Karl du Fresne on Steve Joyce’s Northland debacle

Karl du Fresne gives 6 reasons why National and Steve Joyce failed so dismally in Northland.

The day after the election, John Key warned his party against third-term arrogance. He promptly proceeded to disregard his own advice and has continued on much the same path ever since.

Yes, the government has plenty of reason to be cocky. The economy is humming. Migration is running at record levels, indicating New Zealand is seen as a desirable place to be.

A run of sporting successes ? the Black Caps, the Wellington Phoenix, the Breakers, the Hurricanes, Lydia Ko ? has contributed to a feel-good mood that will rub off on National, which is no doubt why Key is in Melbourne today watching the cricket, rather than in Singapore attending the funeral of Lee Kuan Yew (as Tony Abbott is). ?He wants to share in any glory that?s going, just as he did in the embarrassing three-way handshake at the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

It is shameful he went and presided over the Blackcaps Melbourne debacle…and not attended Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral.

His six reasons for the loss in Northland, I don’t actually agree with him on all of them.

Exhibit One: The dust had barely settled after the election before the government pushed through a bill exempting employers from the obligation to provide paid rest and meal breaks.

As the first significant legislation of National?s third term, it seemed a deeply symbolic statement. There seemed no other way to interpret it than as a signal that the Key government was reverting to a National Party archetype from an earlier era, shedding its friendly, centrist face in favour of a more classical right-wing hard line on employment relations.

I’m afraid that is just b.s. from du Fresne there, I doubt the Northland voters gave a toss about that bill.

Which brings me to Exhibit Two: Auckland?s proposed Skycity Convention Centre. From the outset, this looked like a dodgy sweetheart deal. But it began to look even more shonky when it emerged that the taxpayer was likely to be left footing the bill for a massive cost blowout.

It seemed clear the government was prepared to go along with this, and had indicated as much in cosy chats with Skycity. It was only when the public revolted that National hastily engaged reverse gear, insisting that a generous taxpayer handout to the casino company had only ever been a technical option.

That?s not how it looked, and I don?t think people were fooled. Either the government was incompetent in entering an arrangement that was loaded in Skycity?s favour, or it was pandering to wealthy friends. Either way, it smelled.

And another Steve Joyce cock up to boot.

For Exhibit Three we need to go back to November, when National bulldozed potentially intrusive new security laws through Parliament on the pretext that urgent action was needed to save us from terrorists.

Nothing had been said about this in the lead-up to the election only weeks before. No doubt the government would explain that by saying the terrorism threat wasn?t apparent then, but a more likely explanation is that electronic surveillance was a hot issue during the campaign and National strategists didn?t want to give its opponents any more oxygen than they already had.

Instead, we were asked to believe that the security risk had escalated so suddenly and alarmingly that the government couldn?t afford the luxury of normal parliamentary process.? Only two days were allowed for submissions on a bill that greatly increased the power of the SIS to pry into people?s lives.

When Radio New Zealand interviewer Guyon Espiner asked Chris Finlayson, the minister in charge of the SIS, to explain the unseemly haste, Finlayson testily replied that the government had no time for ?chit-chat?. He subsequently apologised, but didn?t look at all contrite.

The imperious Finlayson gave the impression of believing the government was under no obligation to explain itself. Dammit, why couldn?t we just trust National to get on with things without the inconvenience and nuisance of public scrutiny?

This is?rubbish too, and no one in Northland would care about it, just like no one except the left wing and our enemies do.

Exhibit Four: The selloff of state housing. Either this was poorly conceived and executed (it was certainly poorly explained to the public), or the government?s real agenda all along was less admirable than it wanted us to think.

Either interpretation is open. The first is supported by the fact that the Salvation Army, whose acceptance of the deal appeared crucial to its credibility, decided it wasn?t feasible.

If things had been handled properly, the Sallies? support would surely have been locked in earlier. After all, the disposal of state housing was a centrepiece of the government?s programme for the year; you?d expect every T to be crossed and I dotted.

Poor execution, and from the areas controlled by the so-called brains trust of National. A small factor.

Exhibit Five is the nonchalance with which National initially approached the Northland by-election. Key talked as if all the party?s candidate, the hapless Mark Osborne, had to do was turn up. Never mind that the sitting National MP, Mike Sabin, had gone AWOL in circumstances that remain unexplained. It seemed to be assumed that loyal Northland voters would unquestioningly fall into line regardless.

But even Winston Peters gets something right occasionally, and he did the country a favour by making National squirm in the North. It was almost a pleasure watching the government?s complacency turn to panic as it realised it had a fight on its hands.

It?s hard to recall a more naked display of schmoozing and vote-buying than that which followed, although whether swarms of Cabinet ministers in leather-upholstered limos did National any favours in impoverished Northland is a moot point. More likely, the so-called charm offensive simply reminded locals of how rarely they?ve featured on the government?s radar.

Northland was a disaster, one which Joyce, de Joux and Bennett have to own, and unfortunately some of that dung flying is going to splatter on?the?front of John Key’s shirt…he is the boss after all.

Overshadowing all the above is Exhibit Six ? arguably the most damaging of all, because it suggests Key plays fast and loose with the public?s trust.

I refer here to his shifty response when he faces questions from journalists. He is slippery and evasive, often batting legitimate questions away with bland, airy-fairy dismissals.

His consistent refusal to give satisfactory answers, especially on matters relating to electronic surveillance and the GCSB, has become embarrassing to watch. What?s more, it plays into the hands of Nicky Hager and the conspiracy theorists, since it suggests Key and his government have something to hide.

John Key has only himself to blame for the last one…the cowardice in?the?face of hostile fire during Dirty Politics that was exhibited by his office and since is breathtaking to behold.

They should have stood tall and told the left wing who planned and plotted the who sting to go fly a kite. Instead one hid and then cut and ran and they let the left wing try and shut everything down when the left wing is doing precisely the same thing but worse employing criminals to hack their opponents.

One thing that is unforgivable in politics is abject cowardice.


– Karl du Fresne