Friday, 15 May 2009

National's Sinful Blunder

Christine Rankin: Utterly unfit for the job.

"THE naïve, the almost childish brutality, with which the chiefs of the National Party fell upon power may seem quite surprising, until one remembers how famished for power they were, and with what an innocency of experience they faced the world about them."

That was how the New Zealand historian, Dr J.C. Beaglehole, writing twelve years after the event, in 1961, described the transition from Labour to National in 1949.

Nine impotent years in opposition – the longest stretch since the 1940s – coupled with last year’s emphatic election win, has inspired in today’s National Party a similar desire to make a bonfire of their predecessors’ most detested policies.

This time, however, the Tories’ auto da fé of Labourism is taking a little longer to get going.

The Right has been in no position to indulge in the wholesale destruction of Labour’s policies for the very simple reason that National only secured its electoral success by guaranteeing in advance a large chunk of the Clark-Cullen legacy.

Certainly, there have been examples of Tory pettiness – Anne Tully’s cancellation of Labour’s healthy schools programme springs to mind, as does Tony Ryall’s unjustified dismissal of Otago DHB Chair, Richard Thompson.

In general terms, however, the first few months of John Key’s reign have seen the sage (if cynical) advice of the Party’s Australian advisors, Crosby/Textor, continue to hold sway. Mr Key won the trust of New Zealanders by presenting National as the non-threatening alternative to a tired and discredited government. Forfeit that trust, and his government’s lease on power will be short.

Mr Key, at least, required little in the way of prompting. His sensitivity to the electorate’s longing for national unity, and to their need for reassurance in the face of globalised economic calamity, has been impressive. Especially well received has been his successful outreach to the Maori Party, and the inclusive spirit of the Jobs Summit. The Government’s unprecedented popularity is due almost entirely to the political adroitness of these prime-ministerial touches.

But, National’s stratospheric poll-ratings may yet turn out to be Mr Key’s undoing. They have imbued his cabinet colleagues with a partisan triumphalism bordering on insolence, and encouraged the very dangerous belief that the Key-led Government is politically unassailable. Jonathan Coleman’s lofty indifference to the plight of public broadcasting is but one example this heedlessness. Murray McCully’s roughing-up of MFAT, and his wilful demoralisation of NZAid, another.

National’s right-wing coalition partner, Act, is similarly interpreting the Government’s 50 percent-plus poll-rating as an endorsement of its own far-right policy initiatives. As Minister of Local Government, the Act leader, Rodney Hide, appears determined to drive through his own version of the Auckland "super-city" – spurning genuine consultation with the people of the region, and heedless of the proposal’s growing unpopularity.

With each passing day, Crosby/Textor’s advice: to safeguard the people’s trust in Key’s leadership; and to maintain the Government’s non-threatening stance vis-à-vis the average punter for as long as possible; grows fainter and fainter.

To be fair to National, the sheer weight and volume of the decisions that must be made in a faltering economy, and the necessity of preserving the good opinion of the international credit-rating agencies, cannot help but over-ride the purely electoral considerations of even the most astute of the Government’s political advisers. It is the fate of every administration that, sooner or later, good governance and good politics will come to a parting of the ways.

What Mr Key needs to keep in mind is that most thinking voters understand this, and are generally reluctant to punish a government for doing the right thing – even when it is manifestly to the electorate’s short-term disadvantage. What the intelligent voter will not forgive, however, are political decisions that owe nothing to the irresistible force of economic necessity, nor the dictates of good governance, but which are simply and crassly partisan.

The appointment of Christine Rankin to the Families Commission falls squarely into this category. Ms Rankin, by aligning herself with some of New Zealand’s most reactionary individuals and organisations, and by adding her voice to those insisting that children be denied the same legal protection against physical assault as adults, has rendered herself utterly unfit for the job.

By offering this sop to the Far Right, Mr Key has diminished both himself and his government.

Worse than a sin – it’s a blunder.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 15 May 2009.

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