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HARD NEWS 13/11/99 - Arse and Letters

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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... well, if a week is a long time in politics, time appears to stretch even further under a general election campaign.

A week ago today, Labour Party people were probably waking up and wishing they could go back to bed - preferably until after the new millennium. The New Zealand Herald Digipoll was bad news indeed.

It showed Labour sagging five points to be only a whisker ahead of National, Act surging and New Zealand First plumb in the middle of the balance of power. The Prime Minister smugly told the press that National strategy was "right on track".

How quickly things can change. The Sunday Star-Times led with Waikato University's 1999 New Zealand Election Study. Although conducted over the same period as the DigiPoll, it showed a very different picture. Suddenly, Labour was back to more than 40% support, the Alliance was clear of Act and National's climb was well into droop mode. It was like Apec had never happened.

The TV3 CM Research Poll the following night pointed the same picture. TV One chipped in with a Colmar Brunton on the very narrow field in Wellington Central, which had Labour's Marian Hobbs a point ahead of Richard Prebble. Yet another poll put the Greens' Jeanette Fitzsimmons three points ahead of National's International Man of Mystery Murray McLean in Coromandel, with quite a bit of centre-left vote yet to cannibalise.

But this week's DigiPoll still has Labour as many as 12 points down on the others, and the minor parties doing improbably well. The Greens have apparently - and for no obvious reason - doubled their vote in a week.

The poll clash has obviously provoked a bit of anguish at the Herald, which appends a plug for the accuracy of DigiPoll to every poll story, and has devoted a Colin James commentary and a lead editorial to the meaning of it all in successive issues.

The other polls have been good news for Labour, and not just for the obvious reason that it is well in front. The trends have put Labour back into the kind of six-votes-to-one ratio with its prospective coalition partner the Alliance that helps Michael Cullen sleep at night.

But, most of all, these polls help Labour and the Alliance deliver what may end up being the most compelling message of the 1999 campaign: We're the ones who can form a government without Winston Peters.

So what, National Party strategists will be wondering as they ponder up to 14 points of daylight between them and Labour, the hell happened? Was it the All Blacks? Quite possibly, yes - but not in the sense that the rugby result is usually talked about.

The country is well past grieving over the World Cup debacle. What is hurting National is not so much a public mood crash is a desire for change. We're thinking about a new coach, a new captain, a new way of running things.

Act, which spends a lot on research, has already picked up the mood for change. Last week, one of our household got a letter from Richard Prebble which began with the words "There's change in the air, this election." With "National failing to deliver on so many fronts," we might, Prebble acknowledged be thinking of voting Labour or Alliance. But no! "A party vote for Act will make a difference - you can be sure."

This opens up another front of concern for National, with its coalition partner mailing voters - although God knows what they thought they'd get from our house - badmouthing it and looking to poach votes.

The letter from Prebble, of course, was a blitz of generalisations and the by-now familiar boasts that only Act thinks this or that.

It carefully avoided frightening the horses by going too deep into Act's actual policy. Dear voter: we're going to force your local council to sell off all its services regardless of what you think, because we know better than you do. Doesn't have quite the same ring as "A vote for Act with fix the Treaty," does it?

Indeed, it's surprisingly hard to find out exactly what some of Act's policies are. It released a Social Welfare policy that wasn't much more than 300 words worth of soundbites. Go to their Website and you'll see it's a pattern. The other serious parties have policy documents available. On the Act site, everything reads like a press release.

Sometimes, however, you do actually have to own up to what your policy is. Prebble appeared last weekend on National Radio's Arts Week. I sometimes muse that the promos for Arts Week make the name of the programme sound a bit like "Arse Week". So must Richard Prebble, because "arse" is about the best description of his behaviour.

Now, Act's policy on culture has hitherto apparently been that it will only fund heritage - or dead culture. The living arts don't deserve any public support and they won't get any. This is not a very good message to be carrying into a neck and neck battle in arty Wellington Central.

So Prebble went on Arts Week claiming that he supported public arts funding, he'd always done so and so did Act. But, said the interviewer, Paul Bushnell, I have statements from your arts and culture spokesperson Donna Awatere-Huata and your candidate and lead groupie Catherine Asare, and this piece of paper your officials told me was your arts policy ... and they all say the opposite. How could this be?

