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Friday, September 26, 2008

Winston's failure to commit

Much better than the print edition column:

Winston Peters and Helen Clark both claimed yesterday that the privileges committee report into the New Zealand First leader’s breach of Parliamentary privilege was flawed because key members of the committee had already made up their minds before the inquiry started.

This predetermination would be anathema to Mr Peters, who in contrast didn’t seem to want to commit to any one version of the truth throughout the hearing.

Such an open mind about what could have happened is probably more appropriate for an inquiry member than for a witness, of course, but that’s a mere detail. What cynical politicians of both stripes will want out of this report are impressions – broad brushstrokes over the emotional landscape of the electorate.

It didn’t seem to occur to Clark that the premeditation of her own reaction to the report, on what she assumed was its prejudgment of events, was perhaps ironic. (She had presumably not seen a copy, as it was still being worked on in the afternoon by committee members, and such information would have been protected by privilege itself until the report was tabled at about 8 pm last night.) Peters says the issue was a fait accompli.

Clark may back him, especially in her reaction to the verdict rendered by MPs from National and Act. But she could be surprised that the committee’s representatives from United Future, the Maori Party and the Greens also found believing Peters’ ever shifting explanations a bridge too far.

This makes Clark’s bluster of yesterday look a little over-cooked. If we are to believe her theory that it has all been a jack up, then she would be accusing her minister of revenue Peter Dunne of bad faith. (And given the almost impossible task she has found doubting her foreign minister Peters’ word, if two parties Clark relies on for confidence and supply disagreed the cognitive dissonance she experienced could rupture something prime ministerial.)

In fact, it’s not as big a deal as that. No-one actually believes that any of these parties – or the Greens or the Maori Party – would let a spat over this report derail a potential government come November 9. It’s probably irrelevant in that regard – politicians, to paraphrase an old saying, have said worse about each other at sea.

But Clark’s pre-emptive damage control shows up something slightly desperate and cynical about the way she has handled this matter. While she has maintained that poll trends over a number of months showing huge support for National are no more believable than “fairies at the bottom of the garden”, she finds herself curiously unable to doubt Peters’ explanations for why he has not misled the House – no matter what they are from day to day.

And why is this important? Because – at the risk of being boringly, naggingly, un-ministerially consistent – it was barely a week ago that Clark reminded (or upbraided) voters that this election was about trust. She’s since tried to ram home the message, through her slightly excitable exercise in speculative military forensics on potential war casualties under a National government, that the election is also about judgment.

It pays to keep this in perspective, in a way that perhaps National and Labour have not. The privileges committee report summarises its first ever investigation into fleshing out the requirements of declarations of pecuniary interests.
It has useful tips for MPs on future declarations.

Peters has been found by a multi-party majority (including two government allies) to have misled Parliament knowingly. It’s not a hanging offence – that’s why he’s only at risk of, at worst, a censure.

Peters originally did nothing wrong by seeking money – or having money sought for him – to pay for his electoral petition. His mistake was not declaring it, and consistently maintaining he didn’t need to.

But by turning a straightforward inquiry into a morass of contradictions and evasions (whether intentional or not) Peters appears to have done lasting damage to his political capital.

Barry Gustafson commented to NBR last week that “Peters has turned his molehill into a mountain.”
Why Clark – admittedly a keen mountaineer – seems equally enthused about propping up Peters’ towering kingdom of dirt is inexplicable.

[More at NBR]


At 26/9/08 8:02 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Save yourself the trouble and read Gordon Campbell.

At 27/9/08 3:32 pm, Blogger Ben said...

People should, of course, read both me and Gordon - he's doing great work at Scoop. And they should similarly listen out for the irregular political commentary spots he and I do together on Newstalk ZB's drive show with Larry Williams.


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