Peters should practise what he preaches

18/07/2008

The ODT  joins the chorus for Winston Peters to demonstrate the openness and accountability he demands of others:

Winston Peters might well have posted on the wall of his office that famous aphorism of the late British politician, Alan Clark: “There are no true friends in politics. We are all sharks circling, and waiting for traces of blood to appear in the water.”

Is there a trace of Mr Peters’ blood in the murky water of political party donations?

As a sideshow, the story of New Zealand First and the Monaco-based billionaire, Owen Glenn, is an amusing distraction from the much more sombre political news that seems to have been the daily diet for most of this year.

Quite as entertaining as the “did he, didn’t he” aspect is the sub-plot of “hands off” disinterest from both the Labour Party and the Opposition.

If any party is going to try to make capital out of the story, it is not going to be either of them.

Parliament has been in recess since this story broke. I don’t expect Labour to be aggressive towards Peters when the House sits next week because they need him now. I live in hope that National might apply the blow torch Peters deserves regardless of the concern he and his party might be important in coalition talks after the election.

Mr Peters, it is fair to say, does not personally delight in a confident appreciation of the news media; these days he generally starts from a viewpoint that everything published about him not written by his own hand is likely to be “malicious lies” – his description of the reports of the party donation.

But nagging away in the background are reports describing Mr Glenn as not denying giving money to NZ First.

None of this would be of the slightest interest were political parties not currently so sensitive about who pays their bills and, by implication, who might be favoured as a result.

It was, after all, Helen Clark and her Labour colleagues who painted so black a picture of the National Party and its 2005 support group, members of the Exclusive Brethren, and to a very large extent it is she who raised the issue of who might be beholden to whom.

On the matter of NZ First donations, however, she has been as shy as a prospective bride: “The buck stops somewhere else on that one.”

And National Party leader John Key has merely expressed a belief that Miss Clark should “step in and clarify matters”.

This may be because, with an election a few months away and post-election coalition negotiations likely, every politician might need to be friends with Mr Peters.

This is a major fault with MMP, but there is still hope National might put principle above politics and ask the hard quesitons next week. 

Mr Glenn appears to have implied he did give a donation of some kind to NZ First.

Mr Peters says he did not.

Not long ago, Mr Peters declined to tell taxpayers to which charities his party had given the $158,000 it had wrongly spent during the 2005 election campaign.

More recently, he also declined to clarify the status of his friend Tommy Gear, said to have been paid a great deal of money by Parliamentary Services for work done for NZ First.

Mr Peters has reportedly given “private assurances” to Miss Clark, who has noted the appointment of Mr Glenn as honorary consul-general in Monaco was at best “most unlikely”.

That may make the matter tidy from her perspective, but Mr Peters has claimed the email in which Mr Glenn implies a donation was “fabricated”.

But by whom, and to what purpose? It would help everyone if he could get past his usual tedious bluster and “clarify matters” publicly, if only in the interests of fulfilling his long-standing desire for transparency and accountability, which he so often demands of others.

Quite, he needs to drop the bluster and practise what he preaches.


Two Wronged Not Right

28/06/2008

Several bloggers are blaming the Prime Minister because a disabled man was forced to walk 200 metres along a wet street.

Her car was blocking disabled car parks outside the Christchurch Town Hall and police wouldn’t allow his wife to park there. But Helen Clark was in the Town Hall at the time and knew nothing of the incident until contacted by media.

She can’t be blamed for where her driver parks and the over officious actions of the police.

The headline : PM forces disabled man to walk is not a fair representation of the facts. Just as the headline What war? Key’s abridged history and story about John Key’s comments on New Zealand’s relatively peaceful past were not a fair version of what he said either.

Balanced reporting doesn’t mean getting stuck into the Labour leader unfairly today because National’s leader was misrepresented yesterday.


Style vs Substance

25/06/2008

If it wasn’t for the gender of the Prime Minister  this could be about New Zealand:

To a visitor from outer space, it would be hard to distinguish the job description of prime minister today from that of a talk show or game show host. The PM is a regular fixture on radio and television, where no topic is too small for him to discuss. He offers cash prizes to listeners and he sweats on the weekly ratings.

Sounds very familiar.

The lines between celebrity and politics blurred some time ago. Our leaders are more needy because their handlers have convinced them that if they miss a single news bulletin the public will soon forget them. But voters can just as easily project wisdom on to politicians who are silent as those who blather sweet platitudes about Australian values and the noble struggle of the working family.

This too could be about politics on this side of the Tasman.

Although it is tempting to see Rudd as merely the sum of his past lives as a Queensland bureaucrat and diplomat to China, his approach to federal office is, in a way, no different from Howard’s.

“The moment you start campaigning for the next election is today,” Howard told his partyroom at the first meeting after the Coalition’s 2004 election win.  I’m a great believer in perpetual campaigning.”

And this explains one of the problems with the many unexplaiend consequences of the Electoral Finance Act: it’s impossible to separate the role of an MP from campaigning because under the Act’s very broad definition so much of what an MP does could also be deemed to be campaigning.

This happens to be a worldwide trend. Tony Blair noted last June, just after leaving office, that a large part of his time as a British prime minister was spent “coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity”. Blair measured the compression of the news cycle by the number of topics he ran a day: “When I fought the 1997 election we took an issue a day. In 2005, we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening that agenda had already moved on.”

Thankfully, the Australian market is still small enough to keep Rudd to three issues a week rather than three a day.

It was not always thus. Remember when sit-down press conferences took precedence over the door stop and parliament was the place to announce big policies? The last government to practise politics the old-fashioned way was the Hawke-Keating regime between 1983 and 1996. To be fair, Howard’s administration began as Paul Keating’s ended, with a sense that the public was intelligent enough to handle a detailed policy debate over months and years, not hours and days.

The GST was Australia’s last old-school reform. Howard needed four years, from 1997 to 2001, to discuss, draft, amend and bed down the new tax system.

When was the last time the electorate was treated intelligently with prolonged discussion, drafting, amending and bedding down of policy here?

Under Rudd, Labor operates on the delusion that the electorate can absorb two or three earth-shattering announcements a week. Darting from topic to topic, like a shock jock or newspaper columnist, is why Howard lost the plot in his final year in office.

Has Rudd forgotten Howard’s increasingly hysterical public conversation of 2007: the Murray-Darling takeover, tax cuts, the Northern Territory intervention, a federal rescue of one hospital in a marginal seat in Tasmania and more tax cuts?

What really binds Nelson and Rudd is their mistaken belief in the 24/7 media cycle as an end in itself. The reason Blair and Bill Clinton have such dismal legacies in the deeper ponds of British and US politics is that they wasted too much time thinking of the next line instead of honing policy.

This is not a curse of either the Left or the Right. US Republican President George W. Bush followed the Democrat Clinton by devoting more time to crafting the headline for invading Iraq – weapons of mass destruction – than worrying about securing the peace afterwards.

The media has reduced politicians into thinking by the minute.

Or is it that politicians only think by the minute and so that’s all that’s left to report?

Think about the issues on which Rudd hopes to build a new reform consensus, from climate change to the Federation to the tax, welfare and retirement incomes systems. Rudd can’t win any of these debates by press release alone. He has to patiently explain himself again and again, one big idea at a time.

Patiently, explaining one big idea at a time? Could any of our politicians try that here – and if they did, would we do them the courtesy of listening to them and really thinking about what they were saying? Because if didn’t we would indeed get the politicians we deserve.


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