Trivial pursuits

by gabeatkinson / 08 December, 2012
The big news of the year is a margin-of-error-scale shift in the polls.
Cartoon by Chris Slane

Just in time for Christmas, Labour’s smarmies and front-bums give John Tamihere another chance, the Prime Minister tries a diet of insect larvae, Peter Dunne offers to stop some – but not all – animal torture and the polls reach a tantalising tipping point. The sheer dizzying randomness of politics this year has been a constant marvel.

The headline news for 2012 is that both major parties have had a pig of a year – sometimes even venturing into flying-pig airspace. But because of the great cosmic novelty-generator that seems to determine the fortunes of our Parliament, we are destined to see the balance of power see-sawing for the foreseeable future over quite trivial matters.

Minor diversions keep hogging the political limelight while the parties fail to grapple with the really important things. As the previous Government found, it’s the accretion of voter impressions of the handling of minor matters, as much as progress with the big stuff, that determines election outcomes. And maybe that will be more so this time, because frankly, of the big stuff there’s been so little.

We’re barely further ahead with growth, jobs, income levels and emigration. But boy, we’ve argued the living daylights out of whether it’s acceptable for MPs to call one another “Sweetie” in Parliament, which MPs deserve to be Hobbit red carpet guests and whether David Cunliffe’s facial hair is code for a leadership coup or just an extra-long commitment to Movember. (Answers: a. yes, b. depends whether hypocrisy or sovereignty is the prime determinant, and c. TBA).

Neither side of the House has a killer set of measures to tackle our economic lameness head-on. The only bold call, the Greens’ quantitative-easing prescription, has been that party’s one big misstep this term. Those countries that have cranked up the money supply have gained no lasting benefit and have generally ended up worse off than they were.

National’s solutions have centred on slashing public spending, clipping local bodies’ toenails, and blowing suggestively in the private sector’s ear about how lovely it would be if business spent more on research and development and investment for growth, along with coy hints about “encouragement” – stopping short of actual trade-deal violating subsidy, tax breaks or indeed actual folding cash money.

Labour has blathered on about “pulling more levers” and making the Reserve Bank a less monotheistic entity by adding competing minor deities to the pantheon of low-inflation worship. But that hasn’t lit voters’ eyes up, either, given the reflexive dread that lingers in the political memory of lever-yanking from the Muldoon days. Like the inscrutable instructor in The Karate Kid, Muldoon averred we could “Make pain our frien’!”, riding the deficit and inflation like a magical dragon, and ordaining wages and prices by sheer mystical will.

It turned out we couldn’t, and probably still can’t. But as to the mix of new and old economic orthodoxies that are going to inspire growth, emanations from Parliament remain indistinct.


The latest opinion polls reflect this ambivalence with uncannily accurate inexactitude. To start with, every one of the movements up and down by individual parties is within the margin of error. So it’s iffy even to say that, as it appears, National is going down and Labour up, because it could still be the other way around, or both or either could be static.

Then there’s the fact that although trending downwards, National still has pretty much the numbers it was elected on. It may have lost the support it gained since the election, but it’s really no worse off.

Labour is very much better off, having sagged in the 20s for months, and now solidly ensconced in the mid-30s. But it must share. The Greens show every sign of being able to inch up to 15% from a bedrock of 12%. Neither National nor Labour has been much good at sharing power. But National has had the comparative fortune to have been able to humour its coalition partners with mostly small trophies and fetishes. The Greens want economic, ecological and social revolution. Labour just wants to do it all a lot better. The point of compromise/consensus here is not obvious.

Then there are the tricksies, to use a Gollum term recently invoked in the Maori Council’s assets sales appeal case. New Zealand First, Mana, Act and United Future are potentially the margin of error. NZ First alone shimmies around the (pending) 4% MMP threshold, still clearly capable of holding the balance of power.

That assumes, of course, that Winston Peters can keep his temper and resist getting bogged down in peeing contests over tangential issues as in the past. Astonishingly, it seems he can. Not only has he avoided getting into serious trouble in Parliament, despite, at times, monumental provocation by the Speaker, but he has so far handled the excruciating allegations against NZ First MP Brendan Horan with aplomb. His vote should hold up.

But that’s where things grow ambivalent again. Although it might seem obvious that Winston would rather support Labour than National – indeed, would rather appear in public in a muscle shirt and tracksuit bottoms than shack up with his old party again – there is his problem with the Greens. Quantitative easing is about the only thing he agrees on with them. Until recently, his favourite term for the party was “the Fart Blossoms”. The Greens will have way more policy and status in that coalition than he will, and it will be almost unbearable for him to be told how to suck eggs by persons who, for all he knows, could be wearing hemp knickers.


As it seems highly unlikely Act will survive, and there is no sign of extra grunt from Mana than the one MP, that leaves only Peter Dunne elbowing to catch a share of the bridal bouquet at coalition time. Incandescent at being written off last time, he did prove his point by retaining his seat, a remarkable feat in any parliamentary system. But Dunne seems to have entered a period of haplessness as Revenue Minister, in failing to pick up on the post-Enron/GFC imperative of at least giving lip service to the need to make big corporates pay their whack. He fielded questions on the risible tax paid here by internet giants as though he were a faceless technocrat rather than a politician.

Corporate tax is one of the big no-brainer populist issues of the day, and another MP in Dunne’s seat would have had his or her identity righteously stamped all over it by now. He also bungled the sensitive question of safety testing for his new party-drug regime, allowing himself to be quoted on the “necessity” of animal testing. He has since promised to spare unfortunate dogs and rats the barbaric and outmoded “lethal dose” testing, but hasn’t been able to rule vivisection out altogether, thus getting himself stranded up an ethical gum tree. When thousands of humans were only too happy voluntarily to conduct field trials on themselves before the drugs were controlled, why should innocent and unconsenting animals be poisoned and killed by them – especially when there is no possible argument for a countervailing humanitarian benefit from mere recreational drugs?

Dunne has argued that if a human dies from party pills, people will be sorry. But he probably overestimates the public’s sympathy for hedonistic, hipster pill-poppers as opposed to sad-eyed beagles in cages. To be fair, no one stuck up for the poor wriggly grubs John Key ate on Bear Grylls’s show. But at least Key always ensures that, in the parlance of difficult policies, the rats he swallows are dead first.
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