Sunday, February 19, 2006

Matt McCarten: Red card for Labour but no party's perfect

Many taxpayers will be appalled to see that Helen Clark approved nearly half a million taxpayer dollars in sending out the Labour Party's pledge card.

Clark claims with a straight face that the parliamentary rules allow her to do it. The chief electoral officer disagrees and says the Labour Party broke the law. The Electoral Commission has referred the matter to the police.

The worst that can happen legally is that the Labour Party secretary could go to prison for a few weeks and be fined up to $20,000. But that's not going to happen. Even if someone had to go down, it's a small price to pay if it helped the Labour Government survive by a whisker. It's not like the election can be overturned. If the case is proved then the most that will happen is that Labour may have to pay the money back.

Yes grasshopper, it's true, there are different rules for the powerful.

National MPs, of course, are pissed because they're wondering if they were robbed of the Treasury benches. They had a week of acting injured and working up their indignant rage. Then Clark burst their moral bubble by tabling in Parliament a National Party brochure also printed and paid for by parliamentary funds. The Nats claimed it was a leaflet to "explain the party's general identity".

However, I think the words on the front saying "What National stands for" gives the game away.

And now the police have also decided to investigate the Nats over a $100,000 GST omission.

Now it seems the perk-busting and moral guardians of the public purse, Act, were possibly in on it as well. Winston Peters produced Act's advertisements that were printed in newspapers two days before the election titled "What Act brings to Parliament" with a group shot of the party's smiling MPs. We may not have voted for them but we certainly paid for their ads.

Then Act retaliated saying we paid for Winston's "poo on the shoe" billboards. It seems we paid for just about everyone's billboards.

So whoever we vote for, we also unwittingly contribute several million dollars of our taxes to helping other parties also get elected. Labour, it transpires, only got caught because it was just too blatant and the amount too big.

It's an outrage that they all seem to manipulate their parliamentary budgets for electoral gain. But the real scandal is how the rules are set up in the first place to allow them to funnel money from the taxpayer to their election campaigns.

These rules are set by a powerful committee in Parliament that meets in secret to dosh out taxpayers' money to MPs and their parties. This committee, headed by Speaker Margaret Wilson, has the bosses from all parties and no votes taken. If a deal can't be made Wilson makes the decision.

It's a bit like mafia series The Sopranos where big boss Tony Soprano has a "sit down" with his capos to decide how to split their ill-gotten gains. His capos all compete with each other but they all have vested interests in sorting out disputes about money. They argue their case and if they can't agree Tony decides.

The parliamentary services committee works like that too. All the parties know that they have a vested interest in keeping their business in private. They all turn up - not to stop anyone from getting anything but to make sure they get a cut too. They also have the unique power to decide how big the pie is. The rules they have created on spending are deliberately set so loose that they can virtually get away with anything.

For example, they all can print and mail out anything as long as it doesn't have a "vote for us" or a party membership form on it. Provided they can justify to themselves that it is imparting information about their party, it's OK. They can even put their party names and logos on it.

Now they have gone to a new level with huge commercial billboards with photos of their leaders. How they can pretend that these boards are parliamentary business is beyond me.

The truth is, the whole system is rotten and needs overhauling. The political parties should just be honest and say there needs to be public funding for political parties. The current practice of misusing money that is supposed to be used for parliamentary reasons is dishonest.

The only way to run a democracy is to set up a one-stop electoral agency that is independent of parliament. This agency - and not the MPs - should set the rules and enforce them.

The pigs in the trough need to be put back into their pens.

Deborah Coddington: Key's dream run about to end

You have to feel sorry for John Key. Just when he was hoping the speculation about his pitching for Don Brash's job had died, there's his mug beaming at us from the covers of North & South and Wellington Today magazines.

To be fair, knowing the former's deadlines as I do, this story would have been started back in about October last year.

And Key didn't know he was going to be on the cover. Those unfortunate enough to receive this treatment (it can be the kiss of death) are rarely told in advance. If subjects think they're going to be buried on page 60, it's easier to get a nice, cooperative photograph.

So Key would have had no say in the placement of the story. Even if he'd refused an interview (something I don't believe anyone funded by taxpayers has a right to do) the magazine would have gone ahead and done a story anyway.

But this leadership issue will not go away, despite the fact Brash is doing a fine job outside the house. His performance in the debating chamber is still dismal and I now doubt Brash has the ability to improve. But as far as leadership talk is concerned, Brash is wisely ignoring unsolicited advice and continuing to be his unspun self.

Doing a poll of party members to gauge support would achieve nothing. Act used to do them. The feedback was good for a laugh but only a small minority provided constructive criticism and the others didn't have the guts to put their names to nasty personal remarks, so what was the point?

Back in the days when Helen Clark was making around 7 per cent support maximum, a poll of members would probably have put a popular MP like John Tamihere ahead in Labour's leadership stakes, but where would that party be now if the whim of members was rigidly adhered to?

In my opinion, there's Machiavellianism behind Rodney Hide offering advice to his mate, Don Brash. It's in Act's interest that Don Brash be toppled. He's made the National caucus look like a party promoting individual liberty (which it's not) and thus eclipsed Act. For Act to have relevance again, it needs a National leader who is not "Act's ninth MP". In other words, Key or Bill English. So is Hide really acting in his friend's best interest, or is he stirring the pot knowing from experience that the longer the issue bubbles away, the worse it is for the incumbent?

