Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

9th August 2002 - God's Little Rally Driver

Copyright © 2002 Russell Brown

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It was as inevitable as death, taxes and last-second Bledisloe Cup losses. Any fool could have forecast it last week and, indeed, I did.

Having fought that particular election, it would have been somewhat absurd if either Labour or the Greens was to suddenly roll over on the GM moratorium. Neither one did, and it was apparently clear that that was to be the case by last Wednesday.

There were token offers either way - a Parliamentary vote on the moratorium or a further tightening of rules, versus an offer of support for 15 of the 36 months until the next election, but it wasn't going to happen.

The intriguing thing is that having almost immediately established that the Greens would not be able to formally support a new government, they spent the rest of their negotiating time talking about policy.

So, the new government is a minority coalition, with Labour's 52 seats and Jim Anderton's two. And Peter Dunne's United Future is committed to support on confidence and supply for the rest of the term.

What does that mean? There are, in our system, a series of set-piece votes through a term to determine that a government has the support of a majority of the elected members in order to govern - that's confidence. A government must also be able to set Budgets, and to do that it needs the support of a majority of Parliament to guarantee it access to the money it plans to spend. That's supply.

The remarkable thing is how little Labour has had to give away to win that support. United Future's only significant gain is the funding for a Commission for the Family - which might actually do some good - next year. Apple pie, anybody? United's other lollies - a victim support law and new road funding measures - are leftovers from the last Parliament and already in train.

Peter Dunne may get a Cabinet post when Jonathan Hunt decamps to London in 18 months; he gets to look at policy early in the process. In turn, he has agreed to support the government on procedural motions - the Greens drove Labour mad in the last Parliament by repeatedly refusing to agree to urgency to get legislation passed - and on select committee personnel.

And one more thing: the agreement provides that the government will not legislate to change the legal status of cannabis, but I'm not entirely sure that was on the cards anyway. A change in the way the offence is handled appears not to be ruled out, but the Greens will have to push that one.

Dunne himself will be faced with the need to change his mind over a number of other bills carried over from the last Parliament - bills he voted against. But he will, because Labour can turn to the Greens to get them passed - and every measure on which the Greens lend the government their vote can rightly be chalked up and touted at the next election as "brought to you by the Greens".

They're not out of the woods, of course. Hardly. United Future's leader hadn't even finished haggling before his MPs started to fall out of line, making his party suddenly look quite a bit less reasonable and moderate.

Paul Adams, a fundamentalist Christian petrolhead - ooh, my favourite kind of person- was always a good bet to screw up first. It was discovered that in 1993 he made a submission on Human Rights legislation saying that HIV/Aids sufferers should not be left to "run loose". Meaning, presumably, that they should be locked up somewhere.

His introductory reservoir of goodwill is now empty. Not because he is a Christian - if we're going to go into bat for Falun Gong, we owe the same license to the followers of Jesus. Or even so much for his historic ignorance, which he did not appear to fully recant. It's that his first instinct was to lie about it. It must have been someone with the same name as him, he told a reporter, until it was pointed out that the submission was on his own letterhead. Apparently Jesus says it's okay to lie these days.

Adams proceeded to blather about having to share rooms with people with all kinds of "infectious" diseases. He is now marked as a moron and will have few friends in Parliament for the next three years.

Indeed, now that United's support is locked in, a fair chunk of the Labour caucus - and not just those who expressed their disquiet this week - can get on with hating its less liberal members. Not just hating them but really despising them. The danger, I think, is of traumatising the United Future MPs to the point where they wig out, but being appalled is not the same as being unable to govern.

Insofar as I am tasked with finding cruel jokes in public life, I'm feeling quite grateful to have this crowd around. Some of them will probably prove robust and moderate. But I wouldn't envy their leader in having to manage the fortunes of God's little rally driver.

And the Greens? A signed agreement to co-operate with Labour on policy is apparently to be forthcoming - something they didn't get last time because the Alliance blocked it. They have apparently already discussed a review of Erma with Labour. And, at least, when the moratorium expires, the issue can go somewhere - not away, just somewhere.

The Greens receipt of a swift and fulsome briefing on this week's GM corn scare - unlike Corngate, the results strongly indicate this is the real thing - was a good start. My main concern is that decisions on this issue - whichever way they go - are dictated by prudence rather than politics.

But Rod Donald really needs to watch himself. He spent Thursday declaring that Labour had "opted to go with a party that wants to quarantine Aids sufferers rather than a party that wants to quarantine genetic engineering."

As weird as Adams' beliefs are, they are not his party's policy. No more than genocide is Green Party policy because Keith Locke once thought Pol Pot to be a particularly fine socialist leader. The difference being, of course, that Locke has totally recanted. Well, I think he has.

And it was, after all, only the week before last that Donald was enthusing about having private meetings with United on GM so the two parties could take a joint approach into coalition talks. He seemed quite happy to work with moral conservatives when it suited his purpose.

(By the way, if you want to know more about who these United Future people are and what they do believe, you should read Gordon Campbell's story in this week's Listener. It's very good - as is Philip Matthews' feature on kiddy-fiddling in the Catholic church, once you get past that 46-word opening sentence.)

The Prime Minister too, needs to check her head. Hopefully she had a good hard ski at the weekend and worked out all that aggression. Because the emergence of her post-election comments to something called the Trans-Tasman Newsletter was not a good look.

She "credited" herself with driving down the Green vote to only 6.4 per cent, which was why they were "grieving". Presumably, it was an off-the-record diss that slipped on, but (a) it was most unhelpful to her own party, and (b) it was as patronising to the voters as it is when the Greens say it. People were quite capable of making their own decisions, thank you.

In the very best of circumstances, the Greens and Labour would have been competing for voters - which is why Clark likes Anderton's potential to pull in the stray Winston vote rather than cannibalise hers. Harsh words were going to be said, especially after the Greens' 'Guess who's coming for dinner?' ad, aimed squarely at Labour (it didn't even mention anyone else) ran at the start of the campaign.

But that's over. And if Clark wants to measure up to her own vision of statesmanship, she needs to stop doing this. Until such time as there is a war on, we can do without Boadicea as Prime Minister.

It's still anyone's guess as to how the new arrangements will work. Give it a year, at least. I have no idea whether we'll beat the Springboks this weekend either. In fact, there are only two predictions that I am prepared to make: one is that sometime in the next 48 hours I'll see the D4 and their mates at the King's Arms, and it will be good. After all, they're in this month's issue of The Face and everything. The other is that there will be no Hard News for the next two weeks. I'm taking a two-week post-election break: kick back, freshen up, that sort of thing. See you later, then


Russell Brown

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