Lean Green PR machine gets into gear with Sargent's pre-election victory

TO be told, on television, that you're not as much of a pain in the arse as the presenters expected may not sound like a ringing endorsement. But it was.

To be so informed (in even filthier language) by two smutty and priapic figurines might not seem politically relevant. But it was.

The two figurines were Podge and Rodge. The one being flattered was Trevor Sargent, Leader of the Green Party. The encounter was pivotally significant.

Here’s why. Shorn of commentator-speak, the key question of the next general election is “But would the other lot be any better?”

Brendan Gleeson’s outburst on the Late Late Show lit a fire of criticism under the Government. Gangs, drugs and trolleys summed up the administration and Bertie had a nerve, telling any of us to take social responsibility. How the hell could we, tied up as we were with gangs, drugs and trolleys? (never mind that half the country LEFT the country in Holy Week so their children could meet Mickey Mouse in Orlando, leaving the gangs, drugs and trolleys to the stay-at-homes).

At the end of the venting, the question came back like the chorus in a familiar song: “But would the other lot be any better?”

Therein lies the nub of the next election, which will be fought on two factors: competence and personality.

At this point, every political science graduate in the nation who didn’t get the chance to go to Disneyland and is reading this instead, is sighing softly and murmuring the mantra that policy is central. Yeah, right. Of course it is.

It’s just about as central to election winning as Angelina Jolie’s appreciation of UNICEF policy is central to her work for that organisation. The fame, the looks, the love-life and the cute multi-ethnic kids are purely peripheral? Hmmm.

This is not to say that political parties don’t need policies or policy-makers. Of course they do.

Policy-makers are like engineers. If you don’t have an engineer involved in crafting your office-building, water doesn’t come out of the taps and the staff can breathe only by breaking windows and sticking their heads out in the rain.

But nobody buys an office block because of its engineering plan and nobody buys a political party because of its manifesto.

Which is why engineers sulk a lot over not being famous like architects, anaesthetists resent being unappreciated compared to heart surgeons, and policy makers pout over ad agencies and media trainers getting the credit when their party wins.

In theory, democracy works by the majority picking the government they want.

That isn’t how it now works in Ireland. One of the best talkers belonging to one of the smallest parties has even gone up ladders to establish that if the majority vote for a particular party, they might get what they wanted and that would be bad for them.

Instead of the majority picking the government they want, what now happens is that the majority pick the government they want, a small minority pick the government THEY want and the two groups thus selected then get together and negotiate a programme nobody wanted.

It’s fun, educational and works quite well. Twenty-first century democracy in Ireland is not about electing governments but creating negotiating positions. An Irish version of President Bush’s Intelligent Design: you have faith that someone or something supernatural has a handle on things.

This is not a great leap for clever people to take: AA members do it several times a week and stay sober as a result.

For a political party to get into the crucial negotiating position, post-election, enough of their people have to be a) known and b) not such eejits that the voter would be embarrassed to confess they put X beside their names.

Voters, in short, must recognise and believe enough to give a quick and positive answer to the question “But would the other lot be any better?”

Getting recognised and seen, not just as competent, but as more competent than two experienced Government parties is as easy as climbing Mount Everest in Jimmy Choo sandals.

WHILE appearances on current affairs programmes and news pages are important, the Bill Clinton soft-media lesson should never be missed.

Never mind all that guff about texting being important. What makes human beings go to the trouble of voting for candidates is a sense that they know and like the individual for whom they’re voting.

Clinton playing his saxophone on chat shows delivered that sense of affiliative knowledge, as did George Bush’s wink, thumbs-up and joking with the hacks approach, whereas Al Gore delivering data on current affairs debates caused distant admiration - the kind of admiration won by the class nerd - but not the necessary sense of connectedness.

Today’s Irish equivalent of the Bill Clinton saxophone opportunities is (or are) Podge and Rodge. No, don’t all rush at once, lads. It’s been done and won.

The definitive political performance has been delivered. Nobody else is ever going to have such a good outing as Trevor Sargent did.

Someone in his PR machine (and I suspect “machine” may be over-stating it by a mile) saw the potential when Podge and Rodge cancelled an invitation to Trevor to appear.

Instead of saying “Thanks be to J,” as normal sensible people would have done, the Greens issued an impassioned attack on P&R for lacking the courage to have The Sargent on their programme. P&R re-invited him.

Now, when a programme participant gets re-invited because of making a fuss, the hosts lie in the long-grass waiting to sink teeth (or in P&R’s case, wooden jaws) in the guest’s most vulnerable parts.

So, in this case, when the Green Leader got assertive early on and asked a question. P&R did everything but hit him. They told him they were in charge of the questions and he had answering-rights only. He was not to be getting notions.

The questions came, thick and fast, from that bottomless bucket of beliefs starting with the one that the Greens are terribly nice but given to tree-hugging in their sandals after a good feed of brown rice while worrying pointlessly about the hole in the ozone layer. Trevor Sargent told them that as red-heads, they were particularly endangered by the sun attacking them through the ozone hole.

P&R came right back at him, suggesting that the Greens didn’t have much in the way of women. Not so, he replied. Not only were there lots of Green women, but they were slim, fit and fanciable (OK, I added that last word) because they cycled everywhere.

Trevor Sargent, in common with most serious politicians, probably sees the Podge and Rodge appearance as a bit of fun, rather than a serious outing like the Late, Late Show, Q&A or Prime Time.

It was much more than that. It was a first step towards answering that killer question: But would the other lot be any better? Now all that remains for all the opposition parties is the rest of Mt Everest and the four-inch heels. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

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