Saturday, September 09, 2006

Playing Dirty.

There’s a box in politics that’s never really been opened in New Zealand. That is the personal peccadilloes of our MP’s. Politicians, though it may sometimes seem otherwise, are really no different to the rest of us. Like all human beings they’ve made their share of mistakes, done things they might not be proud of, and have skeletons in their closets they’d much rather prefer never saw the light of day. Unlike the USA and the UK this territory has been regarded as out of bounds for both the media and political opponents. The reasoning being if what they do in their personal life doesn’t compromise their professional performance there’s little to be gained for it to be splashed across the public domain. The closest we’ve come to is to have gossip columnists, such as Bridget Saunders, print vague innuendoes that only those in the know can readily identify.

But now it seems that could change.

All of a sudden National has gained some major traction in its attack on Labour’s use of the pledge card at the 2005 election. Public opinion has been swayed against the Government and its 446 thousand dollar pledge card costs. Costs which were funded out of the taxpayer’s pocket. A move, which according to the Chief Electoral Officer, the Solicitor General, the Auditor General, and the Police, the Labour Party shouldn’t have taken. This, coupled with the furore surrounding Labour MP Taito Phillip Field, has significantly raised the stakes for the Government. Previously it’d been able to tough out the scandals (e.g. Paintergate, Peter Doone, the motorcade etc) and eventually they’d fade from public view. But not this time. Opinion polls reveal the voters are sitting up, taking notice, and aren’t impressed with what they see.

The result’s seen a torrid few days in Parliament. After taking accusations of corruption on the chin for several weeks or more Labour decided enough was enough and that the best defence was a strong offence. It was time, they decided, to highlight National’s corporate funding, and what relationship, if any, National had with the religious sect the Exclusive Brethren at the last election. However the strategists went one step further and that saw Labour bovver boy Trevor Mallard threaten to dish the dirt on certain National MP’s. He even went so far as to give some very strong hints about some specific people and some specific activities.

The line from Labour on this has been that Mallard was acting on his own initiative but that’s clearly a steaming pile of the proverbial. Mallard is Labour’s attack dog. He doesn’t take these kinds of steps without direction. This strategy has come direct from the ninth floor of the Beehive. Evidence to back it up are the calls the PM’s made to senior press gallery reporter and the tour that Cabinet Minister Steve Maharey made of the Gallery corridors mid-week to test the mood. It’s only when the Government is seriously spinning that he appears in those doorways as normally it’s a task carried out buy the PM’s press secretaries David Lewis and Kathryn Street.

The mistake the Government’s made is to play the man and not the ball. Its arguments over the connections between National and the Exclusive Brethren have some merit. One point two million dollars is lot for a Church to spend in an attempt to sway voters against the Government and it’s naïve to accept that there wasn’t at least some strategising going on with National. Its polish suggests the hands of someone with political nous was involved somewhere along the line. This is what Labour should be focussing on, not revealing personal details about its opponents. That smacks of venal opportunism of the worst kind.

Once one side launches an attack of this kind it sets the precedent for the others to do the same. Like it or not Parliament is a den of rumour and scandal. Stories abound about the behaviour of certain MPs, stories which until now have been confined to the beltway (if I may use a term of Helen Clark’s). I’m not giving details here but off the top off my head I can think of at least a half dozen tales involving varying politicians that I’m sure they’d prefer never ended up in print.

The key is in Pandora’s Box and it’s been twisted. This week will see whether cooler heads will prevail and MP’s step back from the brink. Or it could see a big box of trouble opened for all to see and the face of New Zealand politics changed forever.

I, for one, have my fingers crossed and hope it’s the former.

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