The best thing the National Party can do is rejoice that it has a number of MPs who could, in time, step up to be leader.

That's a problem every party likes to have, and one Labour doesn't have. When Clark trots off to the UN, who will be next? My money's on Lianne Dalziel - hardworking, fair, a leftie to the marrow, and someone who's already made her big blunders. Labour will be led by women for many years to come.

John Key's had a dream run so far but I expect that will soon change as both the media and nasties in National turn against him. Those who dismiss him as Bill Birch the Second, are way off the mark.

Birch was "Mr Fixit". A chameleon who went from "Think Big" to "Sell" before you could say "unfinished business". Birch droned on so much he'd get away with murder because after the first sentence no one was listening. If he'd announced National was about to privatise the conservation estate it wouldn't even have made the six o'clock news.

Key, on the other hand, is fresh as a newly peeled egg. He bounces like Tigger around the country being interested and interesting. Watching him on Paul Holmes' Prime programme just before the election, talking about what his hopes are for New Zealand, reinforced to me just how badly Act had lost its way. Key is one politician who can talk economics and finance in language that's easy to understand and relate to. Out in the real world, away from the artifice of Parliament and the Press Gallery, people like him. As they equally like Brash and English. Which makes this leadership issue all the more infuriating for National.

But right now Key is in an impossible situation. If you work hard as an MP, do well, and attract much media attention, pretty soon someone's going to start saying you could be leader.

When that occurs, two things happen. The first is you're criticised for your naked ambition. The second is others in your party - who've been in Parliament longer and see themselves as leader-in-waiting - must bring you down. Skeletons get dragged from closets. Pratfalls are laid in your path.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, first they make famous.

Kerre Woodham: Boofhead racers should clean up their cemetery mess

Why, in God's name, if the authorities know who's responsible for the damage at the Manukau Cemetery, do they not go round to their homes, load the culprits into their little souped-up Imprezas or Hondas or Subarus, or whatever the hell they drive, and herd them like so many idiotic sheep back to the cemetery where they can clean up the mess they left behind them?

People who have buried sons and daughters, spouses, lovers and friends at the cemetery are getting increasingly upset at the crap that's being left behind by these irresponsible, unthinking, uncaring idiots.

Locking the gates at night doesn't help. The vandals simply drive their cars through the fences and muscle their way into the grounds like the boofheads they are.

Imagine turning up to put flowers on your daughter's grave and have a quiet time remembering all that was good about the child you loved only to find that these self-obsessed boy racers have been there before you, to indulge in sentiment as cheap as their liquor by drinking on their mates' graves and doing burnouts to honour their dead mate.

The smell of burning rubber, alcohol, and urine combined with the sight of empty bottles, gang paraphernalia and bits of old cars is disgusting and no one should have to put up with it.

Manukau ratepayers are forking the bill for the clean-up and I just don't see why they should have to.

These toerags should have to clean up their mess and pay for whatever damage they've caused and be banned from the cemetery until they're old enough to know better.

Mind you, chances are they'll end up buried next to their mates sooner rather than later the way they're choosing to behave, so the problem may soon be solved.

We all grieve in our own ways for those we've loved and lost, but maudlin, drunken solipsism does not count as genuine grief.

Kerre Woodham: So long, Chris, it's been a blast

So there was no fairy tale ending for Chris Cairns and his family and friends at Eden Park on Thursday night.

Sure, New Zealand beat the West Indies in a very odd game of Twenty/20 cricket that saw a bowl-off to decide the game when it ended in a draw, But really, in exhibition carnival games like this, does the score matter?

If the cricketing gods had read the script, they'd have known that New Zealand's finest all-rounder would have collected a couple of wickets and finished with a match-saving Cairnsian tonk that should have included at least half a dozen sixes.

But it was not to be.

There was a very tidy run-out off his own bowling, but a fabulous exhibition of batting was denied the crowd when Bravo clean bowled Cairns for two.

Still, if we didn't get to see the best of Cairns' cricketing ability, we saw the esteem in which he's held by players and public alike. As he walked from the pitch for the last time, the West Indian team clapped him off, as did his teammates when he got closer to the tunnel.

The 30,000-strong Eden Park crowd, many of whom had come primarily to say goodbye to Cairns, rose as one to give the man the standing ovation he deserved.

The Cairns family has given a lot to cricket.

You know you're old when you remember Chris' dad in his prime.

It must have been difficult to follow in Lance's footsteps, and from time to time Chris found it hard going.

When you're a naturally talented athlete but you're still young and finding your way, it's only natural you're going to kick the traces.

Especially when everyone thinks they know what's best for you.

Sometimes a young man doesn't want to do what's best - he wants to do what's downright bad.

But Chris Cairns managed to get through the drama of growing up in the public spotlight and evolve into a well-rounded man.

And the New Zealand public owes him a debt of thanks.

Now all we have to do is hope like hell one of his gorgeous young boys shows an interest in Poppa's old bat, and then start counting the days until the little one is old enough to become a Black Cap.