Todd Barclay’s real problem: naïveté

There are those – like today’s editorial writer at the Dominion Post – who think that working for the tobacco industry at all is indefensible, and pretty much rules you out of seeking public office.

But I think Todd Barclay, and his political patrons, have committed a far worse crime: being a bit bloody naïve about how his professional background was going to play.

It doesn’t involve any specialist PR knowledge to figure out that a young man whose CV contains the words “Phillip Morris” is going to be criticised, if not downright attacked, for working for an industry which is generally perceived as having caused, and tried to cover up, the deaths of millions of its customers.

The obvious answer was to play by the Steven Joyce/Judith Collins rules and come out swinging. Take a leaf from the (first half) of Thank You For Smoking. Tobacco is a legal product! The industry has worked hard to ensure users are aware of the risks, but what about freedom of choice, eh? Todd Barclay has proven experience in a multinational industry! He doesn’t do things because they’re popular, he does them because he believes in freedom of speech. Every company has a right to representation!

And throw in some snide digs at the fun-hating Green Party. Try to paint Labour as hypocrites. Declare that your enemies are just jealous that they don’t have a bevy of young up-and-comers to refresh the ranks.

It’s not perfect. It’s an argument better-suited to an ACT party candidate. And it isn’t particularly believable. But it isn’t meant to be. Once you’ve worked for Big Tobacco you’re always going to wear nicotine stains.

And it probably wouldn’t have been too clever to trumpet such a philosophy while the country’s in the midst of a panic about legal highs.

But overriding all that, in the interests of Todd Barclay’s street cred, it also wouldn’t have looked so utterly out-of-touch.

Instead of being a Gerry Brownlee-esque “I make the hard decisions and won’t apologise for it, you simpering leftie schmucks” figure, Todd Barclay has let himself be painted as a vacuous, uncertain empty shirt from day one. He’s taken the John Key approach – make hand-wavey feel-good statements and hope no one pays close attention to the disaster capitalism behind the curtain –without Key’s unnerving middle-New-Zealand appeal.

There was never going to be any getting around the fact Todd Barclay is a tobacco man. National’s options were to rule him out as a candidate; figure out how to make his weakness a strength, at least so the voters of Southland can convince themselves their votes aren’t being taken for granted; or look like utter numpties who can’t predict a story and can’t manage bad news.

Given their history in government, it’s baffling that they went with Option 3.

What do you reckon?

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