On last night’s TV3 debate

Phil Goff’s won last night’s TV3 leaders’ debate handily, such that it seemed as if John Key has already decided that Goff is no longer the main thing standing between him and comprehensive victory. The rise of Winston Peters, and the parlous state of his wavering coalition allies in Epsom and Ohariu mean that Goff probably rates about third on Key’s list of concerns right now. Whatever the reason, Key was virtually missing in action last night. He looked as if… well, as if he thought that the TV3 debate didn’t really matter. And probably, it didn’t.

On both sides, there were the usual reasons to tear out one’s hair. Key assured us he would use the proceeds from asset sales – and at one point, he used the $7 billion figure that only a Treasury apparatchiks regard as even faintly credible – to prudently sell down debt. In the next breath, he said he would be spending the proceeds on things that New Zealanders use and need, like schools, hospitals and… irrigation schemes. Hmm, can’t recall the last time I needed to take the kids to the Late Night Irrigation Canal, but nice to know it will be there if the need ever arises.

As Rod Oram has consistently pointed out, Cabinet papers earlier this year showed those irrigation schemes would deliver a poor return on the investment. Conclusive evidence also exists to show that it would make more economic sense to borrow the money than to sell down the assets. Such arguments never got into the frame last night.

If asset sales are the albatross round John Key’s neck, Goff’s main liability last night was the former member from Tauranga. Phil Goff tried to address the ‘Would he have Winston Peters in his government’ question by saying that he’d have to wait and see what the people decide, and if Peters was in Parliament then Goff was sure Peters would act responsibly and he could work with him blah blah, In the next breath though, democracy went out the window when it came to Hone Harawira who – peoples’ choice or not – would be no part of any government that Goff led because that would make things unacceptably ‘unstable.’ Huh?

Evidently, New Zealand First is being treated by Labour as a more compatible potential partner in government than the Mana Party. Few voters on the centre-left would agree. Moreover, depicting Harawira as unstable and ruling out working with him doesn’t seem like the best way of mobilising the Labour vote in south Auckland on Saturday.

Much of this is entirely a moot point, since Peters first has to get into Parliament. If he does, Peters himself has said he won’t be part of any formal arrangement with either Labour or National, but will treat each issue on its merits in Parliament and vote accordingly. Given the control freak tendencies in both major parties, this is seen by them as problematic. Key for instance, has been claiming Peters would be willing and able to trigger a fresh election at any time, and is using that bogey as a reason for centre right voters to give him an absolute majority on Saturday.

In fact, Key will first have to form a government – with or without the co-operation of Peters – so any subsequent decision to call a fresh election would be one for which Key’s government would share some responsibility. (In a democracy, a government can’t throw its toys out of the cot without being punished by the public for doing so.) This situation of mutually assured destruction would exert its own disciplines, and would foster a salutary need for caution by all concerned.

But to repeat: the Peters spectre is entirely hypothetical. For many voters, the thought of National having absolute power is a far more terrifying prospect than any potential threat posed by New Zealand First.

For Labour – which on current polling, will need him if it is to govern at all – Peters is a known quantity with whom they can do business. Tellingly Peters is felt by the Labour leadership to be more amenable, and more simpatico with them than Harawira. (Yet another sign that the control freaks in Labour find it hard to work as equals with anyone further to the left of them on the political spectrum.) That’s despite the fact that Harawira is far closer to Labour on policy questions – re welfare reform, minimum wage policy, capital gains tax etc – than Peters. Here for instance, is an exchange I had with Harawira a couple of years ago:

Campbell : OK. So, when you look at the desired direction of welfare policy for Maori, and you look at the desired direction of industrial relations policy for Maori – which of the two major parties offers you the better framework to work under?

Harawira : For our people, because they’re primarily in the lower socio-economic bracket ? Labour. For the simple reason that Labour has always maintained a clear view of consistently raising the basic minimum wage.

At this point, Peters is just another deliberate distraction. Asset sales – which are a far more concrete reality – remain the Achilles heel for John Key during the rest of this campaign, and for good reason. There is no economic justification for them and the public don’t want them. They are little more than an ideological bone being thrown to the government’s corporate backers. Goff may have performed well last night, but nothing appears likely now to stop those assets from being put on the auction block after next Saturday.


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