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The worm in action and the worm dial (Image design: Tina Tiller)
The worm in action and the worm dial (Image design: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsOctober 12, 2023

The worm electrocuted politics in 2002. Now we’re living in the worm’s world

The worm in action and the worm dial (Image design: Tina Tiller)
The worm in action and the worm dial (Image design: Tina Tiller)

Knowing what voters thought in real time was considered radical and dangerous in 2002. Now it’s the governing reality of our politics.

At its core, the idea seems snatched from a proto-Charlie Brooker dystopia. Politicians debate while an audience of undecided voters watches, and assesses the speaker live by turning a dial ranging from “very good” to “very dull”. The combined verdict is expressed as a crude “worm” graphic overlaid on screen as they speak to a massive pre-election audience. Everyone involved gets measurably more stupid throughout the experience.

The stunt was used off and on from 1996-2011, but had an outsized influence on the 2002 election in particular – the aftermath of the debate is available on NZ on Screen, and is the only prime-time worm footage available online. The debate thrust United Future from shrugging indifference into government, with an impressive eight MPs. Looking back on it now, in the era when everyone carries a multimedia publishing platform in their pocket, it’s quaint to imagine that public opinion was so opaque. Yet this narrow glimpse of it could and did change an election.

The actual, real-life operating dial of the worm (Image: Screengrab)

To get a sense of how the worm behaved, what it liked and loathed, it’s worth looking at a single statement. The Alliance’s Laila Harré ripped through a list of broad and uncontroversial goals: a decent public health system, high quality education etc. The worm loved it. She was onto a winner.

Then she wobbled. “Yes it costs.” The public didn’t like that. The worm turned. “But if the wealthiest paid a little bit more…” A chorus of boos erupt, and the worm plunges deep into “dull” territory, never to recover. There’s a clear message here: tell the public what they’re going to get – but do not, under any circumstances, mention that it might have to be paid for by someone at some point.

Laila Harré committing wormicide (Image: Screengrab)

If you want to make the worm happy, there are easy ways to do it. Act leader Richard Prebble has an idea. “We’ve got to stop letting violent criminals out of jail.” The worm is aroused, it’s heading toward the upper reaches of the stratosphere. Then he pulls out the heavy artillery. “If you do the crime, you should do the time.” The worm breaks its moorings, it flies directly into the sun. Truly, it seems to break the machine when Prebble breaks out the crime-time rhyme, like it’s about to do a burnout and donuts. An all-time, unmatchable worm peak is unlocked.

The worm as Icarus (Image: screengrab)

Still, while Prebble hits the high, he also plumbs lows. The worm’s true master is United Future leader Peter Dunne, who with his aggressive centrism and addiction to “common sense”, seems to hypnotise the worm. It sits, entirely tamed, floating serenely above the line. Neither rocketing into space nor ever threatening to dip. “It’s time to take a clear stand against decriminalising cannabis,” he says, as a young Bill English watches him swallow 5% of National’s support whole.

Six years earlier, the worm made its debut during the first MMP election. Its most notorious moment came when then-PM Jim Bolger had the temerity to acknowledge that “death is always associated with healthcare”. (I would love to watch that debate, but TVNZ’s news archive is meagre – a section of TVNZ+ with a complete archive of election debates would be an extraordinary yet low-cost piece of public service.) The worm hated Bolger’s uncontroversial and obviously true statement, and Bolger hated the worm. “I think it’s a total irrelevancy that has no place in intelligent discussion,” he said at the time. 

Peter Dunne, lord of the worm (Image: Screengrab)

He’s correct, obviously. The idea that five settings – “”very good”, “good”, “normal” (!), “dull”, “very dull” – could map to the complexity of politics is asinine. But also, knowing how regular voters are responding to policy and personality in real time is transfixing. It’s understandable, watching it back, how that one relatively small and visual change to the debate ended up having such a shattering impact. In 1996 it became a constantly-covered talking point, up to and including accusations of partisan plants in the audience. In 2002 it rocketed Dunne from deserved obscurity to bringing a handful of bewildered MPs along with him to parliament.

Now here we sit 21 years on, and the worm is but a memory. TVNZ retired it after another controversial turn in the 2005 election, and while TV3 revived it in 2011, its predictive power proved limited as it called the debate for Labour leader Phil Goff, soon to be trounced by his opponent John Key. 

But while the worm is gone from our screens, it is still with us in a way. In fact, it feels like we live in the worm’s world now – you never have to wonder what anyone thinks about anything a politician says. That final year, 2011, is around the time that social media went mainstream and became a giant always-on, all-of-population worm. It’s when tech became the staging ground of elections and our lives, rather than an occasional diversion. 

In this way, our political environment feels profoundly shaped by the worm even now. Few issues raised lately are all that different from those debated in 2002, nor the solutions proposed. The desire for awesome public service remains, as does the revulsion at the idea of any new tax to pay for it. We are dealing with a profusion of smaller parties and a much-diminished vote share for the purple majors. We are still electing Winston Peters. It’s like we’re forever frozen in that moment, with no major party willing to deviate from a relatively small policy envelope.

There are some things which have thankfully changed. TVNZ’s 2002 debate coverage was entirely staffed by white guys – Paul Holmes, Peter Williams, Colin James, Chris Trotter, Mark Sainsbury and Cliff Joiner. Seemed fine at the time. Other elements perhaps deserve reviving – having all parties on stage for one debate at least allows you to see them as equals, which feels democratic and very much of a piece with MMP. It refreshingly implies starting each election with a clean slate. 

Still, the most depressing note of contrast is just how rare and arresting it was for live public opinion to be part of our politics. Within the TVNZ broadcast, lecturer Juliet Roper expresses dismay over the worm leading us away from the debate of issues and onto the politicians’ on-screen performance. This had arguably been happening since the dawn of television, but still seems to have accelerated in what has been accurately described as the “vibes era of politics”

While there have been many great things about the rise of social media and user generated content, it has downsides too. It can feel like comments sections of political stories at present are a giant and chaotic rendering of “very dull” or “very good”. 

It can also feel like our would-be prime ministers are so hyper-aware of this dynamic that public statements and policy announcements are largely driven by a combination of polling, focus groups and the pulse of social media sentiment. As a result, the room for bold policy which might change our political reality gets tossed before it’s even launched, lest it get a negative early read from voters. Meet the new worm, even worse than the old one.

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