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A Week Of It: Rule Zealandia?

Images of Helen Clark are everywhere at the moment. Two days running last week her toothy grin has graced the front cover of the Dominion – first, at the launching of her “Joan of Arc” doppleganger tribute at the Backbencher Bar - on Friday she is cast Tinkerbell-like against a background of starry lights, waving, in her hand what seems to be a magic wand.

It turned out Friday’s picture was of Miss Clark conducting the symphony orchestra, a photo op. at the launch of the biggest funding package the arts community was ever likely to see. To the arts community no doubt Clark was a benign fairy, but for the rest of the country the timing of her announcement was less than magic.

After the events of the past two weeks, the public is in need of some warm fuzzies. First cigarettes, then petrol and then interest rates went up. The dollar dropped out of sight to an all time low since it was floated in 1985 – more bad news for the consumer as prices are likely to rise.

It has also been a tough week for the government. At press briefings over Airways, the latest SOE to turn rogue, Helen Clark seemed visibly angry. Neither Green groups or West coasters are happy with the Government’s compromise over logging on the West Coast. To top it off the weather across the country (with one or two notable exceptions) has been generally cold and grey. It was therefore not a good time for the Government to shower money on artists - a section of society that one talk back caller (no doubt echoing the view of many) referred to as - “ning-nongs in tights”.

National and ACT chose Clark’s cultural announcement to remind those hardest hit in the pocket that artists were predominantly middle class and that their work did little to bridge the poverty gaps Labour had pledged to fill. An irate Labour voter on Kim Hill summed up some of this public feeling –the Government was doing more to help “unemployed cellists” than solo mums in South Auckland or Cannon’s Creek.

But is there sweeter music in the wind? The $146 million “culture rescue” package is Clark and company’s latest strategy in a post election campaign which is more and more resembling British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s. “Rule Britannia,” - the feel good slogan designed to make Britons productive and innovative. Like Blair Labour here is also spending on arts, culture and sport realising a little nationalism can go along way.

Keeping this in mind, the week which also saw sports get a boost - money granted for Olympic level training facilties - has laid the groundwork for what promises to be the most pro-active budget the country will have for some time.

Clark may be too sensible to ask New Zealanders to celebrate, but she is likely to want the budget to make us feel we have been rescued – Joan of Arc style.

The pressure will also be on for the government to make the Budget palatable for businesses, whose ceaseless campaigning against the Employment Relations Bill and ACC legislation has recently begun to get more media coverage.

With relative dry Michael Cullen as Minister of Finance, it will be interesting how much money Jim Anderton - Labour’s Ken Livingstone - can wrench out of the Government coffers in his plan for an economic development package. Will it be enough to stop future Carter Holt Harveys abandoning our shores to move to Australia? If Friday night’s defection by Team NZ skipper Russell Coutts is anything to go by it seems the power of the dollar wins over any sense of nationalism.

And will all this promised Government spending actually help an economy which - despite the low dollar - is still regarded by many economists as being in good shape? Right now, it’s too soon to tell, but National seems happy to fall into their traditional role and remind the public how they have had to clean up the mess from big spending regimes before.

To another topic – accusations of racism - which came out of police stations and back into Parliament on Wednesday. The Government’s decision to pass legislation giving a new Maori Trust access to part of the new radio frequencies was too much for the opposition.

Playing to the Pakeha heartland, ACT and National both opposed the deal, pointing to the Waitangi Tribunal ruling that said Maori had no rights to the airwaves under the Treaty. If it was not a Treaty deal, they said, then it was racially based – and why couldn’t other ethnic groups be similarly favoured? For National and ACT the best solution was to keep the auction on a purely commercial level and away from minority groups.

Then the whole debate was overshadowed by Jenny Shipley, whose spectacular gaffe with her “climbing in the window” comments managed to offend Maori, Polynesians and the country’s entire liberal population all at once.

Like Helen Clark, after her reference to “feral” and “inbred” West Coasters, Shipley initially refused to apologise. But then, unlike Clark, she changed her mind - no doubt losing the goodwill of some of the rednecks her comments would have attracted. According to TV news reports she also maddened a few in her own party who are tiring of her public faux pas. Oh, the irony, considering Shipley’s debating speech was meant to sum up how “racially divisive” (read racist) Labour’s policy was.

Still even with a leader like Shipley, things are looking up for National. Their recent rise in the polls shows that Labour’s honeymoon period is on the wane. Expect further problems with the Government’s current bugbear the Airways Corporation to loom. When opening her wax exhibit at the back-bencher Helen Clark’s smile seemed a little strained. Perhaps she was remembering what happened to Joan of Arc.

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