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The Long Awaited Precedent For The Left

Well the deed is finally done.

Despite long denying the possibility of any such action, Alliance MP Phillida Bunkle finally bit the bullet this week and pulled out of the race for the prize seat of Wellington Central. The decision, whilst on the surface appearing simple and commonsense, involves a number of complex issues and has at last set the long awaited precedent that left wing politics has untill now steadfastly resisted.

The number one consideration inside the Alliance in looking at the decision to pull Bunkle must surely have been how the move would go down with party members nationally. Bunkle herself has long maintained that voters do not like candidates being withdrawn, and, right to the end, asserted her name would remain on the ballot.

So the about face came fast. The Alliance has faced intense and escalating pressure in the seat to stand aside and in the end saved face reasonably well with their rushed consultation exercise. The move to withdraw was a gamble, but it has proved popular amongst the left voters in Wellington Central and looks set to do the Alliance national support base no harm at all.

That said, the move doesn’t address concerns that Labour are calling the shots and directing the play.

The Alliance withdrawal, despite being commonsense, is a major concession to Labour gaining nothing in return, and Labour’s own performance in similar electorates hints that if the boot were on the other foot, no such deal would have been done.

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Wellington Central is a prize seat, for sure. It is parliament’s own seat and to some extent acts as a national political barometer. But despite the big decisions this week, Wellington Central is in effect little more important than most other seats in this election now.

This hasn’t always been so. Six weeks ago when ACT were polling dangerously close to five per cent, Richard Prebble winning Wellington was looking crucial for the survival of ACT - and maybe the government. Now, with ACT polling up around seven or eight per cent this pressure has eased and ACT is now confident it will breach the five per cent threshold.

Nevertheless Prebble will still be determined to win as the seat as it provides a wonderful insurance policy.

Campaigning proper on the streets of Wellington is now well under way and all candidates – only two matter anymore - are pounding the pavement and pumping the flesh.

In her addresses to crowds and meetings Hobbs has looked distinctly shaky, under prepared and ill composed. Standing alone against an experienced and seasoned professional Hobbs looks to be learning fast that she has been thrown in the deep end and is out of her depth. The decision by the Alliance must have been that much harder when the withdrawing candidate is far more capable than the one left standing.

Coromandel is still the seat which, if Green MP Jeanette Fitzsimons wins, could alone force a change of government. The three or four MPs that Fitzsimons would take to parliament with her if she won the fiercely contested seat could be just the ticket to give the left the majority they need to form a government.

The race between Fitzsimons and National’s Murray McLean is at present neck and neck. Helen Clark is acutely aware of this, yet she has left her candidate, Margaret Hawkeswood, who is on about 15 per cent, to stand in the seat and contest Fitzsimons vote until the end.

It is likely that at some stage during the campaign Hawkeswood will endorse Fitzsimons but given Labour’s ineptness in handling electoral accommodations to date this is by no means certain. Labour have applauded the Alliance move in Wellington Central but have failed to see they have missed a very similar and infinitely more significant opportunity in the Coromandel.

Indeed just on Wednesday a Labour spokesperson appeared on National Radio’s Checkpoint saying Hawkeswood would not be withdrawn because Labour were expecting a late “swing towards Labour” in the seat. One would have thought – strategically – that this would be the last thing Labour would want?

The Alliance looked messy towards the end of the decision to withdraw their candidate, with Bunkle taking left-wing newspaper City Voice to the Press Council over a misunderstanding on this very issue - but they sorted it out, made the right decision and came out on top in the end. Bunkle is now receiving ovations from both Labour and Alliance voters at Wellington meetings.

Meanwhile in the Coromandel Labour looks indecisive, confused and blundering.

Labour is probably rightly concerned about the message the Alliance is sending through Wellington Central – vote Labour in the electorates and Alliance on the party list. Jim Anderton is currently in the best form of his life and with strong television ads the Alliance are laying a strong base for building their party vote over the next three weeks.

While talking about blundering, poor strategy and sending confused signals, taxation finally became the issue of the week, though for all the wrong reasons.

After the Treasurer told journalists the government couldn’t afford to lower both corporate and personal taxation in the next term of office the Prime Minister promptly announced that the government could in fact afford them both at a joint press conference with Bill English.

A commitment to lowering corporate tax rates warrants a press conference, to be sure, but if it is to be held with the Treasurer, he should at least know what is being announced. This ordeal was very poor politics indeed from the Prime Minister but the storm seems to have blown over quickly and it appears surprisingly little damage was done.

The nastiest election development this last week came on Wednesday when NZ First released their party list right on the deadline. The shock news came with the drastic demotion of loyal party stalwart MP Jenny Bloxham from number five on the list down to number 22. Fellow MP and ex-cabinet Minister Robyn McDonald also slid down the list to number 22. NZ First has effectively decided to fire both of these MPs who will certainly now not be returning to parliament.

Peters gave the two women no warning and they were told of their placings just minutes before the list was published. The move leaves an almost exclusively male line-up in the top 15 positions, a point not wasted on Bloxham who said the reason she was demoted was to make way for those who had other attributes – like a penis.

Winston Peters said the list selection was democratic and both women should just accept it, however anyone who has read Michael Laws’ ‘The Demon Profession’ will know, democratic is the absolute very last thing NZ First list selection process should be called. And all this from the man who wants to 'keep the rest honest!'

Given his trouble with deserters one would have thought that McDonald and Bloxham – the first loyal to the point of giving up a Beehive office for her leader – are exactly the sort of people Mr Peters needs in his neighbouring benches.

Labour, the Alliance and the Greens received a boost this week from an umbrella of environmental groups who rated the parties on their commitment to the environment. ECO gave the Greens and the Alliance a five star rating and Labour three stars and said a National/ACT/ NZ First government would be undesirable from an environmental perspective.

If there was any doubt that the Alliance feared losing the environmental vote to the Greens then a strong Alliance conservation launch – in the Coromandel no less – will remind everyone that these two parties are competing hard for votes. The conservation policies of these two parties differ marginally, as would be expected given the Greens former role in the Alliance.

Meanwhile throughout the week the increasingly mercurial Winston Peters has been sticking to his non disclosure position on his coalition intentions. For some this amounts to his holding the country to ransom before he has even been elected, and he is certainly getting a rise, both out of the media and of his competing parties.

Peters repeatedly says he will probably vote issue by issue from the cross benches rather than enter into a coalition that will not offer what he wants – namely a commitment to make MMP work and a new economic direction.

He will not get a new economic direction from National so he is effectively ruling that out and he has gone to lengths to stress that Labour offer little new in that respect also.

The commitment to make MMP work is ironic given the betrayal that many voters felt last time when he returned the Nats after promising he was the only man who could get rid of them.

Now the man who has made a virtue of twisting the principles of MMP, and who in many peoples minds has ruined the new electoral system, is trying to paint himself as the system’s greatest advocate and protector. People should not forget the fiasco of three years ago.

All the news of this last week however pales beside perhaps the best news yet for the government. This weeks Household Labour Force survey shows unemployment falling and the economy growing.

This is just the positive news the government needs to take on the campaign trail and will help in painting the centre-right as successful and positive and the left as negative doomsayers.

Still as this column is written the All Blacks are losing again and who knows yet what impact this national disappointment may bring to the polls.

Only three weeks to go...


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