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Richard Prebble's Letter From Wellington


While the cat’s away

Michael Cullen’s office leaked the Armstrong letter. His staff even explained the significance of “first mover advantage” in case the media missed it. Why?

Cullen’s principal anger was not at the attack on his integrity but that Helen Clark had not consulted him in an important economic policy area.

Clark and Cullen have never agreed on the merits of public/private partnerships, in this case toll roads. Cullen says the State can get finance cheaper than the private sector.

As an Aucklander Clark knows that if Labour does not make significant progress on solving the roading issue it will be electorally damaging. She believes the country will not support Transit funds being diverted to building Auckland roads. Aucklanders have proved they will pay tolls, hence her support for public/private partnerships. By leaking the letter Cullen destroyed Clark’s rival policy- making body.

Queen Clark weakened

Michael Cullen would never have rebelled against Clark in the last government. Why now?
He is much stronger and she is much weaker. Six months ago, Helen Clark was seen as invincible - Labour was over 50% in the polls. Since then Clark has shown herself to lack judgement and worst of all to be a poor campaigner.

The decision to hold an early election was Clark’s alone, against Cullen’s advice. It failed.
2. The decision to run a negative no policy campaign was Clark’s. In the UK, Tony Blair’s re-election campaign was positive pledging to improve the provision of education and health. Clark’s was simply “vote Labour to keep the Greens out of power”. It failed.

The re-elected Labour government is weaker by having no new policy mandate.
4. The Labour MPs were shocked at Clark’s poor campaigning, paintergate, and the Campbell interview. Labour was saved because National’s campaign was its worst ever, yet Labour still lost 12% support in just three weeks. Labour knows they will be out of office with another performance like that in 2005.

Cullen in contrast came through the election campaign well. And he has started to ask the question ‘why not me?’

All my enemies with one letter

By leaking the letter Cullen has dealt to his enemies with one blow. First, Armstrong. The cabinet and caucus all think Armstrong is incompetent. Second, Cullen has dealt to the PM’s office. The Ministers hate Heather Simpson with a passion. Cullen has shown the left that it is he that is the keeper of the true faith. He has established himself as Clark’s successor.

Tag wrestling

Labour is grateful that the House is on a two week recess so Ministers do not have to answer questions. The recess also gives Labour time to negotiate with the United and Green parties.

In the first session Labour passed, with United’s support, its non-controversial bills. In the meantime, Peter Dunne has seen support for his party start to collapse and is begging Labour to let him off his promise to support them on procedural motions. His own MPs have realised that parliament acts as a check on the executive by refusing time for measures it does not like and Dunne’s offer of blanket support for procedural motions was like giving the executive a blank cheque. Dunne has begged Cullen to either pass the OSH bill (with its $500,000 fines for small businesses for causing stress) without urgency or better still with the Greens’ vote. Like tag wrestlers, Dunne is keen to swap places with the Greens. But why should the Greens save Dunne?

The Greens – a brand with no product

The Greens are parliament’s most unhappy party - even more divided than National. The Greens expected to be Ministers and to hold the balance of power, and blew it. But their problems go deeper. Green MPs are ideologically worlds apart. Being Green is a great product but it’s not a programme.

From their founding, the Greens have debated where they should fit in the spectrum. The Green leadership, Jeanette Fitzsimmons and Rod Donald saw the Greens as “new” politicians. MMP would mean the end of ‘left’ and ‘right’ politics. The Greens would support a stronger parliament, with an independent speaker, select committees chaired by MPs from every party, and parliament not the executive would approve treaties. The Greens would oppose urgency to stop parliament rubber stamping laws. It was an appealing approach.

When the Greens got to parliament, to their surprise they found only ACT supported a strong parliament. (ACT is in favour of parliament being a check on executive power.) Gradually the Greens have lost their “new” politics and moved to the left. The Greens saw the collapse of the Alliance as an opportunity. There is a hard core extreme left voting block of 5% - the Greens have not been able to resist taking it. Going for the Alliance vote was made easy by the presence in the Party of former communists like Keith Locke and Sue Bradford. Because there is no ‘core’ of policy (any single issue campaigners can use them), the left have found the Greens an easy party to take over. So how to respond to Michael Cullen’s request? Three years ago the Greens would have said no. Now the Greens’ strategy is to make the party indispensable to Labour by taking over the Alliance’s position in politics. So the Greens supported Labour’s candidate for the speakership, the select committees, and are about to abandon their long held opposition to urgency. The Greens came into parliament to save the planet but now they will settle for saving United Future.

National – nothing to report

There is nothing to report. The election returns showing National raised only $1 million for the last election (ACT raised $1.6 million) shows that ACT has become the party of business (and in NZ that means small business). In contrast to National, ACT saw its number of donors doubling last election

Dr Brash, MP for Tamaki?

Don Brash has bought a house in Auckland in Clem Simich’s Tamaki electorate. The Letter understands that Clem does not agree that he is not standing next election. Clem is enjoying being Associate Speaker and thinks that Speaker Simich sounds pretty good.

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