Tuesday, March 21, 2006

John Armstrong: Latest 'mistake' forces Clark into no-win situation

It would be easy to mistake David Parker's forced resignation as Attorney-General as a sign that the Labour Party - currently looking somewhat shabby and accident-prone - is going to clean up its act.

Labour will certainly be hoping yesterday's decisiveness will give that impression and be seen as a return to the days when the Prime Minister expected her ministers to meet the standards required of Cabinet office.

Yet, while the Prime Minister may have dispensed some political disinfectant around the Beehive in nudging Mr Parker out of one of his portfolios, his exit had the appearance of something done reluctantly and all too grudgingly.

Right now, the one thing Labour needs to display is some contrition following David Benson-Pope's misleading statements to Parliament and the more damaging rort on the taxpayer which saw Labour caught using parliamentary funds for blatant electioneering.

An apology for that rort would have done Labour a power of good - and taken some of the wind out of National's sails.

However, Labour seems incapable of uttering the word "sorry" at the very time it most needs to do so.

It is suffering from a siege mentality which is daily evident in Parliament and which yesterday's events will likely only intensify.

In the process, Labour is unwittingly auditioning for the very role which National seeks to ascribe it - arrogant and out-of-touch.

Mr Parker lost his portfolio because the role of Attorney-General as the senior law officer of the Crown made his position untenable and his immediate resignation a necessity.

Unlike Mr Benson-Pope, the circumstances were black and white. This time there could be no equivocation and no hesitation.

But he still holds his other, weighty portfolios of Transport and Energy.

It is an awful quandary for Helen Clark. It is understandable she has not sacked him completely. He is one of Labour's brightest stars. Neither does she want to bring his political career to an abrupt halt.

She obviously feels that would be unfair and inconsistent given the leniency shown to Mr Benson-Pope.

Yet, keeping Mr Parker after retaining Mr Benson-Pope risks exponentially increasing the political cost incurred by Labour.

Recognising the dilemma, she yesterday sought to paint Mr Parker as an honourable person who had made a mistake. She then attacked Investigate magazine and Rodney Hide as if Mr Parker's predicament was somehow all their fault. She then dropped another hint that Labour might retaliate in kind to what were "smear" campaigns against its ministers.

That warning is an indication that Labour has drawn a line in the sand and Helen Clark and her senior colleagues are not going to allow National and Act to pick off Cabinet ministers one by one to paint a picture of a Government in decay.

Yet, Labour's anger is blinding it to the extent that the Prime Minister is now gambling on Mr Parker not being prosecuted for making a false declaration.

If he is prosecuted, he will surely have to stand down from his other portfolios at least temporarily.

If he escapes prosecution, that will only reinforce the growing perception that the "mistakes" of Labour politicians are treated differently when it comes to the application of the law.

Either way, Labour is the loser.

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