The battle for Parliament resumed this week, with the first House sitting since 2008.
MPs are still learning their new roles. National MPs are still calling Labour MPs Minister occassionally. New National Minister are (as expected) struggling a little in the House (except Steven Joyce who has taken to it like a duck to water). Former Labour Ministers are struggling to relearn how to ask questions, rather than answer them. Finally the new National MPs are still wildly enthusiastic about getting to ask patsy questions. That will wear off before too long.
Best Play of the Week
A rare joint award to Labour and National for starting the repeal of the Electoral Finance Act.
The real evil of the Electoral Finance Act wasn't so much in its substance (even though that was bad enough) but more so in the way it was drafted without any attempt at consultation with the public or Opposition political parties. It has been a long standing convention that the party temporarily in Government doesn't use that time to unilaterally rewrite electoral laws to try and damage its opponents. Yet this is exactly what happened, and it highlighted how vulnerable New Zealand is with our reliance on unwritten constitutional conventions, rather than a written constitution.
Both National and Labour have had to make hard decisions to put the past behind them.
The anger in National (and elsewhere) over the Electoral Finance Act is palpable. The Act is detested, and represents to National the closest we have come to a constitutional coup - an attempt to so skew the playing field, to the benefit of one party only. Many in National would happily sisn up to an "utu" response where the EFA is not only repealed, but is inflicted on Labour in reverse.
But wiser heads have prevailed, and National is sincerely committed to multi-party (and public) consultation over the replacement to the Electoral Finance Act. They have made a smart choice in having Simon Power in charge of the process, as he gained much respect from other parties for his chairing of the Privileges Committee.
Labour deserve praise also, for admitting they got it wrong over the Electoral Finance Act, and voting to repeal it. Despite National officially not rubbing their face in it, a few MPs couldn't resist and Goff and Parker had to make fairly humuliating mea culpa speeches.
So an A to each party, for putting the public interest first.
Worst Play of the Week
I have been amazed by the amount of energy Labour is putting in to defending the Otago District Health Board over the $17 million fraud that occured on their watch.
Tony Ryall has asked the Chairman, Richard Thomson, for most of the time the fraud occured, to resign as Chairman. He has refused and it looks likely Ryall will sack him as Chair (not from the Board).
Labour seems to think this is National's replica of the Hawke's Bay District Health Board, and will prove to be a massively unpopular move. But their thinking must be clouded by loyalty to Mr Thomson - well known as a close friend of Pete Hodgson's and a Labour Party activist.
The HB DHB saga turned toxic for the Labour Government, because of the perception that they were covering up improper behaviour from the former Minister, from the Board member she appointed without advice, from the Minister's husband, from management that had close ties to Labour. And the entire Board got sacked despite for what seemed flimsy reasons, and a snub to local electors.
The Otago DHB saga has little of those characteristics. The biggest ever fraud in the NZ state sector occured on their watch. There are no personal issues involving Ministers. The Board is not facing the sack. Even the Chair is not facing the sack as a board member - only as Chair - something which is the sole appointment of the Minister anyway.
The Otago Daily Times has been running a crusade on Thomson's behalf, but this should not be mistaken as grass roots support. Many in the Dunedin community are aghast that the Board had such lax governance that the fraud was not detected earlier.
Thomson himself has blown a chance to come out of this as a hero. He does not seem to know the difference between blame and responsibility. no one is blaming him for what happened, but they are wanting someone to take responsibility for what occured on his watch.
A useful comparison would be to the Cave Creek disaster. No one blamed the Minister personally for the tragic deaths, but they wanted top level accountability and responsibility for it to have consequences. Minister Denis Marshall said he wanted to stay on long enough to make sure this could never happen again, and then resigned as Minister.
If Thomson had done the same, he would be universally praised as a model of a good Governor. He should have said that as Board Chair he accepts ultimate responsibility, that he will ask the Minister to accept his resignation in mid to late 2009, after he has put in place measures to minimise the chance such a large scale fraud could not occur again.
Labour get a D for their campaign against accountability,
Patsy Question of the Week
As I mentioned above, the new National MPs are still at the stage where they enjoy asking patsy questions. The most sycophantic of the week goes to Nikki Kaye for her question to the Prime Minister:
Nikki Kaye: Have all the infrastructure projects announced this morning been fully funded?
Hon JOHN KEY: Yes. These projects have been costed and will be charged against Budget allowances. We have made provision for all those projects, and they will actually happen. That is completely different from the last Government’s practice of making lofty infrastructure announcements, with no idea of and no concern about how they would be funded.
What a magnificent answer from the Prime Minister to that surprise question. After all, it is not as if his staff probably wrote it!
Having said that, it is not a bad thing to have the Government actually provide funding for the projects they announce!