The week in politics: elephants, childless MPs, and Banksed cheques

By Jane Clifton In Contributors, Politics

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Peter Dunne of the Elephant Party. Photo: Mark Mitchell/NZH

This was not parliament’s week for grace under fire. Instead, a bumper private members’ day which should have been a general source of satisfaction – the opposition made big progress on heartland issues, and the government lost two votes without the world coming to an end – was fuelled by gloating, sulking, and lashings of the H-word that standing orders forbid MPs to mention.

Peter Dunne started the ball rolling with Tweeted huffing that the Opposition hadn’t bothered to so much as thank him for his vote, which enabled two Labour private members’ to pass their first hurdle. He didn’t specify quite what he expected in return for these votes, which he later admitted were cast in line with his United Future Party’s policies anyway. I suggested flowers, chocolates, a kiss-and-make-up cup of tea with ex-colleagues in Labour, perhaps? … but answer came there none.

As with those passive-aggressive spats one has with one’s beloved – “You know what you’ve done! I shouldn’t have to tell you!” – the silent treatment followed the flounce. Next day, Dunne identified himself as the unforgetting elephant in the room who would bear a grudge for his ill-treatment. As if politics was ever a place for parading one’s injured dignity. His eventual reward: a post-vote offer from Trevor Mallard on Twitter of a cuddle. At which point, you’d have thought, Dunne would have concluded that being ignored wasn’t so bad after all.

But this was a tiny snivel compared to the Maggie Barry debacle. Unwisely, the North Shore Nat interjected on Labour’s Jacinda Ardern, who was speaking too sanctimoniously for her liking about child care during the paid parental leave debate. Barry called out to ask the single and childless Adern how many children she had, terming her a “precious petal”.

Mallard tweeted this as an outrage in a nano-second, and the sanctimony levels quickly reached toxic levels. It has long been regarded as being in the worst possible taste, even by sagging parliamentary standards, to comment on a person’s family status. Yet, with the possible exception of the Greens, every party has jumped into this quagmire at one time or other, boots and all.

Labour MPs have interjected on National mums, including Katherine Rich, to the effect of “Why aren’t you home looking after your kids?” National frequently dog-whistled Helen Clark’s elective childlessness. Opposition MPs slated John Key for taking his kids on overseas holidays. It would be difficult to keep count of the under-stress MPs who have been greeted with “Take your pills!” and “How was Hanmer?” from opponents of either stripe. Both sides are roughly as sinning as they are sinned against.

Barry says she and other women Nats have been interjected on by Labour MPs to the effect that they’d been bad mothers in the past, which had fuelled her sense of annoyance with Adern’s speech.

The other successful private bill from Labour, David Clark’s, which would Monday-ise public holidays falling on weekends, was larded with accusations from Labour that National – which opposed the bill – didn’t like children and families having time off. Last week, National MPs interpreted comments by Labour’s Rajan Prasad, who was critiquing the Government’s treatment of solo mothers’ work obligations, as implying women’s place was staying home and minding children, as they couldn’t do two things at once.

Prasad made a personal explanation to parliament yesterday rejecting the interpretation. But this only underlined the slippery slope of anyone commenting on anyone else’s parenting priorities/abilities. It’s dead common, during welfare debates, for National to be told it “doesn’t care about” children, and even “hates” them. Frankly, it’s all pretty silly and generally water off a duck’s back. To her credit, Adern herself – having copped a ridiculous smacking-about for a rather clever throwaway line about her native Hamilton last week – was doing her best to keep her head down and not inflame the debate further. But in Tweet-land, the sport of inventing new non-sequiturs for “Maggie Barry standing orders” was launched with a vengeance, Tweeters suggesting all manner of things MPs should not be allowed to talk about through lack of personal experience.

The whole side-show was soon dwarfed by another non-event, the police’s decision not to prosecute Act’s John Banks for electoral fraud. There’s a pattern here: the police never do prosecute electoral spending malfeasance, but the reputational damage, while never confirmed, is never repaired either. The police did find that Banks “solicited” Kim Dotcom’s $50,000 donation, split in two so as to fall below disclosure rules, and two other big donations, then professed to have a memory failure in respect of each of them. Court or no, this is not a flash chapter of events. Banks is a canny business operator from way back. The idea that he could forget three or four big cheques like this is either risible, or a matter for a neurosurgeon. Kim Dotcom’s – please, God, not musical – response is awaited.

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