Where was Helen Clark when her Coalition was falling apart? Usually so accessible to the media, she was away making a travel programme and letting Michael Cullen face the hard questions. Next week, she will be overseas again leaving her very, very, very close friend Jim Anderton in charge.
Deputy Prime Minister Jim says he still leads the Alliance Party, but will set up a Non-Alliance Party next month to fight the Alliance before the next election. Helen Clark in a brief comment made at a jet-boating location says she is now happy to be in Coalition with three parties - Labour, Anderton's and Harre's. But Anderton says she's in Coalition with just his party.
Both The Alliance and The Non-Alliance parties know they couldn't hang on to power without Helen's agreement. This is her deal and some time before the election she has to turn off the life-support system for one of these parties and say which one she is for and which against.
In the meantime, she will continue to wear two faces - one for each of her coalition partners. This should not present too much of a challenge for someone who in Opposition said "defectors" should " take a long walk out of here if they resign from their parties while they are members of this Parliament."
When she became Prime Minister she said the Party Hopping Bill was "draconian" because it had to deal "with people whose behaviour is despicable." She also said she wanted "new standards of behaviour" and her message to MPs was simple - "You will stay with the party whose voters put you in Parliament - or you will get out."
And she underscored this by saying every Labour MP had campaigned on the Party Hopping Bill.
Integrity and Public Ethics
The core issue is the integrity of Government and the public ethics of its leadership. This is not about minor parties in Opposition, but about the deal the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have done to evade the law they put in place and to manipulate the democratic process in Parliament. Clark is accountable as the Leader of the Government for the actions of her deputy and his party. She seems reluctant to be open about her involvement in the deal with Anderton and she is treating the public as if they are stupid by heading off on yet another photo opportunity while the core of the Government is in melt-down. It is not enough to say there is no change because the Coalition still has the votes. That is not what she said when the National-New Zealand First Coalition was formerly brought to an end because of tensions within the Government. That was an honest process by comparison with the blatant hypocrisy Clark and Anderton have shown in the past few days.
A Bob Both Ways
Clark and Anderton want a bob both ways. They say Jim's break with the Alliance is like the Greens split from the Alliance before the last election. Not true. Jim is the Deputy Prime Minister and a party to the Coalition Agreement which says its objective is to "restore public confidence in the political integrity of Parliament" and "to provide stable and effective long-term government." Tau Henare says no amount of sophistry can hide the fact that what has occurred within the Alliance is the same that occurred with NZ First four years ago. Back then Clark said the creation of Mauri Pacific confirmed the divided, contradictory and fragile nature of the Government.
One of the Alliance parties, The Democratic Party whose origins go back to the Social Credit funny-money party, quit the Alliance yesterday. Does this mean their MPs have breached the Party Hopping Bill, or will Clark and Anderton say this doesn't count either? Does this mean there are now three parties in the Alliance? Who will be Leader of the Alliance Party when the Alliance elect Harre the new leader of the Alliance, but Jim Anderton stays on as leader of the Alliance?
Where's the money going?
Taxpayers fund MPs for their work as MPs. It is illegal to use that money to set up a new party and Anderton is in charge of over $1 million of taxpayers' money. National will make sure the Alliance does not break the rules because it suits them. Eventually, there will have to be a formal split, so the parties can get access to taxpayer-funded broadcasting time during the election campaign. Clark has no answer to whether this means MPs will have to be expelled from Parliament weeks from an election.
The Real Issues
I have said for some time that Helen Clark should show leadership on bread and butter issues like Health, Education and Law and Order. It was no accident she was on holiday while Anderton was making his announcement. There is more to Government than photo opportunities. We intend to hold Clark to account on the issues that really matter to people which she seems to show no interest in.