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Rushing in where academics love to tread

May 11th

Seasoned observers are in broad agreement that Helen Clark’s foray into the sociology of policing represents her first serious error of judgement. While she has taken risks (and no hostages) in dealing with the squabbles and boo boos of her team mates, this is the first time she has faced direct fire from the public at large.

The incident has provided some fascinating insights into how she operates. It was the Evening Post that broke the story, reporting her as observing that poor police attitudes to Maori in Taranaki “undoubtedly had a bearing” on the shooting of Steven Wallace.

All hell broke loose, her forthright (and lightning) diagnosis of the incident being contrasted with George Hawkins’ stolid blocking comment that it was inappropriate for politicians to be sounding off while investigations were under way. The Prime Minister was not happy with the Post’s account of her comments – it was police relations with Maori in Waitara, not their attitudes that she had adverted too, she claimed.

The Evening Post held its ground with Brent Edwards, one of the most experienced and honest journalists in the Press Gallery, describing the distinction as 'pedantic' and making the pretty compelling observation that “she had placed - whether she liked it or not – police attitudes to Maori firmly into the debate about the Waitara shooting”.

There it rested until Question Time on Tuesday when Jenny Shipley asked whether or not Clark still stood by the statement attributed to her “that relationships between the police and Maori in Taranaki "undoubtedly had a bearing on this tragedy"?

Shrewdly, Shipley quoted the formula Clark had insisted she used in talking to the Evening Post – relations, not attitudes. Clark was able to reply unequivocally: “Yes, I believe such incidents have to be seen in their broader sociological context”. Richard Prebble, following up, was less meticulous asking whether she had consulted with her Police Minister before commenting that “police attitudes to Maori in Taranaki were poor..”

The Prime Minister icily replied that she had made no such statement.

What is revealing here is the intellectually precise way in which Clark communicates her judgements. If ever there was a politician who chooses her words carefully, it is she. So when upton-on-line describes her comments as an 'error of judgement' he is not referring to that peculiarly American phenomenon called a 'mis-speaking'.

I believe Clark when she says she spoke about relations, not attitudes. Her irritation with the Post is the irritation of someone who has very clear views about shades of meaning and expects others to discern them. Upton-on-line has been known to share this particular fetish – and learnt to his cost that it is no defence against a public that does not deal in such fine distinctions.

Clark knew exactly what she meant – and she considered it entirely appropriate. She considered that the word relations kept her in a morally neutral zone that mention of attitudes would not have.

But it wasn’t a question of whether she was taking sides. It was her timing in raising the issue at all. That is where her judgement collided with overwhelming public opinion. The reality is that it was, quite simply, the worst possible time to comment as she did. It raised the spectre of racial prejudice within the police force. That is a sensitive enough matter in ordinary times; in the wake of a particularly perplexing shooting it was incendiary.

And lest there were any doubts about the sorts of parallels that were in her mind, her comments reported in The Dominion removed any hope of ambiguity. She made specific reference to the enquiries into the shooting of young blacks by the London Metropolitan Police and the Los Angeles Police.

Clark’s instinctive reflex to view the incident in sociological terms – and feel uninhibited in immediately talking about it in those terms – is hugely revealing.
It shows the trained mind of someone who automatically sets emotion to one side and applies the detached viewpoint of the social critic who believes we shouldn’t avoid asking the hard questions.

And we shouldn’t. I have no problem with that. It’s just that there’s a time to ask them – and a time to keep one’s own counsel.

Clark has become much more politically calculating in recent years. Her ability to team those skills up with a swift intellect has made her a dangerous person to spar with. But there are times when verbal and intellectual acuity don’t find their mark.

My hunch is that Clark is kicking herself that she applied a sociological rather than a political mindset. Or, if her response was a calculated attempt to identify strongly with her Maori caucus and their constituency – which upton-on-line hesitates to conclude - it seriously mis-judged the reaction from the wider community.

(The Herald seems equally to have over-estimated the willingness of its readers to understand the finer arguments about freedom of information in its campaign to have name suppression for the officer removed as evidenced by a flood of readers threatening to cancel their subscriptions forthwith).

The Waitara comments will not be fatal to the Prime Minister. But they will be remembered. They are evidence of an Achilles heel that opponents will set out to exploit – and for which journalists will now watch. The honeymoon had probably already ended but Waitara alerted us all to the daily traps that lie in wait for Prime Ministers – especially those of the intellectually agile and articulate variety.

Readers interested in reading Brent Edwards’ article in its entirety can do so by pressing here: (courtesy of The Evening Post)

Notes from the Employment Law Seminar

Labour Minister Margaret Wilson’s refusal to appear in front of the select committee considering her Bill has provoked Opposition members into turning Question Time into an open-ended seminar on industrial law. Where Wilson could have turned in one magnificent and casuistical performance in the select committee, she has chosen to star in her own quiz show daily during Question Time.

This brings back (questionably) fond memories for upton-on-line who, some 22 years ago, suffered weekly block busters from a younger version of the present minister at the Auckland University School of Law. Those were the days of the Mangere Bridge and the Bank of New Zealand building. Upton-on-line seems to recall a dogged defence of these industrial disaster zones by Wilson whose sole cheerleader in lectures was a grim old unionist with an accent from somewhere north of Merseyside.

Max Bradford and Richard Prebble have been involved in a life and death struggle to be first to extract an admission from Wilson that the so-called Employment Relations Bill will re-define independent contractors as employees. Wilson has responded by acting out an increasingly extravagant parody of an exasperated lecturer. Each successive question is answered in progressively slower and simpler terms pitched at a steadily lower reading age or IQ. After several weeks of this tussle, Messrs Bradford and Prebble are being talked to as though they were kindergarten children asking the way to the sandpit.

