Doing the right thing

by Jane Clifton / 27 December, 2008
"Anything you can do, I can do better" was the approach adopted by politicians with their sights set on an election win, but their grand promises were thwarted by a greater power - the global credit crisis.

With the election result still fresh in the memory, and the Jenga-like toppling of financial institutions continuing apace, it seems a ridiculous fantasy that both our major political parties began this year with big plans to outspend each other to attract our vote.

The Government was going to give us tax cuts, universal student allowances and more generous Working for Families tax credits. It also promised a "rolling out" of other generous leg-ups like the Welcome Home housing package, the ramping up of the road and school building programme, and the spending of $600 million more on our representation abroad.

National was going to give us more generous tax cuts before Christmas, followed by still more generous tax cuts after Christmas, and broadband so fast that emails would arrive before we sent them. It was also going to outbid Labour on childcare, health, education and infrastructure.

And those were only the policies we knew about.

Marking the parties' cards was the Australian federal Budget, which - despite a change to Labor - bestowed a fifth year of tax cuts and pledged several more years of them.

However, by April, with the US credit collapses beginning to knock on, our politicians realised they'd have to cut their cloth - if there was going to be any left.

Finance Minister Michael Cullen's May Budget forecast our first cash deficit in many years, and Labour shelved some of its spending plans; National followed by running the red pen over its wish list.

By mid-year, when it was clear we were in "technical" recession, and world experts were harking back to the 1920s Depression for context for the global credit crisis, most of our MPs started to talk a different game.

For the first time since its introduction two decades ago, the fundamentals of GST came under serious political question: should we, for instance, nix the GST on food? The Maori Party, now in government, said we should. As petrol prices soared, the Government came under pressure to reduce its petrol tax.

It also shelved plans to bring in a regional petrol tax as part of the pending Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

Having started the year taunting National about going into debt because of its tax-cut promises, Labour was soon talking of its intention to borrow to support economic activity. Before long, both parties were reprising themes reminiscent of the old Ministry of Works ethos: the next Government would road-build its way out of depression. Both also came up with special support for those made redundant, and to shore up the banking system by underwriting mortgages.

Even the Reserve Bank, with its Jaws-like propensity to hunt down and chomp any signs of fun out of the economy, relented and cut interest rates.

This was the year in which inter-national economic orthodoxies - not just New Zealand's - were thrown up into the air like a deck of cards. We're still waiting to see which suit lands where.

Which is also where we got to with the ETS. The Government passed it under urgency, with every sector of the economy quibbling with some or all of it. Predictably, one of the first things the new Government did was put it back in the dry dock for an overhaul.

The year's other legislative preoccupation was the Electoral Finance Act, with our chief electoral official admitting there wasn't the legal or bureaucratic expertise, or the time, to figure out what it meant before the election.

There were big, big stories - like the crippling drought conditions, which came close to causing power cuts. Like the Governnment's decision to buy back the railways. (Faced with a decision whether to subsidise an Australian company to run them or to subsidise the same company not to run them, it opted for the latter. At least ministers got to pose in front of freshly painted locomotives.)

But often it was the small stories that caused the biggest ructions. The Government decided to phase out the importation of incandescent light bulbs - which left many householders incandescent.

John Key decided to buy a holiday house on Maui, which caused another flurry of "rich prick!" talk.

And in a routine, but ill-negotiated piece of infrastructural management, the Government put up road-user charges, copping a massive nationwide truck protest that made folk heroes and martyrs out of truckies.

Aside from a couple of exciting seesaws, the opinion polls pointed firmly to National being able to form the next government, which is what happened. Key's decision to bring the Maori Party into the deal, even though National didn't need the numbers, was a further pioneering step in our still new MMP system.

However, this election's often contradictory individual results have increased the public and political appetite for a review of its rules, in particular the vote threshold needed for party representation.

Whatever one's thoughts on its outcome, the election did the country the great favour of bringing in an unprecedented number of promising new MPs, chiefly in Labour and National. But senior MPs spent a good proportion of the year committing pratfalls, so as to give the newcomers a fair idea of what not to do.

John Key, for instance, gave shifty TV performances over questions about his personal share portfolio, and whether he had met an overseas moneybags.

Other MPs were just guilty of Bad Looks. Who could forget the cat's chorus of Labour women MPs, warbling a parody of Kenny Rogers' The Gambler to lampoon Key? Her offences against melody may have been a prime reason Ruth Dyson fell out of contention for the deputy leader's job.

At the same conference, Labour president Mike Williams - who hogged the Bad Look roster this year - was secretly taped endorsing a suggestion (from -Dyson's husband) that Labour use government departments' and state agencies' pamphlets as part of its election campaign guff. Williams first denied this, then admitted it.

That the taping - generally thought to have been by a journalist - was unethical became a running thread through the campaign, with an anti-National activist covertly taping a series of senior Nats at their conference cocktail party. Bill English was caught patronising his leader, and he and other MPs appeared to portend a secret privatisation agenda that included Kiwibank.

