Why must the Minister of Transport go through airport security? Do we seriously think he will storm the cockpit and knife the pilots? Will he blow the plane up?
It’s a matter of form. First, as the boss of air transport he requires the rest of us to quiver in fear of Al Qaeda, so shouldn’t he? Second, he is bound to set an example by scrupulously observing the laptops-out/pockets-emptied law, which doesn’t right now exempt ministers. Third, if he is, or appears to be, above the law, that undermines John Key’s one-of-us political persona.
Fourth, he embarrassed Key who couldn’t fire such a big cabinet flounder and was had to flannel a flimsy distinction between his transgression and that of others whose resignations Key has accepted or required. Maurice Williamson was gone in a trice.
A prosecution would add to that embarrassment, though on past form the prosecutors could conveniently wait till after the election.
Add in Key’s wriggle off his gesture when the Malaysian defence attache row went public that he would apologise to the woman if he could divulge her name. When the name was made public, he rated the incident not important enough for an apology.
The real point there is not the non-apology and wriggle. It is that pay-attention bells should have rung in his and his foreign minister’s offices back in May. But diplomatic protocol is neither’s strong point. For example, sources say Murray McCully has appointed ambassadors (which are his personal appointment) before getting the formal acceptance from foreign governments which protocol requires.
None of this will take any gloss off Key, try as Labour, the Greens and former foreign minister Winston Peters might.
Much more to the point was Peters’ game-playing over his party’s East Coast Bays candidacy (the actual candidate was to have been announced on July 21). That killed off the last vestiges of the 2012-13 logic that McCully could hand his electorate candidacy to a nonentity and National supporters in this more-than-usually South African immigrant and conservative electorate invited to vote for the Conservatives’ Colin Craig in the same gerrymander as in Epsom and Ohariu. Key buried that yesterday morning before later confirming the electorate deals with ACT, United Future and the Maori party.
But behind the East Coast Bays game is a more important one: will Peters go with Key if Key needs him on September 21?
Two lines of thought were last year pointing towards a no. One is Peters’ deep resentment at Key’s 2008 trashing of him. The other is that more of his policy positions (and those of his MPs) are closer to Labour’s than National’s.
On the first, Peters has mellowed enough for a deal, maybe initially through backdoor channels, most likely involving a ministerial post outside cabinet (clue: Peters knows and respects protocol) and support on budgets and confidence motions but with a free vote on other issues. Obviously, significant policy concessions would be needed but Peters proved with Helen Clark in 2005-08 that he can manage proportionality.
On the second, listen to Peters’ talk of “stability”, as noted in this column two weeks back. Labour and the Greens last year looked like a coalition in waiting, able to form a stable government. This year they look like two separate parties again and Labour’s polling has been so low that to form a government they might need not just New Zealand First but the Hone-Laila-Kim party.
On both counts the current is running Key’s way.
Which means the current is flowing away from David Cunliffe, who now has to sweat out anonymous, allegedly Labour, attackers using four-letter swear-words and even staffers using such language — at least, as Fairfax newspapers reported.
He is also having to sweat out excruciatingly low polls. That may also be partly a Fairfax-derived factor: what looked like a rogue Fairfax poll in June, out of line with others, has been followed this past month by low, even if not quite so dire, Labour ratings in other polls. That is, the 23.5 per cent Fairfax poll may have encouraged some later poll respondents to jump off a ship they had already subconsciously begun to feel was sinking.
To that add the fact that National’s list has enough under-45s to overtake Labour’s current lead in generational change.
In 2013, with the Greens, Labour was competitive with National. The parallel looked like 2005, when National re-emerged competitive after its 21 per cent in 2002. Now the parallel may be nearer 1996, when Labour, besieged from the left and the middle as now, fell 7 percentage points from a decades-low score in 1993, its first post-1990 election in opposition.
Three scraps of hope for Cunliffe are that 1996 was the first MMP election, the score was the highest Labour strategists dared hope for and that Clark built nine years as Prime Minister after 1999 on it.
But, unlike the minister at the airport, Cunliffe does not (yet?) have a side door to a flight to get him there.