Gordon Campbell | Parliament TV | Parliament Today | Video | Questions Of the Day | Search March 2006 March 2006

#237 - A Weekly Report from the Keyboard of Murray McCully MP for East Coast Bays

A Dream Start

Don Brash and the National Party needed a strong start to the 2006 Parliamentary year. And by the end of the first three week session on Thursday it was clear that they had achieved it – with a little help from some most unexpected quarters.

Helen Clark, who for six years has prided herself on rapid political reflexes and shrewd political management, dropped the ball in a serious way. Her management of the David Benson-Pope saga will carry a serious cost for her personally, both in terms of her external credibility and her capacity to impose internal caucus discipline.

Also providing a welcome fillip for the Opposition fortunes has been Helen’s Little Helper, Winston Peters. At the time of his installation at the bauble factory, Peters was adamant that he was not only a Minister out of Cabinet, he was a Minister outside the Government.

He even argued for seating in the Parliamentary Chamber alongside the other opposition parties. And so the National Party invested considerable thought and planning in how best to coax, prod and goad Peters into behaving like a member of the Government. All of which was completely wasted. A combination of ill-temper and ill-discipline on Peters’ part have seen him deliver everything on the National Party wish list in a truly generous manner.

So, with the 2006 Parliamentary year barely under way, both Clark and Peters have delivered the National Party with a dream start. And set the scene for internal management problems which will now haunt them to the end of the term.

The Benson-Pope Affair

By the third week of the sitting, Clark’s spin-doctors had taken control of the Benson Pope affair. Ordered to conduct first a blub-offensive, (to soften up the press gallery hacks), then a charm-offensive, (getting the words "charm"and "Benson-Pope" into the same sentence present certain credibility challenges).

Benson-Pope did his best to comply. Next, he was instructed to give the sort of answers to the difficult questions he should have given in the first place. Answers dripping with humility and contrition which invited the public to cut him the sort of slack which makes allowance for the passage of time, (made more difficult by the fact that the more recent allegations relate to 1998), changes in classroom standards and possible conflicts in evidence.

But it has all happened too late. The damage is done on several fronts, and there is no undoing it.

First, in his initial denials, Benson-Pope lied to Parliament. And everybody knows that. This week’s Sisterhood sleight of hand may be good enough to slip past the not very vigilant Speaker on a question of privilege, but that is all it will achieve. Everybody else, especially Labour MPs, know that Benson-Pope lied to Parliament and has been forced to pretty much admit it. That Clark not only made an exception to the rules for Benson-Pope, but (through the involvement of the Ninth Floor spin doctors) became complicit in the breach, is now noted by all concerned.

Second, the salacious nature of some of the allegations ensure the affair a prominent place in Parliamentary mythology. A straight-up example of misleading Parliament would have been lost on most members of the public. But while, in Parliamentary terms, the offence is about lying to the House, in political terms, the involvement of young girls, dormitories and showers has seen Benson-Pope convicted, in the public mind, of a series of other offences. But convicted, nevertheless.

Third, Benson-Pope is unpopular on a scale which is virtually unprecedented in recent Parliamentary terms – even amongst his colleagues. Behind the insults and barbs which characterise debate in the Chamber or the media, there is a more personal, even collegial dimension to Parliamentary life. Required service on select committees, overlapping constituency duties, occasional overseas travel, and life generally around the Parliamentary complex forge a deeper and usually more generous understanding of the character of political foes.

Within the bounds of adversarial politics, MPs get along. But Benson-Pope is different. Indeed, almost unique. From the day of his arrival he has made it his mission to be deeply and unremittingly personally unpleasant to all except the handful of senior Labour figures who might assist his advancement.

Now those chickens have come home to roost. That Cullen (whose protégé he was, and whose seat he inherited) and Clark have been prepared to burn huge quantities of capital in his defence has caused deep division within the Labour ranks.

Worse, they know his survival will cause quiet satisfaction within the National ranks. There is nothing worse than stopping those fish from swimming round and round the barrel. But now the Benson-Pope fish will not be found swimming around the barrel at target practice time. It will remain, in a giant decaying malodorous target right around Helen Clark and Michael Cullen’s necks until the next election.

Be Nice to the Orphans

For those of kindly and generous disposition, there is a new cluster of downtrodden, homeless, increasingly dispirited individuals around Parliament upon whom they might wish to lavish their attention: the members of the Winston First Caucus.

Feeling comprehensively suckered by a Leader who renounced baubles, (finding out later that he meant for them, not for him) the new, bigger complications in political life are starting to dawn.

First, there were the frequent absences of their Leader from weekly caucus meetings. Then, the confusion as the Minister outside the Government started behaving in the Chamber as if he was even more rabidly inside the Government than Trevor Mallard, despite all previous assurances. And now, Labour Members are telling them (and everybody else) the news they didn’t want to hear: this is Winston Peters’ swansong tour.

So spare a thought for the poor Winston First orphans as they come to terms with their fate. And wait for the time, a little further into the term, when they start searching for a new home. That’s when MMP politics will get really interesting.

Red Ink

So 660 New Zealanders are departing for Australia each and every week – the result of the gap in net average incomes growing from 20% to 33% in the past six years. How can this be?

It’s not helped by the fact that New Zealand is running a massive trade deficit – the worst ever in absolute terms and the worst in 30 years in relation to the size of our exports. And in Parliament this week Dr Brash provided an interesting insight into the cause of our declining trade balance.

Over the past five years, employment in the non-export producing sectors of the economy has grown by 25% - mostly on the back of massive growth in the public service. Employment in export-generating sectors, like agriculture, fishing and manufacturing, has actually shrunk 1%.

Our present Government, you see, is presiding over a massive shift in resource distribution – from wealth generating activity to wealth re-distributing activity. And if New Zealand is going to remain on its current course, this would be a very good time to buy shares in a red ink manufacturing factory.


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