Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

2nd August 2002 - If We Had Any Trains, They Would Run On Time

Copyright © 2002 Russell Brown

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there was an emblem of Labour's case for a return to the Treasury benches in the very fact of the vote on Saturday. Immediately after the 1999 election, Helen Clark promised that the next one would be properly organised and the votes would be through in good time. It was and they were.

Easy-vote cards did just what they said, and, apart from a booth in one of the Maori electorates coming up short on ballot papers, there seemed to be none of the hapless returning officers, bogged-down counts and general disorganisation of last time. People got to cast their votes and hear about the results in good time.

The idea of the party responsible for the last one - which couldn't even organise its own campaign this time - getting its hands back on the levers was appalling. If you're going to have a government of managers, they might as well be up to it.

Another point of interest is that if this had been a First Past the Post election, it would have been a screaming landslide. Labour candidates won about three quarters of the electorates, in some cases with hugely increased majorities. Of the 22 seats won by National candidates, Labour took the party vote in all but six. But it wasn't a First Past the Post election, and that's not how people voted. It was a very MMP election.

Helen Clark was not the only one who found the campaign stressful, but it showed what it takes to unbalance her. Basically, The Project would have been a tragic failure had it lasted only three years; or even been crippled by an unworkable Parliament. Those were her nightmares.

Itís the fate of leaders who must always have an answer to blurt and have it reported on the six o'clock news. But the anger she showed at times was apparently born of a seething sense of injustice. Having restored respect to government, she thought she deserved better.

She does, actually. But the tone that first flared up around Paintergate was indicative of a character flaw. Sure, it must seem unfair to keep being nailed with something that happened before she was even Prime Minister, but the words of Rabbie Burns are salient here: "Oh the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as others see us."

But if she felt she was in karma deficit, then the result redressed that. Short of the overall majority - which wasn't going to happen - it's about the best the party could have hoped for. They were pretty lucky, really.

The unexpected arrival of United Future isn't even all bad news for the Greens. Turns out, the markets were poised to have a fit of the vapours of the Greens achieved the sole balance of power. No one noticed, because we weren't really focused on details like the economy in this election.

For all that their influence hasn't met expectations, the Greens go begin this Parliament in a fairly stable atmosphere. Plenty of people would have been delighted to pin a confidence crash - however irrational - on the Green Party.

There is an absurd element to Peter Dunne's party, beyond even his selection by an entertainment device called The Worm. In 1999, he was the leader of United, a multi-ethnic party with a Hindu vice president. Then United merged with Future New Zealand, who had been the Christian Democrats, who fought the 1996 election in an alliance with Christian Heritage.

The merger appears to have been more of a takeover. Five of Dunne's eight new MPs are Christians of a worringly happy-clappy type. But they do mostly have significant secular professional lives. And we're most of us are happy enough to accept that Nandor subscribes to an Old Testament sect that holds a dead African dictator to be God's personification on Earth.

Labour has also bought in the New Zealand Parliament's first practising Muslim. I don't happen to subscribe to any of the above - although Nandor has far and away the better tunes - but people are free to believe what they want in New Zealand.

I had a look at United Future's policies. They seem largely - I hate to say this - quite sensible. Perhaps they'll get their Commissioner for the Family. It will just be necessary to make sure they don't get to define what a family is. The Greens will provide a crucial balance of support on social issues.

I also had a look at New Zealand First's policies. Which are frequently lunatic. It's an indictment on the campaign coverage that they weren't better scrutinised before the vote. Some highlights: Anyone charged with an offence has the right to silence, or the right to bail - but not both. The gimmicky "three strikes and you're out" idea would see 10 years' jail for a third minor offence and would, of course, be an expensive nightmare.

There there's the "three year probation" for new immigrants - hey, why wait till they actually commit a crime? There's the HIV testing of visitors to the country. And, in a final flourish of idiocy, the combination of the police, fire and ambulance into a single emergency service. New list MP Pita Paraone was on the radio long enough this week to give every impression of being a brown bigot. He's clearly in the right party.

Thus, Clark's election night dismissal of Peters was undoubtedly heartfelt. That is where her politics lie. Those are moral issues. GM, however, it not. To her itís a technical issue that just got too big.

