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October 2, 2006 | by  | in Opinion |
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The Week In Politics

First of all, I’m happy to be back (did anyone notice I was gone?). For those who might be worried about my absence, it was to campaign for office. I don’t think it’s appropriate to use Salient as a soapbox while trying to inspire people to vote (for anyone). Thanks to Jeremy for last week’s article.

Secondly a correction. Last week’s edition referred to an Elaine Foreman who supposedly had an affair with the leader of the opposition. The name is actually Diane Foreman.

This week, it’s tying up the loose ends of the (happily) near-dead story regarding the private lives of MPs. Last Tuesday’s National caucus had 48 MPs enter and 47 leave. Brian Connell was suspended (National, Rakaia) after a (very rarely used) caucus vote, effectively castigating him from any National activities and removing him from his shadow portfolios (Forestry, Commerce, Statistics and the all powerful Consumer Affairs).

Blog darling David Farrar summed up Connell’s contributions to his suspension very nicely:
• Controversy over his candidate selection CV.
• Declaring he was Prime Ministerial material before he even was an MP.
• Joking he hated cats so much he threw one into a fireplace.
• Criticising publicly the then deputy leader Nick Smith (National, Nelson).
• Use of extravagant language in opposing the Civil Unions Bill, causing even fellow opponents to cringe.
• Publicly calling the leader stupid over the Katherine Rich (National, List) sacking.
• Contradicting the leader over the forestry policy during the election campaign.
• Publicly attacking Murray McCully (National, East Coast Bays).
• Calling Dr Brash unfit to lead if he had had an affair.
• Suggesting his party membership was of little value to him.

The suspension of Connell is precisely the remedy the party had in mind. Unlike Taito Phillip Field (Labour, Mangere), there is close to no chance that Connell would win in Rakaia against a National party candidate. A former ACT party member informed me last week that “a shaved down monkey could win Rakaia for National.” In three years Connell has alienated many of the groups that would be necessary to have on his side to win as an independent. The National Party knows this, and is quite content to let him stay on the bench until the next election candidate contest happens in Ashburton. Unlike Labour, they have the luxury to wait.

Looking at this from another angle, the vote to suspend Connell was more of a vote of confidence in Don Brash. Brash returned after a fortnight of accusations, doubt and uncertainty over his leadership, the media taking great delight in speculating on a number of leadership contenders. In the end, Brash held firm, but needed to let the caucus know who was in charge. So he called a vote against the most vocal critic of his leadership and, in one movement, restored the confidence lost in him in the past weeks. He certainly would have found the vote easier, considering the seven to nine point lead National has in the polls over Labour.

Dr Brash does not have a vendetta against Connell. He does have a vendetta against anyone who attempts to usurp his leadership. The bottom line is that this is merely a conclusion to a spat that has gone on too long, and Brash has consolidated his position, and according to the polls been vindicated by his decision to stay on. Last year I noted that a leadership change in National would only occur if National was consistently polling behind Labour (even by a little bit). It does not matter so much whether a new government could be formed on the numbers, the plurality of support is all that the party needs to make it feel good with its leader, and if you are the second most popular party, any disruption to the leadership would only create uncertainty, which is a real killer for whatever popular support you have. Now that the polls are in the Nat’s favour, there’s a good case for any speculation about leadership change to be pointed back at the Treasury benches.

In one week PM Clark drastically underreacted, then drastically overreacted to the attack on Brash. It’s hard to see the logic in either response, although I am certain there is some method in the madness. If anything, no one is talking about Taito Phillip Field or election spending, but seeing as there is a recess at the moment, there was no immediate real danger. No question time barbs, no need to stir up the pot. That’s about to change…

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