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Dr Muriel Newman


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“The face he showed to the country this week was that of a man who didn’t give a stuff what people thought. It may be one that his colleagues and National supporters hope he will not be revealing too often.” Herald Editorial, Sunday 20 February, 2011

Is John Key a man of his word, or simply a man of words? That is a question many are beginning to ask as finally the electorate’s love affair with what was an image of hope is starting to tire.

The image of the Prime Minister is a crucial issue for the National Party as it faces an election in nine months time. He is after all their greatest and perhaps only asset. But in politics, as in life, actions speak louder than words, and if the public ever get a hint that they are being treated like fools or taken for granted there will be a backlash, which could cost National the election, and a number of National’s electorate MPs their jobs.

Over the last week the shadows of doubt have appeared. TVNZ has caught the Prime Minister out over the embarrassing new fleet of BMWs. Thirty-four $200,000 cars that come complete with four-zone air conditioning, massaging seats, sixteen high-performance speakers, monitors and DVD players, an internet portal, automatic doors, and voice recognition starting. At the time John Key feigned innocence: I can’t take responsibility for a contract that was entered into by the previous Labour Government, that wasn’t brought to my attention or to my ministers’ attention.

It was later found to be untrue. Not only was the National government responsible for the deal, but John Key had known all about the cars all along having been taken out in one in April for a test drive!

How the government could even contemplate doing a deal on such cars in this economic climate is almost incomprehensible. When the whole country is feeling the pain of recession, it is galling to see our elected VIPs even thinking that opulence is acceptable. It is very bad form, made worse by the Prime Minister’s lies – Cabinet Ministers have been sacked for less.

John Key is lucky that the Parliamentary opposition has not been able to capitalise on this issue because it was Labour who bought the BMWs in the first place, and few parties in parliament are able to claim a moral high ground when it comes to spending taxpayers’ funds.

But self-indulgence and BMWs is not the only question mark hanging over the PM’s integrity. Back in March of 2010 when he announced the review of the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act, John Key explained that he was not prepared to push through a law change unless the wider public were in support. The New Zealand Press Association reported it at the time in this way: “A discussion document released today said the Government preferred to declare the foreshore to be public domain, but reassert the right of Maori to seek modified customary title through the courts. Mr Key said the public domain concept was a pragmatic way to heal a ‘weeping sore’, but if there was not wide support then the current law could remain in place. The intent here is to put this issue to bed in a satisfactory way to the bulk of New Zealanders…”

The review of the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act was driven by the Maori Party’s confidence and supply agreement with National. It mandated a review only, not a law change. Astonishingly, National suppressed the results of that review for 6 months to hide the fact that the public were overwhelmingly opposed to a law change. 77 percent of the 1500 submitters wanted the present Foreshore and Seabed Act to remain in place, while 91 percent were opposed to the planned Marine and Coastal Area Bill.

If John Key had intended to keep his promise, he should have dropped any idea of changing the law at that stage. But he pressed on.

The Maori Affairs Select Committee received 5,794 written submissions on the Marine and Coastal Area Bill. Most were opposed to the bill with an astounding 97 percent of oral submissions being opposed to the bill as it stands. National cannot ‘spin’ this result: no-one who has examined National’s law change wants it – neither Maori nor non-Maori. As a matter of trust, John Key is under an obligation to the people of New Zealand to honour his promise and leave the present law in place.

Having been caught out lying over BMWs is something that is likely to be soon forgotten. Going back on his word over his planned race-based carve-up of New Zealand’s beaches and Territorial Sea is likely to be a far more serious and enduring matter for National.

Without a doubt, as more people realise what is going on, National’s favour with the electorate will drop. We have already seen National party support fall 5 percent in the most recent poll, and we know that many former National supporters are so angry about National’s increasingly close liaison with the Maori Party that they have stopped donating to the Party and vowed to not vote for them again.