I predict there will be a substantial review of the issues before the moratorium expires, but expire it will, and the Greens will honour their promise to vote against the government on confidence and supply for the rest of the Parliament. Clark obviously feels she doesn't have much choice - she doesn't want another election bent like a staple over the GM issue. After this one, I suspect few of us do. Labour can help, of course, by refraining from another go-early grab for glory in 2005. As they say on South Park, I think we all learned something today Ö

But the clarity of the full-term support on offer from United Future will probably see a formal agreement - short of coalition - with them. The New Zealand Herald clearly hopes so: three editorials in five days didn't leave any doubt there. Calm down, for goodness sake.

I do hope some agreement can be reached with the Greens. On a night of symbolism - all election nights are - it was extremely symbolic that Clark went first to Fitzsimons for the support that allowed her to step out her front door and talk about forming a government. It was made clear that Dunne wouldn't get a phone call till the following morning.

Coalition might be out this time, but it oughtn't be for the future. But one thing we can all do without is endless bitching from parties to the left of Labour about Labour's destruction of its would-be allies.

This was no better exemplified than by John Minto's silly letter in Wednesday's Herald, in which he bemoaned the "savage, unremitting personal and political attacks on the Greens and the Alliance from Helen Clark".

Oh really? I can only recall Clark saying two things about the Alliance. One was an expression of sadness at the party's ugly split. The other was her imprudent, offhand quip about the Alliance poll in Waitakere - which she withdrew the following day. Dumb, but hardly "unremitting".

Reality check: neither Labour or its leader destroyed the Alliance. The Alliance destroyed the Alliance. A single party could not accommodate both Marxists and Rotarians forever, especially when its leader was more interested in a great personal round-trip to his political roots.

Laila Harre had the misfortune to face an Engineers Union Labour candidate in her fight for her political life - some latitude for the longer term might otherwise have been forthcoming - but politics is a hard game.

It's worth looking at the Herald Digipoll's reading of where the fractured Alliance vote went this time. The biggest chunk - just over 35% - went to labour. Jim scooped up about 16%; the Greens only got 13.5% and the rump Alliance, United Future and New Zealand First got roughly equal shares in the remainder. It might have been a left-wing party - but on that evidence it was never a left-wing vote.

That failure to pick up the old Alliance vote must be one of the Greens' disappointments. There were some harsh words passed between them and Labour in the campaign - especially during Corngate, which probably did more to damage the Green vote than anything else, ironically. But the record is quite clear as to who opened the hostilities. And the Prime Minister, as we know, is not a great one for turning the other cheek.

But the Greens didn't come up short because Helen Clark was mean to them. They took a risk with their campaign and it didn't work.

One of the great things the Greens offered was their ability to bring new people into the political process - to attract people who normally don't vote. But in the end, they didn't get their vote out, especially in Auckland.

By contrast, Labour, after polling unsatisfactorily in Auckland for the whole campaign, did get its vote out. There were two reasons for this. One, centre-left voters who'd been considering a flutter were alerted by the Herald snap poll to the fact that Labour's ability to form a government was not a given; that a terrifying four-headed right-wing coalition was actually a possibility.

The other is all the unglamorous, time-consuming work that party volunteers do: canvassing, leafleting, driving old folks to the polling booths. That is how you remain a political force over time - and it is the kind of tradition that will, if they get it right, save National from terminal decline. But, on recent evidence, National getting it right is far from a sure thing.

Nandor's absence from the Auckland Central campaign was a tactical one - but until the party actually does get properly involved in the electorates, its support will be prone to the kind of flakiness we saw in the campaign.

The party's MPs already seem to be getting out of victim mode and on with the job. Their supporters should do likewise. The Greens are in a position to make real gains on everything from the rail buyback to child poverty. They should also go and see Act about a joint effort - ho, ho - on cannabis law reform. Start with medical marijuana.

As it stands, this government will nudge a little closer to the centre than the last one - that's what the voters have decreed. But even then, I think weeping and wailing about a lurch to the right - however much Chris Trotter seemed to be wishing for it on election night - is overdone.

The fact is, the orthodoxy has moved in only three years. National went into the '99 campaign with a plan to privatise the roading network. Bill English fought this one promising to throw money at public services. Act's vote is static; National's is seeping to the centre.

Jane Kelsey can bitch all she wants about Third Way governments and their terrible lack of ideology, but on the evidence, that is what the voters wanted. We may simply have had enough of ideologically-driven governments over the past 18 years.

This government might work very well; it might fracture horribly or it might just run out of steam. We'll see. But there is a sense that normal (public) service has been resumed. Now all we need is the All Blacks to win on Saturday


Russell Brown

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