Sunday, April 16, 2006

Deborah Coddington: Struggling to hold it together

Is Helen Clark losing her grip? After stubbornly insisting all dogs must be microchipped, she turns around and dumps on Plunket. Elections have been lost on animals and babies - remember cats in dairies? And Bill Birch's penny-pinching over Plunketline in 1995 marked the beginning of the end for National.

This week's Herald-Digipoll put Clark miles ahead in the preferred PM stakes but that doesn't mean she's the great leader of the Labour Party. Six months from forming a Government, when tax is no longer the big issue, Labour should rocket away from National. Instead, they're only 1.2 points ahead.

Once Miss Always-In-Control, with her caucus behaving like a dream class of nerdy-swot seventh-formers, Clark is now struggling to hold together a tired, fractious and unfocused bunch. It's end of term time. The brain-boxes and hard workers are bone weary from carrying their mates who don't care if they return next semester.

What possessed Clark to play around with Michael Cullen's future? While the Finance Minister put his best spin on her "don't know if he'll be delivering any more budgets" remark, his face must have been puce with fury. Cullen's got a short wick at the best of times. Trifle with him at your peril - he's "light fuse and stand well clear".

But he's also, by his own admission, a shy man. Private people hate someone else very publicly voicing the opinion that their career prospects are anybody's guess.

I shudder to imagine the punishment Clark would have meted out to Cullen if he'd questioned Clark's stickability. Into the headmistress' office for six of the best, by hokey - not a pretty sight.

It's not like Clark to make careless statements in front of the media. So did she do it to wind him up?

Foolish if that is so. She'd be stuffed if Cullen spat the dummy and retreated to the back bench, as did another very capable minister, Paul Swain. Not that Swain had a hissy fit - he gave up the position to spend more time with his new baby.

Swain and Cullen were similarly impossible to rattle at question time. When Clark's away and Cullen answers oral questions on her behalf, the Opposition's shoulders collectively sag. To date, John Key is the only one who's taken on Cullen without looking stupid.

But Clark's will-he-won't-he over Cullen wasn't an isolated gaffe. She jumped the gun announcing David Parker could be quickly reinstated to Cabinet if the Companies Office found no need to press charges.

This was a red rag to Aberdeen Angus Bill English, who received a tip from a very good source, he said, that the Companies Office had provided an opinion for the Prime Minister's Department.

After a bit of stuffing around, the PM confirmed the Ministry for Economic Development had emailed the PM's department on the day Parker was sacked.

She denied, however, that advice was either requested from or given by the Companies Office. English must now await the outcome of an Official Information Act request but it all looks very messy. Clark shifted her position and the media caught an odour, not of scandal but at very least of impropriety.

And the damage is done.

Regardless of what English produces, if Parker's cleared, it will look suspicious and if he's prosecuted, he's a gone-burger.

Plus we have Chris Carter in damage control with the Housing Corporation. Ross Robertson doesn't know if he reported a tinnie house to police or not. Dover Samuels bags his own Conservation Minister. Steve Maharey's precious NZQA has blown its budget by $8 million. David Benson-Pope met with Gerry Brownlee to reminisce about the good old days when kids could be walloped, and Pete Hodgson is copping nappy valley's fallout over the Plunket debacle.

And Trevor Mallard faces a bleak winter. He's inherited Parker's energy portfolio and who wants to be Minister of Power Blackouts and Oldies Having Cold Showers?

Labour's cocksure arrogance is suddenly looking lame and meanwhile, the National caucus is limbering up.

Once cowed by Labour's bovver boys (and Annette King), the National front bench is steadily displaying the grunt needed to show voters it's capable of running the country.

If Murray McCully can wipe the self-satisfied smirks off the faces of some of National's new MPs, the centre-right could be cooking with gas right up to election 2008.

And what's left for Labour now its election promises have been scattered to voters?

Not only does Clark have to keep the punters happy, her own bruised ministers need a bit of TLC.

It must go against every cell of Cullen's abstemious body to give students free loans. So was Clark having a joke at his expense by giving him tertiary education?

Whatever - Cullen's not laughing. And Clark's face was especially grim the day she woke up to the Herald-Digipoll and saw what an ungrateful bunch the middle classes are.

After flushing $2 billion through the suburbs so families with iPods can text each other for dinner, the Government managed nothing better than a photo-finish with National.

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