The F word and its corrosive effect on a busy cabinet

In the heady days of the fourth Labour government Richard Prebble’s method of “saving rail” included closing the railway workshops in fellow minister Russell Marshall’s Wanganui constituency which Marshall had promised to keep open.

Marshall could have resigned his seat, asked the electors for forgiveness and re-endorsement in a by-election and thereby cleared the slate and his conscience. He stayed put, though he would surely have won.

Phillip Field’s best course was, and is, to reject Marshall’s course and take that of Winston Peters who reconfirmed himself in Tauranga in 1993 after National had telegraphed it would not re-select him.

Field would surely win Mangere and return to Parliament thereby absolved by the electors and so fortified against opposition barbs.

The catch Helen Clark and her senior ministers have divined in this is how Field might vote if he returned as an independent. If he at some point joined with National, ACT, the Greens and the Maori party in a vote of no-confidence, Clark and Co would be out.

This, of course, begs the simple question of whether the Greens and/or the Maori party would ever join National and ACT to pull down a government to which both are nearer ideologically and sociologically than to National. This simple question would be answered in the affirmative only in truly extraordinary circumstances.

The result is that Clark and Co are hostage to the F word which by parliamentary imputation carries overtones of the C (for corruption) word.

Labour apologists reckon, probably correctly, that not too many voters who are not already anti-Labour are greatly seized with the F saga. But that reckons without the corrosive effect of the C word.

National can now add the F word to its litany of shorthand allusions to something shady about Labour: Clark’s paintings and jaunt across the Canterbury plains, the parade of ministers out of the cabinet for improprieties and then sometimes back in, the misuse of parliamentary funds for its pledge card leading up to last year’s election and so on.

Votes are usually cast primarily on the state of household finances, the state of hospital queues, the state of crime and punishment, the state of political correctness and so on. But unease about probity can compound upset on those grounds. Bet on probity being a feature of National’s 2008 campaign.

What will Labour do to counter this?

This week and next Parliament is not sitting, which gives some breathing space and an opportunity for ministers to regain the initiative they have repeatedly lost over the past three years.

They know that business-as-usual is no way to win a fourth term. In 2005 even a booming economy only just returned a business-as-usual government. For 2008, with the economy decidedly cooler, they need to project a sense of direction voters can recognise and respond to.

Right now ministers have only a framework trio of catchphrases, “economic transformation”, “family” and “national identity”. They have generated at most an aura of busy-ness rather than purposeful direction.

They hope to change this over the last third of this year through a string of significant decisions and actions.

Unbundling Telecom’s local loop was a first explicit major “economic transformation” event and it won broad approval. This week, I am told, a similarly large initiative is to be trumpeted, on the “family” theme. We shall see.

Down the track we will see four “roadmaps” for science, focusing on nanotechnology, biotechnology, energy and the environment — flash enough to capture some imagination even if scant on funds to actually do any of it.

Michael Cullen will unveil his version of the 30c company tax plus add-ons. David Parker will produce a revised, revised energy strategy and some progress on the revised, revised climate change programme (where leadership has gone begging).

Expect to hear a lot on the “national identity” theme, where Labour commands the field against a National party which in the 1950s and 1960s set up bodies to celebrate heritage and the arts but which has recently dumped the arts and culture in the “political correctness” box.

And much, much more, so I am told. But will these initiatives portray a government in charge and leading us into a bold, uplifting future?

Not according to public service scuttlebutt. That portrays frustration: pressure from the Beehive to come up with bright and bold ideas but then a retreat when bright ideas reach the redoubtable Heather Simpson, Clark’s trusty innermost adviser and fixer. Bold ideas and Clark’s trademark caution and conservatism don’t really mix.

Nevertheless, there is a complacency trap for National. This is a very active government still. A scan of significant projects it has under way would fill this whole page. Ministers are not tired.

But there are the F word and the C word and the problem of purpose. Quite a challenge.

* Fitzgerald v Muldoon was decided by the High Court, not the Appeal Court as I said last week.