Gordon Campbell | Parliament TV | Parliament Today | Video | Questions Of the Day | Search - 23rd November 2007 - 23rd November 2007

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

The Slow Labour Train Wreck

It’s been just like watching a large train wreck in slow motion. We don’t yet know how many victims there will be. But it is very clear now just what the Labour Party 2008 election strategy looked like. It goes like this:

Desperate to win the 2008 election but behind in the polls since January of this year, the Labour Party first sought to tie at least one of the arms of their National opponents behind their backs. That’s what the Electoral Finance Bill is all about – restricting campaign communications expenditure for the whole of 2008 to the same total amount spent in the three months prior to the 2005 election. And just for good measure, they have introduced a range of petty restrictions designed to silence third party critics for the whole of election year.

Next, legislation has been passed to ensure that there can be no interference from busy-bodies like the Controller and Auditor-General, who inconveniently ruled the taxpayer-funded Labour pledge card to be unlawful back in 2005. Legislation has now been passed to declare pledge-card-like initiatives with taxpayers’ money to be lawful. And, of course, making it clear that expensive advertising campaigns by government departments, also the subject of criticism from the Auditor-General, are now by definition legal.

All that remains is the requirement to find a government department or two in which compliant senior managers are going to provide little resistance to Labour Party-hijacking of their communications programmes for election year. Departments like the Ministry for the Environment (MfE), for example, which provided the potential to use the whole climate change debate as a means to package Helen Clark and her Labour Party as just the leaders New Zealand, and indeed the planet, need to chart the path to an environmentally sustainable future.

So you can imagine the reaction in the Beehive when David Benson-Pope discovered that the partner of John Key’s chief press secretary had been hired as a communications manager in the Ministry. As the State Services Commissioner’s report now records, Madeleine Setchell was, as a consequence, dispatched in circumstances that reflect no credit on the New Zealand public service. And there the matter might have rested. Except for the emergence of two further highly salient pieces of information.

First came the discovery that an aspiring Labour Party candidate by the name of Clare Curran had been, at the suggestion of new Climate Change Minister David Parker, hired to oversee Environment Ministry communications. How very very convenient. And so the State Services Commissioner (SSC) has been called upon to report on the circumstances of Ms Curran’s engagement.

Second, it has now emerged that at least one communications executive at MfE, a Ms Erin Leigh, aghast at the naked politicisation of the Department, simply up and quit. She feared, she said, for her professional reputation as a non-partisan professional. So now the SSC is looking into this matter as well.

Watching their election plans starting to unravel, the Labour Party hit back: Environment Minister Trevor Mallard, who seemed to have given his Prime Ministerially-appointed anger management counsellor the slip, questioned the competence and professionalism of Ms Leigh’s work. All of which was seriously ill-judged. While he might have found the market somewhat divided over his whacking of Tau Henare, there is no tolerance at all for him whacking a defenceless public servant who has already paid for her professional independence by losing her job.

As this whole saga has unfolded the credibility of the State Services Commissioner Mark Prebble has been systematically shredded. It no longer really matters what bureaucratic gymnastics he engages in to explain this extraordinary train of events. His credibility is shot. No-one with any capacity for independent thought will believe his explanations.

And while some of the more recent revelations actually occurred prior to Hugh Logan’s watch at MfE, there can be no recovery from his foolish and utterly unprincipled decision to waste a communications manager simply because his Minister didn’t like the assumed politics of her partner. In a professional sense, Logan is a dead man walking.

So part of Labour’s grand plan for 2008 has just unravelled. But never fear: the Electoral Finance Bill will be pushed through, no doubt under urgency, when Parliament resumes in early December. And the Appropriation Act, legalising what were previously rorts by MPs, is already law. The search for government departments prepared to assist the Labour Party’s campaign efforts will continue. These people are not going to go without a large taxpayer-funded fight.

Brain Drain Gets Worse

In the meantime, the number of New Zealanders unable to wait for the next election is getting worse. Figures just released by the Government Statistician show that in the year to October 2007, 40,122 New Zealanders moved permanently to Australia – that’s over 770 economic refugees heading for better prospects across the Tasman each and every week. The trend is highly negative: for the October year 2006, the average number of departures for Australia was a touch over 650 per week.

Total permanent departures by New Zealanders last year were 75,143, or 1,445 per week. After Australia, the second biggest beneficiary was the UK, which was the fortunate recipient of 12,240 talented, ambitious New Zealanders, educated at the cost of New Zealand taxpayers.


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