Little 'bro town

by Jane Clifton / 29 December, 2007
Only in New Zealand could the prevailing political zeitgeist for 2007 be: Beware of Little Brother.

Our longtime sibling rivalry with Australia, the big brother perennially richer, more confident and more famous, has flavoured most political discussion - with a background whiff of aviation fuel, as hundreds emigrate every week. Probably the biggest political theme of the year has been: we're sick of being Little Brother.

Much parliamentary time has been spent debating the true wage and living cost differentials between big and little bruv'. Australia is taxed on more fronts than us, and property prices dwarf even our excesses. But in the headline news, this side of the Tasman is the Cinderella zone.

Australians have enjoyed personal tax cuts, on top of their superior wages, every year for the past five years, and not even the election of a Labor government is expected to curb the annual Budget beneficence. Here, Finance Minister Michael Cullen, a surplus-denier, continues to insist we can barely afford to entertain the possibility of minimal tax cuts for 2008. Most voters don't believe him - but he may be right, thanks to that perennial political stalker, inflation.

Politicians have spent much of the year ruing their impotence against the muscular New Zealand dollar, and ruing Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard's potence against inflation. Result: world-leading interest rates. (Iceland's may still be higher, but that seems not to console.)

Bollard continues to live up to his name, his monetary management consisting of warning us in advance that another concrete lump will be erected in front of our future spending ambitions, and then producing the bollard when we ignore him. This has jiggered even National's big plans for tax cuts. No party can afford to fudge the inflation menace, thanks to seemingly endless new bounties for the dairy industry.

Countervailing downward pressure is likely from the housing market, after MPs spent the year praying for a decorous slump. But though overdue, the price abatement is hardly welcome to voters.

For MPs, the biggest in-house preoccupation has been, somewhat bizarrely, the minutiae of the 2005 election: who spent what, where did the money come from and was it legal? The long-drawn-out post-mortem on Labour's pledge card on the one hand, and the Exclusive Brethren's attempt at secretly boosting National on the other, has utterly warped our politics this year. The Electoral Finance Act, and the extraordinary opposition to it, is the product of the various parties' drive for retrospective self-justification, vengeance and righteous political opportunism.

This legislation may seem self-destructive for the government. But it remains so incensed at the conduct of the Brethren, and at the Auditor-General's still-controversial ruling that it misspent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, that it is resolute in this extreme remedy.

Still, the execution rather undermined the noblesse of the intention. Never before has this writer seen a government come to Parliament admitting that it doesn't understand the workings of a bill it has just introduced, but is happy for others to have a go at deciphering it. Justice Minister Annette King effectively called for volunteers on the day to interpret the clause governing what MPs may spend during election campaigns.

The other unforeseen electoral blockbuster was the Therapeutic Products and Medicines Bill, which would, among other things, have harmonised restrictions on supplements with Australia. Opposition to it began as a cause célèbre among the alternative medicines firmament, but quickly spread to ordinary voters, who tended to read it as another unwarranted repression of an existing right. It turns out that many, and possibly most, of us take non-prescription supplements, and swear by them. Under the bill, any supplement not classified in Australia would have been banned here - till such a time as the pill's producer spent thousands of dollars to fund its investigation. Thus another side-effect would have been legitimate businesses effectively being declared illegal overnight.

The bill's withdrawal, undertaken with especial bitterness by its long-term promoter Annette King, was the cleanest defeat yet for an MMP government.

However, compromise saved the day for another controversial bill, banning the smacking of children. Sue Bradford's legislation triggered much organised protest, including rallies at which people, their children in tow, extolled the virtues of a good slap.

Individual MPs were hammered by lobbyists on both sides of the debate, and in a mildly historical gambit, Helen Clark and John Key nutted out a compromise amendment that allowed National and Labour to circle the wagons around the bill.

Parliament also grappled with the flagging standing of the police. Already suffering public scorn at revelations that it had covered up historical rape and misconduct allegations, and its repeated muffing of 111 calls, the police stunned and even pretty much silenced politicians with its unprecedentedly mob-handed raids on several households and communities it suspected of terrorist activities. That many suspects were Tuhoe created the impression that the police thought Maori nationalism was rampant and violent. Middle New Zealand simply couldn't believe this.

The police's reputation was saved to a degree by illicit publication of some of the evidence it had collected against those arrested. Again, most MPs were left speechless by what the transcripts disclosed. But even now, as police and independent authorities review the conduct of the raids, massive backdowns are under way, with actual anti-terrorism charges unlikely.

Race relations sensitivities also added to the roil around Labour's estranged Mangere MP Taito Phillip Field, now facing corruption charges. Not only did the government look guilty of a cover-up, having previously organised a lamely empowered inquiry that cleared Field, but it risked losing a chunk of its all-important Pacific Island voter support in relegating Field by shunning him.

But if you'd run a sweepstake on the MP most likely to fall from grace during 2007, the name Trevor Colin Mallard wouldn't even have been listed. The muscular Clark lieutenant, though known to fight dirty, had never put a foot wrong till this year. His lead role in outing former National leader Don Brash's affair sandbagged his reputation somewhat, as did his proposal for a massive new sports stadium on the Auckland waterfront. But even punching National's Tau Henare in Parliament's lobby need not have put his career on the line. On the contrary, even Henare's colleagues privately empathised. But Mallard followed it up by slagging the competence of an Environment Ministry staffer, a move widely read as bullying. Career recovery from this seems unlikely.

The year's other major theme has been a mood for change. Government has suffered from the New Zealand voter's inevitable "fair go" principle, which holds that after three terms, someone else should have a turn. The accretion of measures restricting people's rights to do things they've always done - smacking, electioneering, smoking in pubs and so on - has dogged Labour's polling. And John Key's year-old leadership of National remains strong. An affably cocky performer, he has made few mistakes, preferring to capitalise on Labour's.

Riding high in most opinion polls all year, National has traded handsomely on the government's woes. Most recently, it has highlighted apparent cronyism spanning both the Beehive and the bureaucracy. Not only did the embattled David Benson-Pope have to resign over the Madeleine Setchell affair, but the Environment Ministry chief Hugh Logan and the State Services Commissioner Mark Prebble remain in the dogbox for careless and/or weak governance over what boils down to a matter of cronyism. Hospitals and the prison system remain in uproar - perversely just the sort of thing to give an Opposition politician a very happy holiday.

The year's most benighted politician has to be independent MP Gordon Copeland, who, after grandly shunning United Future over the anti-smacking bill, then missed the vote on the bill. The devout Christian also admitted lying to his former leader Peter Dunne about his intentions. He followed up by muffing the announcement of his co-leadership of a new party with the Destiny Church, having agreed to the role, then changing his mind. Not even a gig with Dancing With the Stars can save him now.

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