He pressed the point until Prebble lost it spectacularly, and at some length.

"You are a liar! This man is telling lies!" he bawled into Bushnell's mic.

"Mr Prebble, put the microphone down ..."

"I'll do what I want with it!" roared the Mad Dog.

Bushnell was by this point probably wondering if anyone could hit his interview subject with a tranquiliser dart. It made for great radio. Hilarious. But Deputy Prime Minister? I don't think so, Richard.

In a perverse way, a previous Act policy announcement actually helped Labour when it released its alternative Budget this week. Having firmly nailed its colours to the mast of one and one only tax increase, Labour was always going to be close-run to accommodate its spending promises.

Michael Cullen demonstrated how Labour would fulfill its pledge card promises at a cost of $1.9 billion over three years, and, weather permitting, undertake other policy initiatives running to a further $2 billion-odd. He did so by trimming the allowance for future spending - the money the Treasurer keeps in his back pocket for unforeseen expenditure.

Act would no doubt have ridiculed him for that, had not its own wildly hopeful Budget not completely done away with any provision for future spending at all, with Rodney Hide dismissing it as a "slush fund".

Cullen has also had to lean a little on future surpluses, and might have been pilloried for that, had National not already signalled the same thing as a means of covering its impromptu tax policy. Basically, they're all cutting corners.

Bill English, having rather sportingly conceded that Cullen's numbers add up, presumably had his bottom smacked overnight and came out the following morning attacking Cullen's Budget for not allowing for Alliance policy. Pardon? And is National's Budget allowing for the $4 billion a year in spending cuts demanded by the Act policy? Hardly.

Winston Peters, of course, has been charging around declaring he won't support either Labour's tax increase or National's tax cut. He also released a health policy with no costings, but which appears to requirea very large injection of additional revenue. Peters has not indicated where this money might actually come from, but I expect he'll pull it out of his arse, as usual.

And then there's Tuariki Delamere, the Minister of Immigration. Against all advice, he has finally been able to ram through his policy for compulsory HIV testing of anyone who wants to enter New Zealand for more than two years - including refugees.

Delamere had no compunctions about admitting that the testing would be used to weed people out. "There are millions of refugees in the world and we will take our 800," he said. "But I would prefer to take 800 who don't have HIV-AIDS."

So we'll offer shelter to people in need, but only the good ones. Only the clean ones. Actually, we'll let in people with more communicable diseases, like TB, which is actually a problem - but not with that dirty AIDS disease.

Delamere is a walking embodiment of every bit of ignorance about the disease. The belief that AIDS is somehow different than other illnesses, that people who have it are somehow to blame, that the people with HIV are dangerous sociopaths who go forth and try and infect society.

It's depressing. And, of course, this wouldn't have become law without being approved by the whole National Cabinet.

Now, some people have wondered why I didn't mention Phillida Bunkle's withdrawal from Wellington Central, making it a head-to-head between Hobbs and Prebble, in last week's bulletin. Okay ... I thought it was logical. I thought the only daft thing was Bunkle making such great play of mailing everyone in the electorate to ask them what to do - National and Act supporters included, presumably.

I thought it was hilarious that Prebble issued an outraged press release about this alleged assault on democracy - the day after Act's candidate in Rotorua told the press he had been ordered "by the party hierarchy" to pull out to try and give Max Bradford an easier run. But hey, Act and hypocrisy - they go together like gas and gangrene, don't they?

Anyway, a few issues to close: National's plan to allow DNA evidence to be used in burglary cases - not to be dismissed out of hand, but not really an appropriate thing to be tossing around as an election lolly. Act's promise to make its Treaty policy even more fascist - not unexpected. Winston Peters attacking Act and then promising that he'd have all Treaty claims sorted by 2005 - even more ridiculous than usual. The America's Cup management's feigned shock and outrage at the TAB taking bets on their precious boat race - it's not principle, it's just protecting the sponsor, Lotto, and don't pretend otherwise. And those boats breaking up? Sorry, it's still not really interesting ... G'bye!


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