This is all very droll. But it masks a cast-iron determination on Wilson’s part to avoid damaging admissions about the Bill’s true import. Wednesday’s exchange was a classic. "How", Bradford asked, "could the Minister maintain her position when the Law Society has stated that the definition of employee in the Bill is 'extremely wide and will cover almost all independent contractors, even those who are truly independent and are a business on their own account'."

With the condign smile that upton-on-line seems to recall was in his day reserved specially for obnoxious young nationals, Wilson noted that she disagreed with the Society - “a matter, or course, that is not unknown in my profession.” So far, so disingenuous.

But it was then pointed out to her by Richard Prebble that clause 154 of the Bill provides for any union or labour inspector to go to court and seek a declaration that a group or class of persons are employees whatever status they happen to think they have.

Wilson’s reply was masterfully evasive. The provision, she intoned “was intended to ensure that those people with few resources are not denied an opportunity to have their employment status determined. So the intention is that they seek the assistance of the labour inspectorate, a union, or an authorised representative, to assist them in getting a declaration as to their employment status.”

You’d think, listening to that, that the provision was all about workers deciding to pop along to the court to get their status sorted out – a process driven by the worker herself. Upton-on-line wasn’t intimately acquainted with clause 154 so he took the Minister’s word for it. But when he looked it up, he discovered a very different kettle of fish. Here’s what the clause says:

(1) A person described in subsection (2) may apply to the Court for a declaration as to whether or not a particular group or class of persons are employees within the meaning of section 6.

(2) A person referred to in subsection (1) is (a) a union; or (b) a Labour
Inspector; or (c) any person who is a member of the group or class
of persons.

Make your own mind up. As upton-on-line reads it, it’s blatantly obvious that a union in search of new members – and greater muscle – can go along and seek a declaration regardless of the views of a group of contractors. There is no requirement that a union or Labour Inspector must act at the request and on behalf of the contractors concerned. They can ask the Court to accept their view whether or not the workers want their 'help'. Upton-on-line wonders how contractors “with few resources” are supposed to fight off the union-funded legal teams coming their way. Perhaps Margaret Wilson might like to expand on that?

This week the herd sought to put distance (and a further $100 million) between itself and the forces of darkness by trekking on through the night. The plan was to ambush cigarette smokers before they had time to gather their wits.

It was also probably designed to break new government MPs into the delights of all night foot marches gently by choosing an issue filled with moral righteousness. It didn’t quite work out as planned. Under cover of darkness, the predators launched an attack of such ferocity that you’d have thought the Government was making tobacco a class A drug with possession carrying a 14 year jail term.

Listening to the beadiest eyed herbivores in the Valley like Phillida Bunkle this is probably not an unreasonable paranoia.

Albany MP Murray McCully made an emotional plea not to impose the new tax on snuff, speaking on behalf of the two remaining monocled snuff takers on his local party committee. Upton-on-line understands that Mr McCully is considering taking their case to the United Nations to draw attention to the plight of a minority whose traditional cultural practices are being endangered by brutal and ruthless health officials.

Only at 5.00 am were the animals allowed to collapse in a heap having learnt that not a bean of the extra $100 million is intended to be spent on anti-smoking campaigns. This of course would not be sound fiscal policy. Neither would it help fund the real reason for the tax hike – funding the $120 million conscience money being dangled increasingly desperately in front of West Coasters in return for re-neging on the West Coast Accord.

Upton-on-line has been trying to figure out what percentage of the bribe West Coast smokers will end up funding. According to the latest stats there are 6183 smokers on the Coast. Kiwi smokers smoke, on average, 1372 cigarettes a year. But if the Prime Minister’s description of Coasters as feral and in-bred is correct, they probably indulge this politically incorrect habit much more aggressively. Let’s assume double the average consumption.

At $1 per pack of 20 in extra tax, that makes the West Coast’s annual contribution to its own bribe about $848,000. But there are also 5214 ex-smokers on the Coast who, given the Government’s treatment of them, could plausibly be expected to take up smoking again in desperation. That would push the Coast’s tax bill towards $1.6 million. Perhaps Damien O’Connor should be negotiating a further compensating top-up…

If the late night march produced its own insane humour, it did nothing for tempers in Question Time a few hours later. Health Minister Annette King cemented her reputation as the Valley’s grumpy mittens by spitting and hissing most uncharitably at Wyatt Creech when he innocently asked whether or not she accepted the finding of the Health Funding Authority that seven-day-a-week general surgery at Thames Hospital could not be justified.

In the salad days of Opposition, King had dropped down in her spaceship next to every provincial hospital facility in the country to conjure up visions of gleaming operating theatres and hunky doctors jetting in from the Mayo Clinic to do a spot of weekend keyhole surgery in all manner of isolated places.

Now the spaceship has been traded in for the ministerial limo, things have lost their gloss. The House was primly informed that the Minister had told her officials to “look at the utilisation of capacity in hospitals like Thames” and that she would make a decision when she was ready to do so. This is radical stuff and sure to provide instant reassurance in the provinces.

Meanwhile, upton-on-line has been considering the full implications of Helen Clark’s ground-breaking answer that incidents such as the Waitara shooting need to be seen in their “wider sociological context”.

Former National Ministers are kicking themselves that they hadn’t explained that the Incis computer fiasco “had to be seen in terms of the wider technological context”. Or that the ill-fated WINZ trip to Wairakei hadn’t been explained “in terms of its wider recreational context”.

Upton-on-line wonders whether the Prime Minister's comments about the feral, in-bred West Coasters shouldn’t be understood in their wider biological context?

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