Sharpening hooks to catch middling voters

The government was in a helpful phase last week: the Greens were given a free publicity hit over rimu logging; National’s morale was lifted by a swarm of jolting errors and mismanagements.

No earthquake has yet followed the tremor-swarm. Pronouncements of the end of the government’s honeymoon with the public are premature until the polls speak.

But last week’s exhibitions of government fallibility have lifted National ex-ministers’ spirits — already buoyed by a late deluge of submissions from frightened businesses which has swamped the Employment Relations Bill and put National and small business in the same paddock.

More important for the party’s long-term recovery is to get hooks into middle New Zealand. Labour last week obliged on this, too, caving in to its Maori caucus on the cellphone frequency spectrum.

Jenny Shipley made this her main attention-getting point at her party’s central North Island region conference on Saturday.

It was marshy terrain, as Trevor Mallard pointed out next day, sodden with her own concessions to Tau Henare and the bros last year, though she had a partial response on Saturday: Mr Henare did not get spectrum when he asked; his reward was in other currency.

But in any case Mrs Shipley was heading for higher ground. In giving a “privileged group” “discounted access” to the spectrum, despite explicitly denying it is a Treaty of Waitangi right, Mr Mallard (“forced by his leader”) transgressed a fundamental tenet of our political arrangements.

These she spelt out as “one person, one vote of equal value; rejection of special arrangements for any privileged group; one government, one Parliament and one justice system for all”.

It is doubtful the second is fundamental. “Special arrangements” for “privileged groups” have often been created by legislation. And the government agrees with the first and third (which squelches some Maoris’ ambitions for parallel governing institutions).

Mrs Shipley half-acknowledged this second point. Having accused Labour of being “hell-bent on pushing through its own narrow, academically-based (constitutional) agenda with little or no consultation” (a reference to Attorney-General Margaret Wilson), she added: “My sense is that there may be some hesitation occurring.”

But if she can’t skewer Labour on grand constitutional designs, she did sharpen a couple of meathooks.

One is the race dimension embedded in the spectrum attack. Pushed hard, Richard Prebble-style, that line can link Labour to “radical” Maori in voter’s minds even though the link is not stated explicitly. When the public’s honeymoon infatuation with the government ends and, unblinded, it begins to see warts where once it saw youthful, unblemished flesh, this line might resonate.

Mrs Shipley also prefaced the spectrum attack with a call to revisit the Maori seats in the current MMP review. Though she was careful not to say they should be scrapped – she has to keep Georgina te Heuheu in the tent — she did say there are “serious questions to be asked”. With a derisory Maori vote and Maori seats set to proliferate, National has a compelling reason to want them dumped.

The second meathook was embedded in the MMP segment of her speech: voters must have a referendum on MMP’s future. “The electoral system belongs to the people, not the politicians.”

She is right. In the Herald-DigiPoll in March, while the same number wanted MMP kept as wanted it replaced (45 per cent versus 44 per cent), 54 per cent wanted a referendum to decide the issue, against 35 per cent who did not.

To this Mrs Shipley appended Helen Clark’s referendum-less abolition of knighthoods (actually not a constitutional matter) and moves afoot to curtail appeals to the Privy Council.

None of this suggests she is the “radical conservative” she promoted in her first regional conference speech 10 days ago. It does suggest she got her media planning wrong: last weekend’s was the speech to have the television cameras at because it focused on the voters. Well, she has another three to come.