Gordon Campbell | Parliament TV | Parliament Today | Video | Questions Of the Day | Search 9 June 2006 9 June 2006

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

Clark’s Bulging Political Carpet

Parliament resumes next week following the two-week post-Budget recess. For weeks, the government’s managers have had their hands full, stuffing problem after problem under an increasingly bulging political carpet. But one by one those problems keep tumbling out, giving the commentators and the Opposition a tantalising glimpse, before being stuffed right back where they came from. So the Parliamentary weeks ahead provide the opportunity for some welcome scrutiny. And hold the prospect of some responses to the questions Helen Clark least wants to answer.

But there is much unhappiness in the Labour ranks. Not only did the 2006 Budget rival its immediate predecessor for its spectacular failure to inspire, there is a growing realisation in Labour’s ranks of the scale of the political problems that have been allowed to accumulate on the Clark/Cullen watch. And a growing recognition of the debilitating spectacle of sordid deal after sordid deal which will be the sole means by which this Government completes its full term. The realisation, in summary, that this is increasingly starting to look like a very terminal third-term Clark Government.

The Field Report

High on the list of problems is the fate of former Minister Taito Philip Field. The report by Auckland QC Noel Ingram, previously expected by the Prime Minister to be completed in just nine days, has now been outstanding for over eight months. A draft of the report is now in Field’s hands for comment. And in recent weeks he has been delaying his response to the QC, whilst attempting to negotiate a political outcome with Clark. The fact that he is her entire Parliamentary majority is, of course, his point of leverage.

Reports that the Government allowed key witnesses to avoid interviews by refusing to fund their travel and legal representation hardly inspire confidence in the enquiry. But even so, it is impossible to imagine even a skeleton report leaving any room for political manoeuvre. And the fact that the Ninth Floor has allowed such ridiculous delays has already made the process look entirely shabby. A by-election is a possibility. An attempt by Labour to brazen the affair out, and strike a deal with Field is more likely. Whatever the outcome, it will not be edifying. The tawdry political management which has become the hallmark of the Ninth Floor will look even more tawdry.

The Hobbs Outburst

The threatened resignation of Marian Hobbs last week was further evidence of the accumulating angst within the Labour Caucus. Having dumped Hobbs from the Cabinet, Clark clearly hoped she would shuffle quietly off the Parliamentary scene in two years time.

But Clark hadn’t factored in the lapse in political judgment that saw a high profile Wellington project, the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary - a Hobbs’ favourite - dumped off the list for funding. The $32 million Significant Community Projects Fund was established as Clark’s political slush fund. The post-Budget Parliamentary recess was supposed to be dominated by a nationwide Prime Ministerial tour, handing out cash in return for front page photo-ops.

The Karori Wildlife Sanctuary is an excellent project of great conservation merit. But Clark’s slush fund is not about good projects. It’s about buying photo-ops. Photo-ops in places where she needs votes. And, having polled well in public service-dominated Wellington last year, Clark thinks she doesn’t need to buy any votes in Wellington right now.

Hobbs, who already had nothing better than the indignity, as a demoted Minister, of warming the backbenches until the next election to look forward to, was expected to swallow the further indignity of a thoroughly deserving project in her electorate being pointedly overlooked for funding. So she threatened to quit - leaving the Government’s fate in the balance in a by-election. So deals are now being done to keep Marian quiet. But further Clark/Cullen capital has been squandered in the process.

The Non-Retiring Retirees

While retaining Hobbs in Parliament is essential to avoid a by-election, not so essential is the retention of list MPs (who lost their seats) like Ann Hartley, Dover Samuels, Diane Yates, Jill Pettis, Russell Fairbrother and Jim Sutton. Ninth Floor noises were earlier made about the desirability of such MPs retiring during the term to freshen the talentless Labour backbench. More recently, the Ninth Floor has sparked further media interest in the expected retirements, as a gentle reminder to those who have been targeted. But strangely, none of the retirees will retire.

There has been a long standing practice of appointing retired politicians to the post of High Commissioner in Ottawa - a number of which must have given Canadians the distinct impression that New Zealand does not greatly value the relationship. The Clark Government, on the evidence of the appointment of retired Labour MP and former Driver’s Union official Graham Kelly, dislikes Canada a very great deal. Now, it appears, the Government is about to take the most unusual step of appointing a career diplomat to replace Kelly as High Commissioner to Canada. None of Clark’s six retirees has been appointed to the post - a sure indication that offers have been made and spurned. As has almost certainly been the case with some of the smaller Pacific posts.

The problem for Clark is the growing perception in her caucus that her government is terminal. And so while the most the retirees can hope for, if they ignore her retirement overtures, is a Parliamentary salary for the next two years, a nakedly political offshore posting is unlikely to last any longer. Samuels apparently turned down Niue. Sutton, who was almost certainly offered Ottawa, would have regarded that as a complete waste of his trade connections, and see the prospect of his experience being used by an incoming National government as somewhat greater than by his current colleagues (witness Mike Moore). The task of persuading the chosen retirees to actually retire is just another challenge to add to the list over the coming weeks. And another cause of Labour caucus instability.

Carter’s Housing Scandal

Senior heads will almost certainly roll at Housing NZ Corporation following an audit report due any day now. At issue is who should be accountable for an alleged "cash for silence" deal with a disgruntled contractor. Chief executive Helen Fulcher is seriously in the firing line. But you can guarantee the Ninth Floor machine will go into overdrive to save the scalp of HCNZ chair Pat Sneddon - a Labour Party insider. The roles of both Sneddon and Housing Minister Chris Carter deserve serious questioning. The public accounts they have given to date just don’t match up. And Carter is a notoriously loose cannon at question time. Just another little risk to manage when Parliament reconvenes next week.

The Cullen Factor

As if all of the above did not present a serious enough challenge, there is an even more potent factor now at play. Clark’s deputy, Michael Cullen, until now her greatest management asset, is now her greatest management liability - inside and outside the caucus. Cullen’s explosion over coverage of his Budget was the reaction of a man living on a different planet.

Indeed, so convinced has he become of his own perfection, that he simply can no longer stomach dealing with routine criticism from ignorant members of the public or the media who, in his view, should simply be grateful that he deigns to make the plane trip from Napier each week. Internally, the situation is even worse.

Stung by two unpopular Budgets in a row, Labour MPs are simply running out of tolerance for an increasingly vain and aloof Minister of Finance. And the capital he once held which enabled him to act as the Government’s chief political manager has been disappearing fast. What an excellent time for our Parliament to resume for a three-week session.


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