Even when openly taped, however, National seniors could hardly open their mouths without inserting their feet into them. Maurice Williamson enthused about $50 a week road tolls, was vigorously contradicted by his leader, and then repeated the exercise on live TV. At a public meeting, the party's labour spokeswoman, Kate Wilkinson, said it didn't support employers being forced to contribute to KiwiSaver. That she, also contradicted by the leader, happily stayed contradicted, is why she got into the Cabinet and Williamson did not.

Daffiest blurt was from Lockwood Smith who, repeating complaints from horticulturists employing guest labour, noted that some Pacific Islanders had to be taught how to use plumbing, and small Asian hands were ideal for fruitpicking.

However, anyone in the dogbox this year found they had to share it with Williams, who was second only to Winston in being a locus for trouble. His role in the Owen Glenn affair included - according to Glenn - inviting himself to stay on Glenn's yacht in the south of France, soliciting money for Labour and Winston, and then asking him for a job. Williams denied the bit about the job and inviting himself to the yacht, but it still looked cringe-making. His tenure as president now doomed, he nevertheless embarked on a high-profile mission to Australia to dig for dirt on Key's role in a shonky merchant-banking deal 20 years ago. He found none. One of the best-liked people in politics, Williams nevertheless put himself beyond the pale, and had to resign from his four lucrative state boards, as well as the party presidency.

And in a marvellous piece of circularity, Labour Party member Claire Curran successfully challenged David Benson-Pope for his seat. She had been brought in to plug the gap after the new Environment Ministry communications chief lost her job in 2007 because her partner was Key's chief press secretary. This had put yet another nail in the political coffin of the then Environment Minister.

Requiring his own dedicated Year in Review section was Winston. Before he became embroiled in the well-trodden Glenn donation controversy and other questions about New Zealand First funding peculiarities, Winston embarked on perhaps the year's most daring piece of ministerial advocacy. As Foreign Minister, he opposed the year's key plank of foreign policy, the free trade agreement with China.

MMP's elliptical etiquette meant he did not have to resign, or even apologise, for this near-heresy. With typical semantic alibi-ing, he argued the agreement was a trade matter, not a foreign affairs matter, so he was free to decline to implement the policy. He also argued the agreement was bad for New Zealand's balance of payments. If the Chinese were alarmed at the absence of the Foreign Minister for the signing of this historical coup, they said nothing aloud, and the deal was done.

The crown jewel of Winston's year was to be the visit of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as it's part of the Peters legend that they get on famously. They certainly looked as well matched as a bride and groom on a wedding cake - but overshadowing their world affairs was the Glenn saga and sundry other questions about party finance.

The Privileges Committee hearing into the Glenn donation was the year's best-attended political circus. Though bitterly divided, the committee found by majority vote that Peters had failed to make sufficient declaration to Parliament.

However, three other complaints against Winston were investigated by police, the Electoral Commission and the Serious Fraud Office, but came to nought. History may paint Winston as a seriously wronged man, as the toll taken by the adverse publicity on his credibility and, by extension, his party's vote must have been enormous. The publicity he received for being cleared was dwarfed by the months of news copy about his alleged untrustworthiness and corner-cutting.

Election night told the story. NZ First got 4.1% of the vote, and no constituency seats, so disappeared from Parliament. Act - a party even closer to extinction, according to most polls this year, but whose leader prosecuted Winston almost single-handedly - got just 3.6% of the vote but one constituency seat, and therefore five MPs in Parliament.

Act leader Rodney Hide, despite spending much of his year in the gym, acquiring a tan, modelling and making celebrity appearances, had a great year, judging by the election result. But with three demanding new MPs to wrangle - including that never-sleeping rust, Sir Roger Douglas - he struggled to cut his coalition deal without rancour.

Aside from National, the year's obvious winner was the Maori Party. Though not doing as well at the ballot box as it hoped, the party has accrued political respect and a series of heavyweight jobs in National's executive. National needs to keep the party happy to counterbalance the electoral toxicity of Act, and to shore up its future centrist credentials, which gives co-leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia more power as ministers outside Cabinet than most ministers inside it.

The biggest losers besides Labour and New Zealand First were the Greens. With green consciousness higher than ever, this year should have seen the Greens reach 15% of the vote and acquire real political muscle. But the confluence of voters' weariness of Labour and the credit crunch driving green issues from the limelight in favour of recessionary fears dulled its pitch.

Lucky dog of the year was Peter Dunne. After all his earnest incarnations in politics, he is again on his own, his own constituency margin cut. With less than 1% of the party vote, though, United Future nevertheless scored a ministerial post, and a nice sideline for Dunne as the Emissions Trading Scheme review tsar into the bargain.

It would be churlish not to award Key the Politician of the Year honours. It was his election to lose, and - unlike the two National leaders before him - he resisted the temptation. He recovered quickly from his own cock-ups, and has been increasingly decisive in squelching those in his caucus who make mistakes.

But as telling as the manner of a politician's greatest triumph is the way they behave on their way out. A more gracious, elegant and timely resignation than Helen Clark's election night farewell as leader can scarcely be imagined. It's even more of a tribute to her that, although everybody was stunned when she did it, we all knew we should have known that she would do it exactly that way.

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