Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

13th December 1996

Copyright © 1996 Russell Brown

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Well, well, well. Hasn't Winston done well for himself? The end-game of an extraordinary con job has been played out. After campaigning on a promise to "get rid of" National, Peters has redefined "get rid of" to mean "keep in power". For his troubles, he has snared the new post of Treasurer, arguably the most powerful job in government - and is refusing to deny that he'd like a turn at Prime Minister before this parliamentary term is out. The National Party, having taken leave of its self respect already, might just give it to him. And Michael Laws has crawled out from under his rock just in time to write the big speech. THIS IS NOT WHAT I WANTED FOR MMP.

But more of that later. It has become fairly clear already that Peters planned his electoral snow job some time ago. It is no sort of good faith to spend two months negotiating coalition deals and then only let most of your elected MPs see the proposals on the day they're expected to deliver a decision.

Just to make sure, for the big meeting you rope in nine regional party executives of whom nobody in the country has heard and for whom nobody has voted. Mostly former National Party people chosen by Michael Laws, they are the same people who helped choose New Zealand First's party list. That is, they are patsies of the first order.

To make doubly sure things go your way, late on that day, you suddenly raise absurd prospects - Winston, an economic idiot, to control the finance portfolio; Winston, a shiftless lech who can't give a straight answer to save himself, for Prime Minister. You have established already that only one party is venal and desperate enough to give you those things.

You have described National's leader as unfit to govern, you and your deputy have taken solemn vows never to serve alongside him or his senior colleagues, you have marketed yourself as the Bolger-buster. You do it all anyway. And then you start making excuses. Oh yes, the excuses fairly rained down on Tuesday. Perhaps we should deal with them separately.

EXCUSE: It was the Alliance's fault. Stable government couldn't be guaranteed if we depended on their support. Crap. Jim Anderton had shown some sense of showmanship by holding the formal approval meeting on the Tuesday morning itself, but the Alliance's support was never seriously in doubt. Even if the Alliance abstained, NZ First and Labour still had a majority over the other parties. The least stable aspect of any coalition is New Zealand First itself, given that its infrastructure is falling apart and its hierarchy is riven with hatred and intrigue.

EXCUSE: It was Labour's fault. They wouldn't make Winston Peters Treasurer or Prime Minister. Well, would you? The guy was a flop in a relatively lightweight cabinet post and you want to put him in charge of the economy? As Helen Clark has pointed out, National could get away with this - Labour would have provoked an economic crisis the next morning.

EXCUSE: It was MMP's fault - this was always going to happen. No way. Any electoral system is only as good as the integrity of those who take part in it. The simple facts are that thousands of voters were wilfully led to believe something other than what was the case about New Zealand First's intentions after the election. Several of the party's own candidates are now declaring themselves to have been duped. There's not a lot you can do about that.

EXCUSE: This was the best choice for all New Zealanders. Wrong. Michael Laws ghost-writing the budgets for Winston Peters is not in the best interests of the country and I defy anyone to even try and prove that it is.

EXCUSE: National was offering the better deal for Maori - the most a government has been able to offer in 60 years, according to Tau Henare. I can't see it myself. They got the scrapping of the fiscal envelope and three new committees. But they didn't get any of the practical stuff that was in Labour's policy - like the removal of the arbitrary limits on new kohanga and kura schools. The big item was instead the adoption of a refried version of Ka Awatea - which is, of course, a scheme closely associated with the ego of ... Winston Peters! Are we seeing a pattern here?

EXCUSE: National offered more concesssions on health, education, welfare, yadda-yadda-yadda ... Palpably and demonstrably untrue. On health, Labour's policy has pretty much been stolen intact, and National's reforms have been rolled back in theory and in practice. Which raises the question: why, when a government throws a sucession of ministers at the health sector and still gets the question and the answer wrong, do you let them have another go? So you can claim the credit, of course. Ditto for all the other social policy concessions. Yes, the direction might be laudable, but it's essentially trophy spending for Peters. It doesn't come within a considered policy framework and therefore runs the serious risk of being pissed down the drain.

EXCUSE: Only National had the vision to allow NZ First to deploy its bold, innovative new policies. Translation: Only National was craven enough to indulge the fetish for compulsion which is one of the less pleasant aspects of its new coalition partner.

