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Marc My Words: Labour's modus operandi

Marc My Words… 20 October 2006
Political comment
Marc Alexander

Labour's modus operandi at odds with the public interest

The Helen Clark government seems to believe that freedom of speech is a wonderful thing - until the other guy talks too much. Her response then proves the maxim that the weaker the argument the stronger the words should be. Or, at least, legislate to gag opposition and carry on in secret. After a series of almost comical missteps such as 'paintergate', 'speedgate', and the laughable 'chewing-gum tax cut' due to kick in at the next Millennium celebrations, there have also been a rather more sinister unraveling of policy initiatives that should scare anyone who places a value on our increasingly vulnerable liberties.

Labour has choreographed a whole array of stratagems to deal with criticisms. The first line of defense is simply to say it's not true, then, blame a previous administration. After three elections, it's hardly credible anymore. People have short memories. They can't remember what they ate for breakfast two days' ago let alone what some government did or didn't do six elections past. If all that fails then Labour buries the issue with an inquiry so circumscribed it resembles a trussed chicken being asked to cross the road from a pre-heated oven. It contains the seeds of its own uselessness.

That's what happened with Taito Phillip Field. Under normal circumstances Clark would have scraped him out of Parliament in much the same way as if she had stepped in dog poop. Labour has taken no meaningful action against the MP for one reason only: it is a vital seat that gives them a working majority. The last thing they want is for there to be a by-election which would simply end up being a referendum on the government's dire performance.

The election overspend issue caught on like a bushfire that Labour strategists couldn't quell so easily. So instead of the usual line of attack, labour got personal. The public was uncooperative and simply didn't' buy into it. Labour looked like a child throwing a tantrum. There could be no airbrushing of the facts here. Labour was found out, labeled corrupt and didn't like it. And like a spoilt brat, they started claiming that since everybody else was guilty too, it wasn't really bad. One moronic MP even had a crack at making a distinction between 'unlawful' and 'illegal'. He looked about at convincing as his argument.

The new Labour plan was now to accomplish two things: Trivialize the rules under which they got caught; and, rewrite the law retrospectively to let them off the hook. The first they did by claiming that Christmas cards and calendars could be considered subliminal electioneering and so were now out. So too telephone calls to get in touch with constituents. The attempt is cynical hair-splitting to minimize what they've done. Its amateurish, embarrassing and assumes gross public gullibility.

The second they did to absolve legal responsibility rather than the financial one of simply paying back the money. The obfuscation by claiming they thought they were doing the right thing fooled no-one. Claiming ignorance, as any lawyer will tell you, is no defense.

Where all this gets interesting, if ethically murkier, is how the Clark regime has gone on to attack a wider orbit than their parliamentary opposition. It amounts to buying off votes through welfare payments (such as Working for Families) and subsidies (like interest free student loans), and quelling dissent the old fashioned way by threatening to legislate against it. The former has been spectacularly successful in terms of Labour remaining in power even if at the expense of our nation's future. These artificially crafted dependencies will simply further erode individual and family resilience creating a raft of problems in due course.

The latter, more menacing threats go directly to the heart of the basic principles of liberty and democracy. One of our most foundational freedoms is the right to think and speak our mind. Unfortunately if to do so challenges what the Labour apparatchiks think then they'll legislate the problem away. Take the charitable sector for example: the government now wants the right to remove tax exempt status for those charities that are judged as being too political. The mechanism to achieve this is by way of a government appointed seven-member Charities Commission. This is nothing else than a jobs for the boys scheme with the benefit of political censorship.

In practice that means the sword of Damocles hangs over charitable organizations if they advocate - a function we probably need more of. To expect, for example, an organization to relieve poverty, fight for victim's rights or even cancer sufferers without freely campaigning for regulatory improvements makes a mockery of free speech. How can such institutions effect change without advocacy? Valid dissent is necessary if we want public debate and change. To give the government power, through the Commission, to restrict and punish such discussion is a direct challenge to our freedom.

And finally, the machinations of this government to get things done without people noticing is another dubious tactic. Consider how the government took a cut of millions of dollars from compensation payments to former mental hospital patients. Nearly a third of the payments supposed to go to victims of maltreatment at the Lake Alice psychiatric hospital have been siphoned off to cover questionable legal fees. In a ruling last September Judge Tom Broadmore seemed to hint that a group of the Wellington power elite including Helen Clark made a 'political' decision to scalp some of the money. Allegedly the with-holding of these payments would never have been known if it were not for an accidental admission to a former patient of the total compensation he was entitled to but having the amount reduced from the original $115,000 to $80,000. The full story, (drawn to public attention by Deborah Hill Cone in The National Business Review - Sept. 22, 2006), illustrates the shenanigans this government gets up to in attempted secrecy.

Faith in government cannot be had by changing law to absolve responsibility, being reckless with public money, advancing legislation to shut down dissent, or secret unscrutinsed deals. Helen Clark's government has reached and gone well past that point. If she were Chairman of a Board, the shareholders would be demanding her resignation. We voters should demand no less.


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