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National losing its head over silly buggers

By Michael Laws

One of the worst aspects of politics is that you get to a point when you start to despise the game. Even though you know the rules, and understand the diverse nature of the players, you just get sick of it.

I found that, as both an MP and a mayor, I lost so much respect for my opponents and the media that I no longer cared what they said. I regarded them as quizzical morons.

At which point – and no matter my influence or majority – I started to become perversely apolitical. You want to do stuff, and not play the ceaseless game. The sport and theatre of politics inexorably moves from exciting to a distraction, to a nonsense.

The remarkable thing is that all politicians go through this phase. Ultimately we became, and become, a mix of jaded, indifferent and even hostile. You want to concentrate on the task at hand, and not feed the animals or attend the circus. It is precisely at that moment, that you lose the next election.

This Government – and certain of its key players – are not too far from entering that miasma. They are in the midst of major policy decisions – of managing an economy and society through the most troubling times of the past two generations – and still, everyone wants to play silly buggers. And they are beginning to hate that.

Although it is the female cabinet ministers that have attracted the poor press over the past month, Prime Minister John Key has led the way in stating his administration's view.

First, he bemoaned the growing hostility of the Press Gallery and of the NZ Herald in particular. It was an unguarded comment that he later downplayed, but the exasperation showed. We came to drain the swamp, was his lament, and now we're up to our arse in alligators. What's that about?

To an extent, he is right. Auckland's daily has gone feral, but it's not as a consequence of being especially anti-government. The onward plunge of most media into tabloid-dom continues. It just happens that, whichever government is in power, it's more exciting and entertaining to be playing media opposition.

Bad news and controversy sells. Good news – and rational observation – died in the media ditch a long time ago. News is sensation. Politicians rather like this maxim when in opposition. But halfway through your second term in government, you would not be human not to occasionally get a little ratty. Which, perversely, the media prefers. Conflict is more interesting than consensus.

Cue Education Minister Hekia Parata, who was in danger of allowing her ego, and her understandable resentment of teacher unions, impede her from political reality. Trying to win the "increased class size means better schooling" argument was an exercise in futility.

In one respect, Parata was right. The quality of teaching does have a more positive impact than smaller classes. But most New Zealanders ask the simple question, why can't we have both?

The answer comes back to the global economic crisis, the Christchurch earthquake and the paucity of the Government's finances. At which point one asks the question, then why not wait until the books are in balance? It's not worth sacrificing one good for another. That said, the ministry's failure to spell out the practical implications of its advice left the minister in quicksand.

Ditto with ACC. I conducted the most remarkable interview last week with former National Party president Michelle Boag – in a cold fury after the police had dismissed allegations of blackmail and extortion with regards the Bronwyn Pullar saga.

Frankly, Boag is not the kind of person I would seek to buy a fight with. That ACC Minister Judith Collins has done so is extraordinary. More extraordinary is that Key has allowed it to happen. Nat fighting Nat – it's a Labour wet dream.

Then there's Social Development Minister Paula Bennett partially accepting that I'm right, ferals should not be encouraged to breed. But then her political resolve fails her. Having accepted that child abusers should have their progeny removed from them at birth, Bennett can't explain why they should be allowed to have kids at all.

But that's what happens, the detail and PR gets lost when you're in the policy and process of government. Little wonder the media has turned. Ah, but when the rest of us?

Sunday Star Times, 10th June 2012

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