Thursday, September 28, 2006

Labour’s Turn

It may seem like I criticise the New Zealand National Party a lot. That’s because I do. I’m irritated by the party, led by a man who claimed to be representing “mainstream New Zealanders” but who was quick to cosy up to religious extremists and to appeal to the baser right wing elements of society. If they get rid of him and clean up their act they’ll get less criticism from me.

However, that’s not to imply that Labour is without fault. It’s obvious to me that whoever is planning their strategy is clueless—and I’m a party member.

Labour got into trouble when National started hounding away at Labour’s alleged overspending of taxpayers’ election money. Labour tried to point out that the auditor-general is changing the rules—arbitrarily, they argued—and making “illegal” practices that were perfectly acceptable in previous elections. They also tried to call attention to the multi-millions of dollars in help that National got from the Exclusive Brethren as well as business trusts which, while legal (maybe barely), would certainly make one wonder what might be expected in return.

The public didn’t care about any of that. Instead, they listened to and believed what National was dishing up.

Labour should have done what the Greens did, promising to repay what, if anything, was ultimately found to be improperly spent. They could have continued to protest their innocence, point out the unfairness and inconsistencies of the new interpretations of the rules and in so doing taken the wind out of National’s sails. Instead, they fanned the flames.

National’s recent attitude toward the Exclusive Brethren provides contrast. Once it was clear that sect members had organised spying on the Prime Minister and others associated with Labour, they were quickly denounced by National MPs. Except, of course, for their leader, Don Brash, who continued to say he’d meet with them. But as it became clearer still that the sect was poison for National, even Brash had to act to cauterise the wound.

Had Brash not banned contact with the sect, though reluctantly, the issue would inevitably have become larger. The public is less likely to remember that it took a long time for Brash to act, and that he may have been forced into it, than they are to remember simply that the party “severed ties” with the sect.

Labour’s nightmare continues, apparently without distractions like National’s buddies the Exclusive Brethren or Brash’s adultery. Unless they can put this campaign spending issue to rest, the image of Helen Clark as a calm, competent leader may be shattered permanently.

To be sure, if Labour now says that they’ve reluctantly decided to pay back funds “ultimately” found to have been spent incorrectly, National will continue to hound them, saying, basically, “what took you so long?” But that has far less power than falsely accusing them of corruption. And Labour has the opportunity to regain the moral high ground if they point out that the whole thing happened because of incredibly loose rules which they will tighten through law so no party would have to go through anything like this again.

Maybe my solution isn’t the best possible one, but it may be the most practical. At the very least, it’s better than what they’ve come up with so far.

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