This view is reflected in the article Polls, MMP, and the ‘Bugger Off’ Factor by this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator Professor Roger Bowden, who states, “I suspect that there are many former National Party voters who are deeply troubled by damaging outcomes like the foreshore and seabed legislation, or dismayed by the dishonesty of the political process involved.”

Already a number of parties are lining up to campaign on repealing the Marine and Coastal Area Bill if it is passed into law, and Winston Peters will no doubt use it as a platform to expose National’s weaknesses and relaunch his party. Certainly the Coastal Coalition intends fighting against politicians who want to trade away our coastline so they can stay in office for another three years.

While John Key and the architect of the Marine and Coastal Area Bill, Chris Finlayson, have turned a blind eye to the discontent that is fermenting around the country, some members of National have been left exposed. It is they, not those in the upper echelons of the party list, that will pay the price.

New Zealand’s Parliament is made up of 122 Members, 58 from National, 42 from Labour, 9 from the Greens, 5 from the Maori Party, 5 from ACT, 1 from United Future, 1 from the Jim Anderton’s Progressive Party, and 1 independent – former Labour MP Chris Carter.

There are 63 general electorate seats around the country: 41 are held by National, 18 by Labour, and 1 each by ACT, United, Progressives and Chris Carter. There are 7 Maori seats, 5 of which are held by the Maori Party, and two by Labour. Of the Maori Party seats, Rahui Katene in Te Tai Tonga has the smallest majority at 1,049.

Of National’s 41 electorate seats, 9 had been held by Labour in 2002 and 2005, but had swung to National in 2008. If there is a swing away from National in November, some of these MPs will lose their seats – unless they have made a name for themselves fighting for the voters who elected them into office. Jonathan Young in the seat of New Plymouth has the lowest National majority of 105 votes. Next is Paula Bennett in Waitakere with a 632 majority, followed by Chris Auchinvole in West Coast/Tasman with 971, Nathan Guy in Otaki with 1354, Nikki Kaye in Auckland Central with 1497, Tim Macindoe in Hamilton West with 1618, Paseta Sam Lotu-liga in Maungakiekie with 1942, Todd McClay in Rotorua with 5065, and Louise Upston in Taupo with 6445.

In addition, Peter Dunne is in an especially precarious position with his majority in the Ohariu seat sliding from 12,543 in 2002, to 7,702 in 2005, to 1,006 at the last election. His support for the Marine and Coastal Area Bill is likely to see him tossed out of Parliament – the end of the United Future Party.

What we can conclude from the current polls is that National’s support is declining, and those lost votes are being dispersed across all other parties. I have no doubt the only thing propping up National’s support is the lack of alternatives. Labour has simply not been able to lift its game to seize the moment; it seems its own transgressions are still too fresh in voter memories, and its leadership is no match for John Key on the charisma scale.

John Key has already stated that he does not intend to stay in the job for the long haul. If he loses the election he will move on to other things. That means he will not have to live with the consequences of his divisive law changes.

While events in the Middle East beam out from our

television sets as sobering reminders of what happens when political leaders lose touch with the hopes and aspirations of voters, we can be relieved that we live in a peaceful democracy. However, more and more people are saying that it feels like we have a parliamentary dictatorship between elections. Electorate MPs are on the frontline of voter opinion and a number of current National Party MPs in marginal seats will be reflecting on that come 26 November. I wonder if their reflections will include wondering whether they should have spoken out against the Marine and Coastal Area Bill while they had the chance instead of passively toeing the party line.

Last week’s fiasco over those luxury BMWs should serve as a warning that National has lost sight of the pressures being faced by real New Zealand. They were voted in on a wave of hope. New Zealanders wanted a prime minister and a government that listened – one that would create an economic environment that enabled people to get on and achieve their life’s aspirations. They didn’t vote for political back room deals to create Maori privilege and nor did they vote for their MPs to grant themselves the privilege of thirty-four new BMWs.