Gordon Campbell Reviews The PM’s Presser 4 August 2008

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Normally the Prime Minister’s press conference virtually sets the political agenda for the early part of the week but not this time. Bill English’s own goal at the National Party annual conference swept everything else aside. You can read the full transcript here:

English’s litany of embarrassing comments calls for a brief recap, given the subsequent course of the PM’s press conference. One: English intimated that he knew more the economy than Don Brash or John Key. Two, he conceded that National itself would have introduced something like the Working for Families package, – which would be news to the public, given National had spent the last few years slagging the programme, both in and outside Parliament.

Third and most damaging, English conceded that National would sell Kiwibank even though “ the punters” (I think he means us) liked it, and the Bank had been a success. In other words, reasons of ideological purity would be driving the sale, rather than business logic. Oh, plus tactical cunning as well – in that the next National government would be delaying the sale of the bank until such time as it could get away with it, politically. “ Not now,” was the money quote.

In one short soundbite, English had managed to confirm almost every conspiracy theory about National’s agenda, if elected. Initially therefore, it seemed surprising that Helen Clark chose not to hold her press conference until 5: 40 pm, perilously close to the six o’clock news bulletin. Clearly, the feeling on the ninth floor must have been that was a news story best left to sell itself, with only minimal input from Labour.

Not that this stopped the press gallery from trying to turn the story into the usual adversarial, two handed tale of conflict. Listen to the Scoop’s audio of the first ten minutes of the conference, and you can successively hear Clark being asked if she was surprised by the taping, whether she thought its existence “sinister” and whether its existence should be taken as a sign that the election campaign this year might become “underhand.”

Essentially, the gallery was treating the taping of English and the its use for political purposes as being THE ethical issue – and not what English actually said on the tape, which was ignored. Initially at least, Clark struggled with the media’s line of questioning.

Well, was she surprised by the tape? Not at all. “Privatization is in the National Party’s DNA,” she maintained. “So it is simply not believable for them to say that they would not privatise key assets like Kiwibank. And you can probably add to that KiwiRail, the share in Air New Zealand, the electricity SOEs and [another] long list of important state assets….”

As for the “sinister” suggestion, Clark treated the taping more as bad karma on National’s part. Did she for instance, think that the English tape had come from a Labour Party plant? “ I haven’t the slightest idea, anymore than I’d know if tapes at [closed sessions of ] the Labour Party conference in April, were from National Party plants.”

Almost immediately thereafter, the question line hived off to the Electoral Finance Act. Several attempts were made to get Clark to pass judgement on examples currently awaiting rulings by the Electoral Commission Repeatedly, Clark declined to invade the turf of the independent Electoral Commission, in a context where any comment by her would be construed as the Prime Moinister telling the Commission how to do its job.

OK then, what about an other perennial – did she agree with Foreign Minister Winston Peters that there was a conspiracy out to get him? Patiently, Clark explained that she was not Peters’ spokesperson, and nor were those comments being made by Peters in his role as Foreign Minister.

Finally and to her obvious relief, a question about Kiwisaver enabled Clark to re-direct the entire press conference back to considering the rather large elephant that the gallery had all but ignored during these initial exchanges. Kiwisaver in its current form would be safe only under Labour – and, she claimed, National would be keen to axe the employers’ 4% level of contribution in particular.

It has been “a pretty incredible weekend” of statements from National, Clark continued, warming to the theme : “Where after nine years in opposition, the National Party’s big idea is to go and borrow some more money. And then there’s the same old agenda : of hacking into core public service spending, and privatising key state functions, like the management of prisons. And the threat to put more of the healthcare out to the private sector. We already know about their plans for putting more money in the way of private education. We now hear of the secret plans around the sale of assets like Kiwibank.” Clark would relish an election campaign waged around such issues.

All of which however was merely a windup for the punchline : “ For a political party to go out on a programme of simply borrowing more money in the middle of an international financial market crisis would have to be about the silliest idea ever invented.”

To its credit, the gallery did not [quite] take this fusillade lying down. Won’t the debt to GDP ratio envisaged by National still be a conservative one, by international standards ? “ And there’s a very good reason,” Clark replied, “ for keeping that debt to GDP ratio conservative. [Because] New Zealand has other factors like a persistent current account deficit, which don’t impress financial markets.” As a consequence, the country had to continue to exhibit strong fiscal management, she says. Pushing up the debt level ratio would not impress the markets.

Doesn’t the country also need to invest in its infrastructure? Of course, Clark replied, listing Labour’s own “massive“ infrastructure programme over the past nine years, starting in areas such as as roading and public transport. Over nine successive Budgets, she says, Labour has also invested three times as much in public health infrastructure as National had in its prior nine Budgets…and so on, and so on.

Still, there was a difference between the two major parties on the score of infrastructure investment, she maintained. In Labour’s case, major infrastructure projects ( and huge PPP proposals such as Auckland’s Waterview Connection roading project ) have consistently been funded by the government, but always within the boundaries of prudent financial management.

Not so in future it would seem, under Key’s stewardship. “I find it extraordinary,” Clark continued, “ that the National Party will announce it is going to chuck more money at [infrastructure] and yet cannot answer any direct question about what that money would go on. One thing we can guarantee it will go on is building more prisons – because the Corrections policy announced by their spokesperson on the weekend, is a recipe for investing a lot more in that rather futile area of public spending.”

Having already ruled out cuts in superannuation, Kiwisaver and Working for Families, National now has, she claims, only two big areas of public spending left to target. “ One is education, and one is health. I would expect National to be planning in their policy, to be shifting a lot more of the burden of the cost of education to the ordinary Kiwi family and student…” That, she concluded, would be reprehensible, and once again, she’d like to fight an election campaign around it.

Does she see any difference between Labour and National in what PPPs should be used for, and how they should be managed ? In reply, she cites how National was signaling last year its interest in getting the private sector to build schools. “ And that’s always been a core state responsibility.”

Defining issues of were at stake. ” I suspect they’ll be looking at private prisons in the same way…Not with the state building them, and asking others to operate them – but actual private prison building. It comes back to what is the role of government. And I think that people generally are of a view that government should be the prime funder and provider of education [and ] should be the prime funder of health services, and should be the prime funder and sole provider of our prisons, which involve coercive powers. ….So you’re really into quite a fundamental debate about the role of the government and the state here. ”

English has in effect, thrown Labour a lifeline. To a lesser extent, so did Key with his less than convincing performances yesterday on radio. Notably, he seemed either reluctant or unable to tell RNZ’s Katherine Ryan what National was planning to actually spend its infrastructure bonanza upon. In the weeks ahead, it will be interesting to see how all this plays out in the polls. If the latest episode don’t begin to close the gap between the centre right and centre left coalitions, Labour might as well hang out its surrender flag.

Footnote: Clark also announced a visit to NZ by Kevin Rudd this month for a climate conference – thus creating an opportunity to better synchronise the Emissions Trading Schemes in both countries, as well as co-ordinate their stance on Fiji.

Finally, for the large and influential fashionista segment among regular Scoop readers: Clark was going for the Johnny Cash look today, with the only relief from the Woman in Black image being the white lining picked out on her large, batwing lapels.