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September 11, 2006 | by  | in Opinion |
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The Week in Politics

Last week defence, this week attack!

Labour caught a break last week. The police investigation into the allegations raised by an electorate office staff member of Taito Phillip Field (Labour, Mangere) and his slinky fingers, has meant that the party gets some breathing space to deflect comment on Field and the Ingram report.

That didn’t stop Lockwood Smith (National, Rodney) and Phil Heatley (National, Whangarei) from testing Immigration Minister David Cunliffe (Labour, New Lynn). They didn’t get far. After weeks of questions, Cunliffe finally had the better of the opposition. Never mind though, the final score is still a clear win for the Nats.

Unlike previous examples of National not learning to let the man fall down by itself, the conditions were right for them to try some combinations, simply switching attacks from Field to the pledge card. With the Auditor General’s report into overspending allegations by nearly all parties during the 2005 election soon (but not yet) to be released, it was a prime opportunity to bring up a new offensive on the opposition benches. National’s rhetoric has taken the “no prisoners!” approach:Don Brash (National, List) calling the current Government the most corrupt this country has every seen and demanding a fresh election after according to him, “Labour stole last year’s election”.

This week, the Government could not hide, and found its footing again, as well as once again realising that the only good defence is a good offence and deciding to meet the Opposition head on.

What we saw in the House last week was a battle across the chamber, allegation after allegation, barracking and taunting from both sides, with no one relenting. Labour was able to pull the rug from out under Dr Brash, with a pamphlet produced with the leader’s fund in 2002 (featuring then leader Bill English (National, Clutha-Southland) and detailing the policies that the party was committed to in that years election).

National hit back, bringing up the obvious problem with that argument: the rules were changed between then and 2005!

Labour was ready, referring to the changes after the post-election review as permitting “material of an informational nature to inform the recipient of the member’s or parliamentary political party’s views on public issues of the day” and that the advertising had to contain the parliamentary crest, and a contact address. In other words “our pledge card does exactly what the law allows!”

Undeterred, Brash continued with the key question: will Labour pay back the parliamentary funds used for the card, if the auditor general finds the spending unlawful? (This is, of course, the only time that he stated the possibility, not the certainty, that the money was spent unlawfully).

Anyone expecting a straight answer in politics is simply deluding themselves, Clark immediately introduced the Exclusive Brethren’s 1.2 million dollar campaign to support the National party in winning the election as a counter argument (and Brash’s cover-up of the meetings with the religious group, even from Co-leader Gerry Brownlee (National, Ilam)). A campaign that included, according to Jim Anderton (Progressive, Wigram)

“…tens of thousands of dollars…spent on full-page advertisements in local papers, and expensive full-colour leaflets personally attacking the sitting member [for Wigram]… delivered to every household, supporting the National Party’s electoral campaign, all authorised by an unidentified person said to live at a property that was in fact vacant.”

Clark then went even further: “the real corruption in politics is Dr Brash’s ‘cash for policies’ and refusal to say where his money came from”, alluding to the large private trusts that fund the bulk of National’s campaigns. Gerry Brownlee took a different approach, going into detail about the advice that the Labour party had been given by the Chief Electoral Officer on overspending during the 2005 campaign, not necessarily wanting answers, but just to get Labour’s actions on the record. He also highlighted the role of the unions in Labour’s campaigns.

In the end, all we saw was a lot of finger pointing from two sides deep in their own holes. Sitting and listening to the cacophony of hypothetical insinuation, with the Auditor General’s report being eagerly awaited by the wolf-hounds, it was hard to hear over the calls of “liar”, “pay it back”, “tell us about the Business Roundtable”, “how about his tennis ball?” and “you guys are corrupt!” coming from both sides of the house. It was stunning and deplorable. But it certainly was politics.

You had to wonder over the shouting, just who was being left behind in the debate. I saw a silent Bill English, and I was wondering if he thought that this was going way too far? His own question on education was bumped to number 10 on the Tuesday, and with no question on the Wednesday, you pity the loss of proper debate, and the lost opportunity to hear from the most chivalrous debater in the House. Those who think that debate in the House should be held to a higher code should watch him and ponder what could happen if more were like English.

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