Dancing with the stars: Waltz there to lose?

Analysis – So, Marama Fox has joined the ranks of those wanting to dance with the stars on the telly.

She certainly has some fancy footwork, chutzpah and plenty of jive, as we learnt when she stormed out of an interview on The Nation in 2016. But in strutting her stuff on ‘shiny floor‘ TV, the Māori Party co-leader-come-housing developer risks following in the footsteps of some political dance disasters.

Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

Ms Fox joins ACT‘s David Seymour on this year‘s show, and the cruel of heart will be asking if this is the programme where politicians go to die. History tells us the dancefloor is littered with the corpses of political hopefuls who were sure nobody could put Baby in a corner … and yet couldn‘t quite form a successful coalition with their partner (and sometimes their own feet!).

Around the world, politicians have been regulars on these dance shows, presumably because producers see the appeal of people performing against type. Politics and, well, fun, seem such unlikely bedfellows these days! In Britain, the likes of Edwina Curry, Sir Vince Cable and most famously Ann Widdicombe have tangoed their way through Strictly Come Dancing. Former shadow Chancellor and aspiring Labour leader Ed Ball also had a crack and went far on the show, apparently in an attempt to lighten his public image and cha-cha his way towards Downing Street.

As Aeron Davis, professor of political communication at Goldsmiths University, told the Guardian in 2016: “Appearing on a reality TV show and having a popular frontline face and being able to use media in other ways, new media and old media, can get you quite far now”.

Of course, that was the year Donald Trump, once the host of The Apprentice, became president; the power of reality TV in politics seemed to be a very clear and present danger. Sadly for Mr Ball, however, he remains out of parliament and Jeremy Corbyn is still Labour leader. No guarantees then.

David Seymour on Dancing With The Stars Photo: Newshub

In the US, congressman Tom DeLay took part in season nine of Dancing with the Stars, before withdrawing due to stress fractures. He was convicted two years later (though that was later overturned). No one has been able to confirm a link with his appearance on the programme.

About the time Mr Trump was on his way to winning the US election, former Republican contender Rick Perry was competing in season 23. He was kicked off early, but was rewarded with the Secretary of Energy‘s job. So it‘s not always a political graveyard.

But in New Zealand, the programme has been a home for, well, has-beens. Bless their twinkly toes, Stars has in its six seasons so far welcomed Georgina Beyer, Tim Shadbolt, Rodney Hide, Christine Rankin, Michael Laws and Pam Corkery. Of those, only Shadbolt remains in public office. No one has been able to confirm a link with their appearance on the programme.

Of course, Tamati Coffey appeared when he was a mere weatherman, and he won. He then quick-stepped Te Ururoa Flavell out of office at last year‘s election. No one has been able to confirm a link with his appearance on the programme.

Mr Hide took part in the 2006 series while he was Epsom MP, famously almost dropping his dance partner. Undeterred, not only did he place fourth, he saw his majority increase at the next election. And no … who knows if there‘s a link? But Mr Seymour seems to think so. Perhaps he can sell a bit of laissez-faire with his pasa doble.

For a politician, stepping outside the known quantity of the political arena is full of risk but also opportunity … but mostly risk. For all the talk of personal challenge, fitness and so on, none of these folk say yes to the call without at least pausing to think what the appearance might mean for their reputation with the masses. Especially when they still hold leadership positions, as Ms Fox and Mr Seymour do.

Marama Fox on election night providing evidence that “she has jive to spare” Photo: RNZ / Te Aniwa Hurihanganui

But the truth is that both were turfed out of government last year and, as coy as Ms Fox is about her future, the power of primetime television has to be appealing if you want to maintain your profile and keep your options open during the desert year, straight after an election. In other words, waltz there to lose?

While producers might have longed for a Winston Peters or Jacinda Ardern (or even a John Key. What odds he was asked?), they have work to do and limelight aplenty. But a minor party politician in this country is much like New Zealand on the world stage – the first job is to be noticed. So Mr Seymour and Ms Fox will risk the scorn and mockery in the hope that all publicity is indeed good publicity. They‘ll do it all for you. Just to get your attention and that great political gift – a second look.

The bad news for Mr Seymour is that, just like at the last election, Ms Fox is almost certain to get more votes than him. Let‘s be honest, he‘s more quango than tango while she has jive to spare.