Jane Clifton

Af­fected in­sou­ciance of Gov­ern­ment min­is­ters can’t mask the PM’s fury.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - JANE CLIFTON

It would ap­pear there is to be no ­tra­di­tional hon­ey­moon pe­riod for the new Gov­ern­ment, owing to a lack of honey and our new Deputy Prime Min­is­ter’s ten­dency to, shall we say, moon his old foes. The first week of the new Par­lia­ment has been a see-saw­ing com­bi­na­tion of the sworn-in and the sworn-at. The first is an equal-op­por­tu­nity, mul­ti­party thing. You get elected, you get sworn in as an MP. On the lat­ter, there has been a ­sur­pris­ingly swift cross-party con­sen­sus on who de­serves ­ex­ple­tives. A clue: they’re all blokes. De­spite our hav­ing a pop­u­lar new fe­male Prime Min­is­ter with a re­fresh­ingly col­le­gial and non-com­bat­ive style, this writer has never seen Par­lia­ment more in the grip of un­govern­able testos­terone.

Even be­fore Thurs­day’s first Ques­tion Time, the House heaved with Point-of-Or­der! an­i­mos­ity – and re­mark­ably, that’s been without the pres­ence of the PoO- Mas­ter-Gen­eral, Win­ston Peters. He did his best from afar, mind you.

The Deputy PM took him­self off to Apec in Viet­nam for what can only be or­na­men­tal For­eign Min­is­ter pur­poses, since the most press­ing ­busi­ness for us at the fo­rum is the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, which Peters op­poses. Hav­ing signed a strict ­coali­tion agree­ment, he can now only op­pose the TPP in a pri­vate, out-of-body ­ca­pac­ity, be­cause his Labourled ­Gov­ern­ment is go­ing ahead with it at warp speed.

Per­haps to con­sole him­self, Peters fired a weapon of mass de­con­struc­tion as he left: a nine-shot dis­cov­ery writ against any­one he thinks may know any­thing about the leak of his pen­sion-over­pay­ment de­tails dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign.

That this in­cluded erst­while Na­tional min­is­ters with whom he looked close to go­ing into ­Gov­ern­ment just a few weeks ago was the cause of much swear­ing on both sides of Par­lia­ment’s de­bat­ing cham­ber. Na­tional is fum­ing be­cause, all the while, Peters was ­pre­par­ing to turn four of its MPs up­side down to see what fell out of their ­pock­ets. This rather de­feats the no­ble,

­brow­smit­ing im­pres­sion he sought to con­vey that he chose Labour in­stead after much soul-search­ing about his true man­date and what was best for the coun­try. It was all just in ­fur­ther­ance of utu.

Labour’s fum­ing, too – not just be­cause this makes it look like Peters’ un­wit­ting ret­ri­bu­tion lever. The last thing the Gov­ern­ment needs is its No 2 pur­su­ing per­sonal vengeance against a van­quished foe, when there’s se­ri­ous, com­pli­cated and con­tro­ver­sial work to be done.

It was a bravura dis­play of machismo, height­ened by the smirks of Collins, Ben­nett and Adams.

RUN­NING ON FUMES

But the per­va­sive new al­pha-male­dog­gery is most ef­fec­tive – or toxic, de­pend­ing on your view – in par­lia­men­tary ma­noeu­vring. The Op­po­si­tion cau­cus is vast, whereas the Gov­ern­ment is run­ning on the fumes of past ex­pe­ri­ence. Just a ­hand­ful of its MPs have gov­ern­ment or ex­ten­sive par­lia­men­tary pedi­grees, and boy is it show­ing. Na­tional’s “You haven’t got the num­bers” bluff over the Speaker’s elec­tion this week was the most ­ob­vi­ous of Hef­falump pits, but Labour was rat­tled into it by a silly dare of “Mine’s big­ger than yours” from Na­tional’s House-run­ners Si­mon Bridges, Jami-Lee Ross and Gerry Brown­lee on Par­lia­ment’s first day.

