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Tuesday 13 October 2015

Comment: Sledgehammer(ed)?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 28th August 2014

Dirty Politics is a dramatic reassertion of citizen involvement in New Zealand politics. Is it directly relevant to LGBT communities?

Not really. Cam Slater may be many other things, but he's definitely not a homophobe. He strongly and emphatically backed marriage equality. He is also a fiercely partisan blogger. Again, as the matter may be shortly before the courts, I will make no further remarks about his involvement in this current political controversy.

Much political commentary has centred on his relationship to Judith Collins, whose National Party leadership aspirations he backs. In this article, therefore, I will focus on Collins.

It is one of the ambiguities of our current constitutional arrangements that we have a powerful executive in terms of the prime ministerial job description. What is not appreciated is that this may well be partially fictitious. With the backing of a powerful ministry, strong and active pursuit of ministerial rights and responsibilities can counteract this. The Prime Minister is notoriously fond of using All Black metaphors. All right then. He's absolutely correct when he refers to himself and his core Cabinet ministers as "Team Key'- but who else is part of that team, and who isn't? And why?

Obviously, given the strategic importance of Treasury, Finance Minister Bill English is a core member of "Team Key" and satisfied with the abundant prerogatives and responsibilities that such an important strategic role provides him with- much as Michael Cullen was satisfied with that same role under Helen Clark. Multiskilled and adaptable Steven Joyce is clearly another and logic suggests that he will eventually be Key's successor, given that his current troubleshooting role is an ideal preparation for eventual executive office. As Minister for Social Development, Paula Bennett is competent, capable, combative and focused. When Key goes, and if English is offered an overseas international financial leadership role, I can see Bennett as Joyce's eventual deputy. But where does this leave Judith Collins?

Apart from Bill English, one of the other significant attributes of the three other core players is that they appear to be centre-right social liberals. However, while this core group is "Team Key" proper, there are other, albeit latent factions within the National Party. While incumbent government responsibilities and strong leadership are an incentive toward party cohesion, incumbency fatigue and loss of office causes such factions to reactivate. And once former governing parties lose office, succession struggles emerge.

Back to Collins. Shortly after she was first elected National MP for Clevedon in 2002, Don Brash appointed her to National's Opposition Shadow Cabinet. When Key took over in 2006, she retained her shadow position. In government, she was appointed to the Corrections and Police portfolios. While Corrections Minister, she increased the uptake of prison work programmes, while also introducing additional alcohol and drug treatment services inside. These were undeniably positive developments, conceded even by her detractors. While Justice Minister, she has attracted criticism over the somewhat anaemic new alcohol regulatory legislation introduced under her ministerial tenure. More recently, though, she has been dogged by adverse publicity related to Accident Compensation Corporation privacy shortcomings, the Oravida Chinese export milk powder conflict of interest scandal and now the question of her dealings with centre-right blogger Cameron Slater. When she was given the Justice portfolio, it was after she had served time within the corrections and police affairs portfolios. During the time that Key was Leader of the Opposition, Collins had been social welfare spokesperson, but that responsibility was reallocated to Paula Bennett, where it has stayed. When Key appointed Collins as Justice Minister, I was initially stunned, but then I worked out why. Collins was allocated that portfolio because she is a populist politician and her appointment was no doubt a 'dog whistle' toward the Sensible Sentencing Trust's law and order social conservative constituency. Populism is about authoritarian political rhetoric and propaganda designed to appeal to social conservative political constituencies. As New Zealand has steadily secularised, religious authoritarianism has lost its ability to mobilise supporters, but the same isn't true of law and order criminal justice populism and social conservatism.

But hasn't the Sensible Sentencing Trust's former leader Garth McVicar been seduced by the Conservative Party? Yes. However, given that the Sensible Sentencing Trust relies on non-partisanship for its lobby status, McVicar may find that once he has made his tilt at Napier for his party, and an unelectable fundamentalist microparty at that, he will be unable to return to his former role. To some extent, law and order populism has drifted from the ambit of predominantly religious social conservatism. As John Pratt noted in his book Penal Populism, Phil Goff used it effectively as a core Clark administration minister. McVicar and current SST leader Ruth Money may battle it out for control of the organisation after the election, which will probably cheer their rehabilitationist opponents within Rethinking Crime and Punishment.

Moreover, Collins has been engulfed by numerous political scandals over the last year. As Bill English has sagely observed, she may have been overpromoted and have reached the limits of her capabilities as a populist politician. With SST schism possibly ahead, the law and order lobby will be weakened and with it, so will any raison d'etre to keep Collins within the Cabinet. However, if she is demoted, Collins may spark off factional warfare against Key's heir apparent, Steven Joyce. Key may find that any third term descends into nightmare and farce, akin to John Major's poisoned chalice as post-Thatcherite Tory Prime Minister, within a party wracked by internal dissension and perhaps during an economic downturn.

Nicky Hager: Dirty Politics: Nelson: Craig Potton: 2014
Stuart Hall: The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left: Verso:London: 1988
John Pratt: Penal Populism: London: Routledge: 2007.
Rethinking Crime and Punishment:

Not Recommended:
National Party:
Conservative Party:
Sensible Sentencing Trust:

Craig Young - 28th August 2014

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