So, we can look forward to workfare - people on the dole being compelled to work. This looks good for about the first five minutes - but it has been rejected by every OECD country, hitherto by the major parties here and most emphatically by the Employment Taskforce.

What work do you give these people? If you get them trimming trees and mowing lawns you ruin someone's private gardening business. Who makes sure the beneficiaries work hard enough? Social Welfare? The police? Some new force? And we're talking about 135,000 people here - does Peter bloody McCardle have any idea of what it costs to create and maintain that many jobs, even for a couple of days a week? And, of course, when you starting cutting corners on employment costs, workers start getting injured and killed. It has happened before. Even the least worst option is a return to the work schemes that Rob Muldoon used to use to fiddle the unemployment figures. Welcome to the 1970s, folks.

Onwards then to another huge state labour pool - the prisons, where we'll join some of the less savoury regimes in the world in forcing inmates to work six days a week for no recompense. We have already been invited to believe that the statement in the original coalition paper that prisoners would be expected to work 12 hours a day was - this is promising - a "grammatical error".

The Prison Officer's Association has already described the scheme as "ludicrous". There aren't enough prison officers to run it, for one thing. But there'll sure as hell be plenty of policemen - money for 500 more is forthcoming, and Commissioner Peter Doone is already saying that the $36,000 starting salary for a recruit just isn't enough, especially in Auckland, and a pay rise is likely. Although the teacher shortage is somewhat more acute than the cop shortage, the National First government won't be extending the same largesse to our educators, who will continue to start their careers on not much more than the dole.

And, finally, to the jewel in the crowd of compulsion - compulsory superannuation. Peters didn't manage to get either party to agree to implementing his ideas, but he did wangle a referendum on the subject - which he will lose, badly. Just check out Gordon Campbell's excellent analysis of the arguments in this week's Listener for confirmation of that.

Indeed, it's things like this which will come to to haunt Jim Bolger. In so willingly bending over for Peters, Bolger has embraced almost certain failure on a number of fronts. The referendum will fail, workfare will fail, the completely daft new broadcasting policy will fail - and Winston Peters will assuredly fail as Treasurer.

The NZ First caucus will not be the sort of hard-bitten political hacks who can soldier through this - they're freshies who, going by their expressions on Tuesday night, aren't especially sure they've done the right thing. They will be, in the inimitable words of Richard Prebble, "dog meat". They will be attacked from all sides - by ACT, which has "get Peters and his party" at the top of its expensive strategy paper. By Labour, whose MPs feel themselves to have been duped and are mad as hell. And by the Alliance, whose rapprochment with Labour is proceeding at blinding speed. The fate of the original founders of New Zealand First will give some idea of the level of loyalty these people can expect from their glorious leader.

The gloves will really come off if, as seems likely at the time of writing, Labour's Jonathan Hunt is snubbed as deputy speaker - and National gives the post to the uninspiring Ian Revell, as part of its policy of using the offices of Parliament as some seedy sinkhole for ambitious ministers who can't get into cabinet. Jim Gerard, who had more claim than anyone bar Hunt on the speaker's chair, is to be bought off with the offer of High Commissioner in Canada.

This is life as usual under a Peters-Bolger government, I fear. But I went and checked the New Zealand First Website - all the party policies are gone, which is pretty funny in itself, but the party's "15 fundamental principles" remain. Now, these aren't just policies, but allegedly the very cornerstones of the party. Among them is the claim that "only on a vote of confidence" will NZ First MPs be required to vote with the party. Otherwise "any attempt to coerce an MP to vote against his/her electorate will constitute a contempt of Parliament." Well, that one's shot to shit already, isn't it?

At the bottom we find that "All policies not contained in the party manifesto, where no national emergency clearly exists, will first be referred to the elecorate for a mandate." They might wish to add, "thanks for playing anyway, suckers!"

Actually, it's not funny - and this isn't just sour grapes. There is a rotten smell about all this. Peters and Laws have not only smeared MMP, they have taken the magic out of democracy. Instead of the excitement of election night, we have a one-man show, and the depressing, unpleasant and unnerving feeling that somebody has run a scam on the country. I don't know about you but I, personally, won't be forgiving this one


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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