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A Week Of It: Banging, The Planets And Oxymorons

Continuing A Week Of It’s short tradition of beginning with omamatepia, (with apologies to readers who appreciate more subtle and/or original metaphor) it seems fitting to conclude that this week in the news began… with “a bang.”

Four bangs actually. All early on Saturday morning, in a little town called Waitara near New Plymouth when Steven Wallace was shot and killed by police.

Depending on who you believe, the late Steven Wallace was a promisingly talented young Maori needlessly shot as he released his demons on the town frontage - a victim of faulty police procedure and a fair amount of institutionalised racism. So say the PM, National Maori organisations, and a generous proportion of Waitara locals.

The police, on the other hand, have painted the same Mr Wallace as unpredictable beserker who, with a penchant for dangerous sporting equipment, repeatedly threatened to kill officers, smashing up their patrol car and refusing to back off when they returned armed.

As we are now aware, police procedure is to shoot at the chest, and after a warning shot, four blasts stopped Mr Wallace as he approached the policeman wielding a baseball bat. He was big he, was mean, he was scary, he could have killed, and no, “minimum necessary force” is NOT an oxymoron

Both sides may well be right. As the events unfolded it quickly became obvious that the situation was more complicated than the scoop-driven- TV reliance on anonymous witnesses. Many threads to the case have yet to be properly explained.

What, for instance, was the nature of the feud between Wallace and the as yet unnamed policeman-cum-ubiquitous-volunteer fireman? Why indeed, did we need to know this last piece of information at all?

Did ALL of the four shots hit Mr Wallace’s chest? Did some miss, or hit his legs? How close were the two? If a very angry, violent young man is running at you with a big stick, his legs a-blur, it does seem reasonable to aim at his chest. In the heat of the moment? Where was the pepper spray and why wasn’t it used?

And what of the witnesses who repeat the very different claim that Wallace was gunned down in cold blood, was more upset than dangerous, and was left to die until the late arrival of a late (20 minutes was initially reported) ambulance? Wallace was a popular and talented local and if onlookers knew the source of his anguish would they not view the situation differently from a frightened cop?

Despite understandable local disquiet , it would seem best that those in power wait for the results of the police inquiry and the coroner’s report , perhaps adding a public inquiry to appease the many concerned by the police’s repeat ability to find one of their own innocent.

If the stunning popularity polls are anything to go by Helen Clark has done very well thus far, with her ability to act on her invariably reliable internal barometer of public opinion. Rather than the dithering and hee- hawing of her predecessor, Miss Clark has remained staunch on issues from Timberlands to Waitara, and despite National’s oft-repeated cry of autocratic arrogance, the public have loved her. Even when she dumps on fellow minister’s like Marian Hobbs or contradicts them.

But has Miss Clark gone too far this time? Her initial comments linking the Waitara incident to a reports on police racism, while mirroring the initial public outrage over the shooting could at best be seen as unhelpful and premature, considering what is not yet known about the incident. At worst, her comments could be viewed as callous grandstanding inappropriate behaviour over what is an undeniable tragedy.

But the public has a short memory and remembers attitude over content. Methinks they still are a forgiving mood. Helen spoke, and then she unflappably spoke again - the response from the press benches was reasonably muted. If we believe the positive spin of Radio NZ’s Al Morrison, her comments contributed to a “robustness of debate” not often seen on these shores.

Inappropriate or presidential? Waitara has shown that unlike her contemporaries Clark is playing the politician rather than the public servant. She’ll leave those lesser powers to her Cabinet, letting Police Minister George Hawkins deal with the separation and play mum.

And as Waitara shows, for all the portending from National, Clark’s ability to shoot from the hip and then quickly patch things with her Cabinet has led the Government to emerge remarkably unscathed from a week full of a number of potentially damaging political gaffes. She seems content to debate issues with her own ministers in a sort of ritualised adversarialism which leaves nothing for the opposition.

Perhaps conscious of the impending planetary alignment, by Tuesday in Parliament National MPs were again loudly predicting the demise of Labour’s popular mandate and cracks within the coalition. Things indeed looked ominous.

Apart from Clark’s comments at Waitara, there was the still unresolved simmering dispute between government and Maori MPs over the auctioning off the radio frequency spectrum. Then there was the seeming contradiction by Mrs Clark and her number two and three over the West Coast deal. The opposition crowed and sent their press- secretaries to work in a flurry of releases.

But all to not much avail. The frequency deal was patched up in a relatively amicable deal with Maori. A behind the scenes compromise saw one of the four frequenciy blocks set aside for Maori with a Trust possibly having exclusive rights to one of them. The private operators meanwhile still had access to the commercial spoils. Even newly vocal maverick Willie Jackson had to admit he was pleased.

And while it seemed real at the time, one had to wonder whether Miss Clark’s disagreement with her deputy and Finance Minister was just more role-play. Jim Anderton and Michael Cullen were happy to act as advocates in Cabinet for the West Coasters continuing the Rimu logging at least until it was legally safe. They didn’t seem too perturbed when Helen Clark poured cold water over their idea, pacifying the out of the loop Greens, who had issued a volley of angry press releases regarding the deal. They were only acting as “advocates” after all.

No one complained when Clark sprayed a bit more on the feral and (allegedly) inbred Coasters who strongly opposed the deal and then wouldn’t apologise. Radical or moronic? Time will tell.

A Week Of It is a weekly comment and will return next Friday.

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