Gordon Campbell's Election Launch 2008 Review

Gordon Campbell on whether not believing what the politicians aren’t telling you is any way to run an election

The state of the economy – local and international – is now the dominating issue of the campaign, and that poses credibility problems for all involved. Michael Cullen is still nursing his wounds after the disastrous opening of the Treasury books exercise last week. That aside, the emergency measures that Labour unveiled on the weekend had a sobering 1930s ring to them. If need be, the government has plans on the drawing board to bring forward a range of large infrastructural projects to create thousands of real jobs, and thus keep the economy moving.

The financial meltdown poses a basic identity problem for National, the instinctive champion of de-regulation and market solutions. That’s a bit of a problem right now, given that Europe and the US are taking steps to partially nationalize the financial system of global capitalism. In that light, National’s traditional approach to the economy does look like something of a relic from a bygone era. On the weekend, John Key only crystallized ther problem by offering his experience with Merrill Lynch as a positive credential for the current crisis. Many voters could be forgiven for treating the kind of job Key did before he became a politician as being part of the problem, rather than being a really big help. Nice of him to offer, though.

So far, fresh responses to the crisis facing capitalism have been fairly thin on the ground. If re-elected, Labour is promising a mini-Budget in December to regroup the nation’s resources. To date, National has merely re-packaged the same basket of policies it has been promoting all year, and labelled it as an “economic management plan” for the crisis.

It’s a very familiar mix. The National plan consists of tax cuts for middle and high income earners, more debt financing, slashing the Resource Management Act, building faster broadband and talking even tougher than labour on law and order. That last one is a big ask, when the current government is already presiding over one of the highest per capita imprisonment rates in the developed world.

Tellingly, none of the eleven pledge card principles unveiled by National on the weekend even mentioned the environment. There is no pledge for instance, to reduce emissions or honour the Kyoto commitments. Climate change has been shelved as a priority, only confirming suspicions about the National Party’s commitment to environmental goals.

As mentioned, Labour and National are both lugging credibility burdens into the election campaign. If re-elected, Labour will presumably be pressing onwards with its appalling Immigration Bill – unless it needs the Greens to govern, and unless they can force the Bill to be substantially rewritten. Judith Tizard’s abysmal back tracking ( under corporate lobbying) on key parts of the Copyright Act should also be of concern to Labour stalwarts.

Briefly, Tizard has put people at risk of having their Internet access disconnected without argument, evidence test or right of appeal if a copyright holder demands such action from an Internet Service Provider. On other occasions, Tizard has depicted Internet access as a basic human right, akin to the human rights to food and shelter. Well, she has now chosen to reverse the recommendations made by the select committee and is proposing that copyright holders – essentially, record companies – should be able to veto this basic right. Evidently, not all of the voter concerns about the baggage of incompetence reside on the National Party front bench.

As for National, it has taken months and months for it to show its policy hand – but already, commentators are advising voters not to expect National to honour the policies that it has announced. For instance, here’s tax consultant Jo Doolan on the Jenni McManus business blog:

Jo Doolan, a tax partner at Ernst & Young, says she is “gutted” at Key’s overall package, saying she’s hoping it’s a policy of political expediency to get National elected, rather than what its might actually do in office.

“The whole thing is hurried and ill-conceived,” Doolan says. “Top earners don’t need tax cuts when people are struggling and times are tough. When you introduce a big change like Kiwisaver, you don’t tamper with it. We need to develop a savings culture and this sort of thing doesn’t help. People need certainty.”

Doolan says she suspects behind the package is political one-upmanship – that Key and English were determined to outdo Cullen by producing a self-funding tax cut package, no matter what damage might be done in the process.

Similarly, last Friday’s NZ Herald editorial provided a damning analysis of the cost and impracticality of National’s law and order crackdown. Among the downsides : the measures on violent crime would cost at least $314 million, and would have affected only about 7% of the 144 murderers currently within the New Zealand prison population. And yet, the Herald jauntily concluded, don’t worry – because a Key government probably won’t carry the policies out if elected, anyway! As in:

In all likelihood, this is not something that Mr Key will pursue if National wins the election. It is a policy calculated to strike a chord with those who despair of violent crime and particularly horrific murders. As such, it may capture the public’s attention. It can then be put quietly to one side as a more cogent, more flexible approach to sentencing and parole is adopted.

Yesterday, the Herald repeated much the same message.

Politicians who ignore the causes of crime and call for tougher sentences do not care for all New Zealanders, but only for the ones whose votes such cynicism might buy.

So, if one can believe the Herald, pandering without foundation is now to be treated as the rational norm. Policies are not seriously meant to be enacted, and politicians should not be held to that unrealistic standard. No wonder the opinion polls are all over the place.

The SFO vs Peters, final round.

Talking about credibility gaps, the Serious Fraud Office says that it has found no case against Winston Peters. Contrast this with the SFO’s position at the height of the media frenzy about Peters – when it was claiming to have a case against Peters so strong, it could warrant the use of the special powers the SFO enjoys under its founding legislation. Here’s how things looked back on August 29:

SFO director Grant Liddell announced the investigation, saying there were serious questions and allegations “that go to the heart of the democratic process”…

Mr Liddell said he now had enough information to suspect the investigation may reveal “serious and complex fraud” – the threshold for the statutory powers which can force documents to be produced or even people involved to answer questions..

So what happened ? Was the SFO misled at the time, or did it never really have a prima facie case ? The special powers that have been granted to the SFO under section 5 and section 20 of the 1990 SFO Act, have always been controversial.

Basically, the SFO powers violate the Human Rights Act and the basic protections against self incrimination, and the agency’s procedures are immune from judicial review. Not even the police enjoy such a sweeping ability to compile evidence.

Therefore, it is disturbing that the SFO, having meddled in the privileges committee inquiry, is now intending to hand over the fruits of its own investigation to the police. Back in August, the agency decided to jump, evidently without due cause, right into the midst of the political row engulfing their old enemy, Peters.

By doing so , it won itself a stay of execution from a government bill that was about to abolish it, and was due to be debated in Parliament the following week. It now can’t back up its original stance against Peters, but is proposing to act as a fishing net for the police.

To underline : the reason the SFO was granted special powers at its inception was on the understanding that such powers were for its use alone, and not to augment police inquiries. Ultimately, the SFO’s behaviour towards Peters has vindicated the Labour government’s original decision to abolish the agency.

Fashion industry and the meltdown

The collapse of global capitalism is no reason not to keep looking your best. The meltdown has already co-incided with the firing of young designer Alessandra Facchinetti from the house of Valentino, but not before she used her final showing last week to signal a path through unpredictable times – clean, simple lines, but accessorized like crazy. Add as you can afford. Tellingly, Facchinetti has been replaced as chief designer by Valentino’s accessories design team.

Oh, and the other thing? Pants suits always do well in a crisis.

Paris buyer Cedric Charbit of the French fashion store Printemps is predicting higher sales for “pants suits, which give people a sense of power”, Luckily for Labour, Helen Clark already wears the pants.