There’s always a tipping point in political fortunes, and the Government’s may be pinpointed by a change in the nature of the famous prime ministerial smile. These days it’s stuck on with flour-and-water paste, and beginning to droop at the edges. Rare flashes of irritation can be seen in the stand-up press conferences John Key has always aced. Because if there’s one thing Key knows how to do, it’s count. And the opinion poll maths is finally spelling out what National has always pretended not to acknowledge: it doesn’t have enough mates. It is just a few more PR disasters away from being the next election’s underdog, because the combined support of Labour, the Greens, Winston and Hone could easily be enough to cause a sudden demand for cardboard boxes in the Beehive next year.
Fantasists who once imagined that if push came to shove National would do a deal with Winston to stay in office have had a rude awakening. Winston has now effectively ruled out doing a deal with National. Hard to tell which is the silver lining and which the cloud in this turn of events – but the net effect is the same: a Labour-led Government. Congenital optimists in the party have done their best, pointing out that, technically, on the current number trends, the Maori Party would hold the balance of power. But current trends also portend the Maori Party will be lucky to have two seats to rub together after the next election, so no comfort there. It’ll take a bit more felicitous hindsight to tell just which factors finally ended National’s triumph over political gravity. But the fiasco over teacherpupil ratios can’t have helped. National has been awarded points for pulling the plug on the policy, even if it took days of haemorrhagic combat with the entire education sector to recognise a hiding to nothing.
But can there be a greater indignity for a Government than to be heartily congratulated by absolutely every last one of its enemies for a humiliating U-turn? Had Education Minister Hekia Parata been thanked by one more teacher or commended by one more Opposition MP last week, hideous carnage would have ensued. A backdown on that scale is a rare thing in our politics, and this is the most abject since Labour shelved the fart tax. It was sensible in brute political terms, but the rationale for it hardly bears fi ve seconds’ scrutiny. The Government remains convinced – with considerable backing in terms of hard research – that slightly bigger class sizes were a safe trade-off for bigger priorities in education funding. But it couldn’t stomach the fight with the education sector and parents. This is what you’d call a lose-lose scenario. The Government is saying, “You’re all wrong, but have it your way anyhow.”
This leads with corny synchronicity to questions about National’s commitment to the energy company floats. Labour and the Greens are having so much fun with the antiasset sales campaign – to the point of nasty elbow-jabbing over who started it and who is running it – that the question of a Government backdown is inevitable. The legislation for that, along with the controversial reform of local government, is now before the House, meaning National’s rivals will get extra regular opportunities to take a free hit. There’s also the awkward matter of the Auditor-General’s decision to investigate whether any naughtiness took place in the Government’s pokies-for-convention- centre deal with SkyCity. And Key is now personally on the ropes over the question of raising the age for National Super. For some reason, not touching Super has become a religious article of faith for him. Obviously, when he was a rookie MP, some older Nats told him scary campfire stories about Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley, and to be fair, that’d be monsters-under-the-bed territory for any impressionable backbencher.
But it’s getting to the stage where Key is the last person in New Zealand who doesn’t think it’s time to review the pension. And then there’s the deathless ACC saga. Just when you think the Government could finally put this fiasco behind it, some new part of the corpse reanimates. As political scandals go, this one’s a textbook hand-grenade. We keep finding bits of shrapnel buried in new places, and most entertainingly, none of the political parties can maintain a position on it for more than five minutes, because the politics of it keep changing. Initially, it was a story about National Party cronies colluding to influence the corporation over the case of a senior party figure, Bronwyn Pullar. Former minister Nick Smith had to resign after he was found to have intervened inappropriately on her behalf. But even that – the scalp of a senior Cabinet Minister, the holy grail of Opposition – is now old, old news.
Now, since it turns out individuals in the corporation did behave unbelievably badly in their handling of Pullar’s case, and since claims that she and party heavy Michelle Boag tried to blackmail them have proven unreliable at best, the focus has shifted. ACC is now the villain, and it’s the Government’s fault for turning the corporation into a heartless, vicious beast. And because the ACC Minister is that other scary campfire story, Judith “Crusher” Collins, the whole exhaustively well-trodden affair just got a new lease of life. At press time, the body-count was five – Smith and four ACC seniors having lost their jobs. Bronwyn Pullar is one lethal woman. Things got to a positively cinematic pass this week when Boag came to sit in the public gallery, like the bad fairy at the christening, as Key and Collins walked a verbal tightrope trying to avoid taking sides or causing her offence. The Government faces a sustained hiding on this one. It revelled in the turnaround in ACC’s financial position. But now it’s clear that was founded at least partly on the systematic frustrating of legitimate claimants.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Pullar’s case, all constituency MPs know in graphic detail how genuine claimants are messed around by the corporation in its Government-ordained drive to get accident victims off its books. Even Collins’s evident kick-the-cat satisfaction at abruptly seeing off ACC chairman John Judge this week was a see-through gesture. Judge did no more nor less than was asked of him: he got the corporation back in financial shape. The political dynamics of the job are not his lookout. And the TAB won’t be offering any odds on Crusher’s appointing a kindlier, gentler new chairman and board. Still, there’s nothing glued-on about Crusher’s smile. If she’d been around in Leonardo da Vinci’sday, Mona Lisa wouldn’t have got a look-in. The day of Judge’s surprise resignation, the obvious question was, did he jump or was he pushed? Collins’s moue suggested strongly that he’d jumped because she pushed him. By the following day, there was an orderly conga-line of crushees exiting ACC, and the Crusher’s smile was in danger of exceeding the bounds of her face. It’s always a pleasure to see people enjoying their work – but future officials will doubtless be very careful to avoid making the minister quite so happy.