New Zealand politics is nicer than its United States counterpart, veteran pollster Stephen Mills claimed this week.
Writing in the Dominion Post, he noted the bitter divide in the US and claimed “the political temperature in New Zealand generally remains lower”.
All rather comforting, no doubt. But when Mr Mills went on to claim it is also highly unlikely political interference in official Department of Statistics figures would be alleged in a New Zealand campaign, something jarred.
Hang on. That did happen, only a year ago.
Building consent figures came out – which the Labour Party did not like – on November 8 last year and its housing spokesman Phil Twyford claimed they had been “massaged” for political benefit.
Statistics New Zealand releases come in many guises and it is hardly unheard of for them to be queried.
And in fact, the release Mr Twyford complained about did seem at odds with some of the underlying data – I was present at the media lockup which took place for that particular release and I strongly queried some aspects of it myself.
It is one thing to question a release: it is quite another to impute a political motive to public servants, especially with no evidence to back that accusation up.
As an aside, you might expect the Public Service Association, the trade union for public sector workers, to be leaping to the defence of Statistics NZ staff.
Ah, but this was a Labour politician making the attack. So, instead, the PSA put out a press release saying how much it liked Labour’s health policy.
Not an isolated case
It is not as though this is an isolated case of Labour attacking a public servant’s integrity when the party just doesn’t like what is going on and cannot think of any other way of criticising the government.
Just last month, when the government set Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Kitteridge to investigate the problems at the Government Communications Security Bureau, Labour claimed Prime Minister John Key was putting his own person into the job.
What is more, the accusation, on a Newstalk ZB discussion panel, was made by veteran Labour MP Annette King, who has been around long enough to know better.
Cabinet secretaries tend to be long serving and work closely with ministers, usually over many governments of all political hues. There are few positions in the public service which more scrupulously adhere to political neutrality.
Similarly, Statistics NZ can cop some flak for its figures at times, but its staff are nerdishly wedded to their data and get skittish at the very notion of anything being tweaked to satisfy the government of the day.
The problem of Labour habitually doing this sort of thing has a number of aspects.
One is, of course, the principled one that New Zealand does have, by and large, a reasonably neutral public service and tarnishing that is highly damaging to the body politic.
It is also very counter-productive for Labour. It sends several messages, none of them good ones.
One is it allows National and its sympathisers to reiterate the claim that "Labour is the Nasty Party".
Second, it sends a the kind of message the US Republicans have been sending over recent years: that the party has retreated into its own world and that anything which happens which does not fit their own world view must be motivated by malign forces.
Strobing the message "we’re a bunch of embittered and angry losers" is not a great way to get people to vote for you.
Just ask the US Republican Party.