The politicians’ traditional “walkabouts” are painted as a chance to come face to face with “real New Zealand”.

The problem is that “real New Zealand” succumbs to an attack of manners and tells porky pies when they are confronted with a politician, especially when that politician is the Prime Minister.

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Politicians leave such encounters – rambles through shopping malls, or factory floors – thinking they are loved and admired. Only when they are out of earshot does the truth out.

Exhibit A: The Ethans. Ethan, 16, and Ethan, 17, mates who met Prime Minister John Key on a balmy day in Tauranga yesterday. Key had gone to the Waimarie Training Centre as a form of stocktake on his Government’s policies to address youth unemployment. He met a lot of people, all of whom said a lot of things he wanted to hear: that they hated being on benefits, that they approved of the new youth rates because it gave them a chance, and that they were doing well.

The two Ethans told Key of their dreams. Ethan I wanted to train in engineering welding. He had left school in Year 9 because “mumble, mumble, school was pretty ratshit”.

Ethan II showed Key his tattoos and Key was suitably impressed when he was told Ethan had designed them himself and wanted to be a tattoo artist.

After Key left, there was a fuller story. “I think he’s a bastard,” an indignant Ethan I said. “He’s a bastard because he won’t legalise the green.”

He went on to say he couldn’t tell Key this, because it would be rude to tell the Prime Minister he was a bastard for not legalising cannabis.

Adding to his woes was that the Government had made Kronic illegal. He was now stuck with only the force of energy drinks to keep him going.

The walkabout is one of the more amusing perennials of a campaign. In themselves, they collect precious few votes. But the politicians must do them simply to be seen doing them.

They are an integral part of the three-yearly ritual humiliation, a tangible show of bowing before the feet of the people in return for a tick.

In 2008, Key was the master of the walkabout. He did small talk well and he took risks, venturing where Tories should fear to tread. No South Auckland mall was safe. By contrast, Helen Clark was more reserved, tending to stick to safe Labour territory – again, no South Auckland mall was safe – and shake hands quickly before moving on.

The Key of this election is slightly different from the hopeful, excited but lesser-known Key who stalked the malls and footpaths in 2008, driven by the taste of pending victory.

For the first week of this campaign he appeared slightly lacklustre, whether because he was still otherwise engaged in running the country and trying to sort out various disasters, or because he was more complacent with a nice lead in the polls to cushion him.

Conversations in Matamata comprised asking schoolchildren what school they went to, followed by an “oh yeah”. In Hamilton, it was asking about Sonny Bill Williams. It was not until yesterday that he appeared as if he was enjoying it, telling those young people about his own children and asking for their views of the youth wage National had proposed.

Nonetheless the benefit of walkabouts is that they can be a good barometer for what matters to the ordinary voters. And a walkabout with Key makes it quite clear that personality does matter.

In Matamata, they lined up in the streets ahead of him in wait. Nobody talked about policy – what they wanted was a photo. He walked through leaving a string of “oh, he was so nice” in his wake.

In Tauranga, the Ethans were less impressed than those folk of Matamata. Ethan I suddenly turned serious, saying he was at the training centre to try and “do something better with my life, sort myself out”.

“Do you really mean that?” I ask.

“Yeah, I do.”

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And then: “but can you put in the paper that the Ethans think he should legalise the green?”

Source: New Zealand Herald (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2011 New Zealand Herald
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