It was like watch­ing an old episode of The So­pra­nos with the sound off: a group of be­suited men in var­i­ous states of ag­gres­sion, agi­ta­tion or ­gloat­ing bel­ly­ing up with their chins set to ­max­i­mum jut. After much air-jab­bing and jaw-squar­ing across the aisle, the Fat Tony-Big Pussy power lo­cus rested with Na­tional. The Gov­ern­ment folded and con­ceded more se­lect-com­mit­tee jobs to the Op­po­si­tion than it could

af­ford just to stave off an em­bar­rass­ing con­tested vote that it would have ac­tu­ally won.

It was a bravura dis­play of machismo from the Nats, its ef­fect height­ened by the high-wattage smirk­ing of nearby Ju­dith Collins, Paula Ben­nett and Amy Adams. Even Madame De­farge at the ­guil­lo­tine masked her glee be­hind some knit­ting.

The Gov­ern­ment’s House leader, Chris Hip­kins, and Fi­nance Min­is­ter, Grant Robert­son, af­fected hands-in-pock­ets in­sou­ciance as they tog­gled back and forth across the aisle, but they were pan­icked, and Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern livid.

The se­lect-com­mit­tee deal means the ­Gov­ern­ment’s thin, in­ex­pe­ri­enced back­bench will be run even more ragged try­ing to pre­serve a ­ma­jor­ity in th­ese im­por­tant law-mak­ing en­gines of state.

Gov­ern­ment strate­gists’ log­i­cal next step might have been to try to or­gan­ise a con­sol­ing booze-up in a brew­ery. Some­how, after nine years of pulling some canny pro­ce­dural swifties on Na­tional, they for­got how to do head-count­ing.

FLUFFING THE HOUSEWORK

Bridges and co make no bones they mean to con­tinue in this vein, and it’s easy to see why. Noth­ing makes an Op­po­si­tion feel less ir­rel­e­vant than short­sheet­ing the Gov­ern­ment’s leg­isla­tive or pro­ce­dural plans. The ef­fect is only ever tem­po­rary, as the Gov­ern­ment has the num­bers. But Na­tional has got its dream nar­ra­tive out there on Day 1 of Par­lia­ment: if this shonky ­coali­tion is in­com­pe­tent at the sim­plest ­House­keep­ing, how badly might it bun­gle the econ­omy or a cri­sis? Can our global rep­u­ta­tion sur­vive th­ese chaotic am­a­teurs?

The trou­ble is there’s a ­com­pet­ing nar­ra­tive wait­ing in the wings if the Op­po­si­tion over­does the ma­cho pranks in Par­lia­ment. For starters, the fact that overtly ag­gres­sive blokes are the gamers here will turn off many fe­male vot­ers. It could eas­ily come to seem as though Na­tional’s men­folk can­not bear to see a younger woman suc­ceed and, un­able to stop her be­cause she com­mands the num­bers, they will sim­ply be­have as boor­ishly as they can at ev­ery turn to make her life point­lessly dif­fi­cult.

As­sum­ing the Gov­ern­ment makes early progress with pop­u­lar mea­sures, Na­tional’s pro­ce­dural tricks risk be­ing seen as the pa­thetic shenani­gans of the im­po­tent.

Leader Bill English vis­i­bly en­joyed his House men’s tri­umph. But he should know bet­ter than to rely for long on the pol­i­tics of petty ­van­dal­ism. Na­tional has ­im­por­tant is­sues to fight for, not least new

So­cial De­vel­op­ment Min­is­ter Carmel Sepu­loni’s de­ci­sion to cur­tail English’s painstak­ingly con­ceived so­cial-dat­apool­ing ma­chin­ery. This might be coun­tered with fact-filled, rea­soned and im­pas­sioned ar­gu­ments – a rather more mean­ing­ful way of em­bar­rass­ing the new ­Ad­min­is­tra­tion than trick­ing it into an ex­tra few hours of fil­i­buster.

Mean­while, Gov­ern­ment whips need a bulk or­der of per­sonal GPS de­vices for their three cau­cuses – Peters’ to en­sure he sel­dom re­turns from abroad.

Na­tional’s pro­ce­dural tricks risk be­ing seen as the pa­thetic shenani­gans of the im­po­tent.

First-day jit­ters: Labour’s Chris Hip­kins (cen­tre) with Grant Robert­son and Jacinda Ardern.

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