by Bruce Davis-Goff during the negative side’s closing speech provoked one listener to threaten physical violence unless Bruce “shut the hell up”. Bruce’s comment is worth analysing in some detail, because like much of his humour it combines a deep contempt for political correctness with a sharp political commentary.
Early on during the debate, Denise Roche described her affirmative team as “the A-Team” — a label laden with irony, as none of the three affirmative debaters could remotely be described as supporters of the “A-Team” currently running for the Waiheke Local Board. It was an irony that did not escape Bruce’s tender attentions as he began his closing speech.
Pretending to confuse the two A-Teams, Bruce made reference to the slick, overphotoshopped billboard promoting the candidacies of Faye Storer, Don McKenzie, and Jo Holmes presently gracing the kerbsides of our island. The production values of this billboard are curious. While the waxed smiles and precise hairdos make Faye and Jo look youthful, energetic and happy, the same cannot be said for Don. Instead of portraying him as focused and articulate, which is how he comes across in person, the image makes him look detached, weak, perhaps stoned. The billboard can have an eye-catching, slightly disturbing effect, especially for someone who doesn’t know Don is blind; and I’m sure that’s exactly what its designers had in mind, on the principle that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Bruce quipped that his eight-year-old was “still in therapy because she came around the corner and saw the A-Team poster. She did ask me, ‘Is that one in the middle a ventriloquist?'” Making fun of a blind man’s appearance was too low a blow for the punter who threatened to disrupt the proceedings, but it contains the following kernel of truth.
What the child meant, of course, was not that the “one in the middle” looked like a ventriloquist, but that he looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy. The ventriloquist is the one who controls the puppet and gives it voice. And from a political point of view, one can argue that Don has abandoned his own voice in the service of the A-Team party line. For those who have concerns about the direction that the present board has been taking us, this is a bad thing.
Bruce’s comment also goes to the heart of the A-Team’s election strategy, and this I think explains the apoplectic reaction to it (since removed) on Jo Holmes’s blog. The A-Team understand that their present control of four of the five board seats was a fluke of the 2010 electoral landscape and that, even if public opinion had not shifted in the interim, it would be unlikely to recur this year. Therefore they have wisely selected their three strongest personalities and have discouraged other rightward-leaning candidates from diluting their efforts.
Their opponents on the Essentially Waiheke team, meanwhile, started out with three candidates (Becs Ballard, Beatle Treadwell, and Paul Walden); have since taken on a fourth (John Meeuwsen); and now “endorse” a fifth (Shirin Brown). Their efforts are thus less focused but more diverse. If most Waiheke voters are ideological bloc voters, the Greenies have the better chance. If they are pick-and-choose voters, the A-Team have a tighter scrum line. Faye is calculating that we are a pick-and-choose bunch, and she may be right.
If, however, one of the team turns out to have a weaker appeal than the other two, then even a pick-and-choose electorate may return only two of the A-Team members to the board. This is where Bruce’s comment is sharp. Faye and Jo were elected in 2010 because everyone knew who they were and where they stood politically. Nobody was surprised when they turned into a team. Don, on the other hand, was elected based largely on his extensive community service; he has been involved in community organisations for decades and would have been expected to bring his unique experiences and concerns to the political world. Instead of revealing a unique voice, however, both he and Jim Hannan gave themselves up completely to the us-versus-them dynamic that took hold immediately after the 2010 elections. In other words, they became “ventriloquees”.
So the question on which the entire election may turn is this: Has Don, by offering up his voice, also compromised his own electoral appeal? In my opinion he had the best shot of any of the board members at statesmanship. I voted for him in 2010 based on that promise, and I suspect that many of his 1377 other supporters did too. We might have hoped that he would at least try to reach across the ideological divide during his three years in office. Instead, he took sides.
Regardless of whom you blame for the divide, that’s a pity. And whatever you may think of Bruce’s style of humour, he nailed this one.