Gordon Campbell on chaotic coalitions, drinking water and useless debates

luxon hipkins thumbThis week’s ONE News-Verian poll had the National/ACT coalition teetering on the edge of being able to govern alone while – just as precariously – having its legislative agenda vulnerable to a potential veto by Winston Peters in the House. So close, but so perilous. During the run-up to election day, it means that a crucial battle is being fought between ACT and New Zealand First for the allegiance of the angry conspiratorially inclined people feeling ignored and/or despised by the two major parties.

Earlier in the year, it had seemed so much more simple. ACT had surged at the expense of National and its leader, at a time when New Zealand First had seemed like a wasted vote. Yet as Winston Peters has slowly dragged NZF up and over the MMP threshold, ACT’s tag-team relationship with National has begun looking like quite a liability.

For all his brash talk, David Seymour would still be the junior player at the Cabinet table, talking a game that he won’t have the numbers to deliver. That being the case, wouldn’t the angry and the alienated be better off throwing their support behind Peters – the original populist nationalist – rather than behind some David-Come-Lately who would still be at the beck and call of National and the Masonic conspiracy.

David Seymour has seen the danger. That’s why, a fortnight ago he started suggesting that – like Peters – he too would be willing to forego the baubles of office, sit on the cross benches and keep the government honest, to the point of bringing it down if need be. Basically, there’s a solid scrap going on between ACT and NZF and the end result is still anyone’s guess. Yet it means that at this point in the campaign, the centre-right bloc is at risk of looking like it is being led by Luxon, but supported by a two-headed version of Winston Peters. Not a pretty sight.

Amid the centre right, the original hope has been that Seymour could claw back just enough of the wacky extremist vote to knock NZF down below the 5% threshold and thus revive the Chris and David Show as originally conceived. That now looks unlikely. Currently, the National/ACT combo has no margin for error at 61 seats, the bare minimum needed to govern. Even a tiny increase for NZF (beyond the current 5% that already makes it a player) would probably hand Peters a veto over the Luxon/Seymour agenda, should he choose to vote with the Opposition, on a case by case basis. Out the window would go Seymour’s dreams of building a neo-liberal paradise.

And you know what? Christopher Luxon may actually prefer to have someone else to blame as an excuse for backing away from ACT’s wilder policies. Even before he hit the campaign trail, Luxon was being polite to Peters, and vice versa. All the same, there would be absolutely no use in asking Luxon about whether he’d like to have Peters in the frame in future. The Luxbot is not programmed to answer such queries at this point in time. But what I will say to you is that a National and ACT coalition in any way beholden to Winston Peters would be one of those coalitions of chaos that you hear so much about these days.

Disrespect Peters at your peril, because history would suggest that the man’s capacity for feeling slighted is virtually unlimited. Party voting for any of the parties on the centre left is the only reliable way that voters – and the business community – can avoid the possible nightmare of a Luxon administration likely to be haunted night and day, by the vengeful reactions of the NZF leader.

Tap water poison

It seems that Queenstown, the country’s tourism Mecca, now faces having to boil its water for months to come, with all that will mean for locals and for the international reputation of our tourism industry. And the likely cause? A failure of water infrastructure investment, reportedly because the local council lacks the critical mass of ratepayers to fund the necessary safeguards:

National water regulator Taumata Arowai has served a compliance order on Queenstown Lakes District Council for its Two Mile water treatment plant, which does not have a protozoa barrier to stop cryptosporidium entering the water supply.

The area’s other treatment plant, Kelvin Heights, had a protozoa barrier but there were doubts it was working, the regulator said.

Wow, no-one saw this one coming, right? Well they did actually – and they called it Three Waters. So far Three Waters has yet to be mentioned in the coverage of this issue. (This is a bit like lamenting the damage caused by Cyclone Gabrielle without mentioning climate change.) Three Waters was created to consolidate the funding of water infrastructure investment to make it a practical reality for councils all around the country.

Instead, many councils got up in arms about their alleged loss of their autonomy. Now we can see the result. Queenstown is today’s version of the same wake-up call about the state of our drinking water that Havelock North gave us in 2016 . Our water infrastructure is headed towards Third World quality. Three Waters correctly diagnosed the problem and provided a solution.

Out of a mixture of ignorance, resentment and petty self interest, that solution was rejected. Queenstown is the result. We’re going to see more of the same in the years to come.

Inflating debating

Debates debates… This week’s leaders debate, next week’s leaders debate, the minor parties debate, the finance spokespersons’ debate, RNZ’s law and order debate, and lest we forget, Stuff’s Great New Zealand Infrastructure Debate. It may be time for us to have a debate about all these debates and what purpose they serve besides selling the TV ads aimed at the one million people who tuned in last Tuesday night.

Clearly, the purpose they don’t serve is to better inform voters about the likely impact these competing policy packages will have on their quality of life. Instead, about 99% of the subsequent analysis of Tuesday’s debate has been about its performative aspects – who did the best sales job, who looked more prime ministerial, who needed to land a knockout blow, who did whatever it was they needed to do. By and large, the major party leaders on show were pretty safe in the knowledge that the moderator had no interest, or ability to subject even the most hackneyed of their campaign talking points to critical scrutiny.

All the more reason then to be grateful for the scrutiny that has surfaced, post-debate. Ella Stewart’s sustained demolition of Christopher Luxon’s falsehoods about the alleged lack of progress in public health outcomes – particularly among Maori – was a brilliant exception to the rule. Other standouts have been the attempt – available here – to hold Luxon to account over the bogus claims (made originally by Chris Bishop) that community housing groups support National’s promise to bring back “no fault” evictions.

As Hayden Donell pointed out in Spinoff months ago, there is no support for “no fault” evictions among any groups engaged at the coal face in helping renters to find affordable housing. Like National’s huge tax break for property speculators, the power to evict people from their homes without needing a reason is an idea popular only among landlords.

The same goes for bringing back 90 day employment trials and scrapping the Fair Pay Agreements that have served nurses and bus drivers so well… Such moves look like National paying back the business sector for the massive amounts of money it has been pouring into the party coffers.

Conspiring to govern

And with the Groundswell crew due back in Wellington next week, its timely to revisit this Simpsons classic: