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