Claire Trevett 's Opinion

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Waiting for that Marmite moment

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Despite repeated warnings that the Treasury Supermarket's pick-and-mix offerings were of variable palatability, Prime Minister John Key and Finance Minister Bill English could not resist its sweet-tasting remedies for economic indigestion.

They opted for a bagful of Class-Size Toffee. They rammed the trolley-full of deliciously tart Asset Drops, intending to cut them in half for resale. They fixed a "this way be dragons" sign to the jar with Retirement-Age Fudge in it, but snuck in some Welfare Reform Straps and Convention Centre Humbugs instead.

Supermarket manager Gabriel Makhlouf watched indulgently. But when Key took his sweets down to the local fair, he discovered that cutting the Asset Drops in half caused them to splinter in rather dangerous fashion. The Class-Size Toffee stuck in the craw of his customers. The Auditor-General wanted to inspect the ingredients of the Convention Centre Humbugs. And everybody instead demanded the Retirement-Age Fudge he had spurned.

Having overindulged at the pick-and-mix, Key is now well and truly suffering from a hypoglycaemic slump that follows a sugar rush.

In a bid to recover, the Government has tried to set up its own version of the entertaining quiz show Distraction, which involves contestants answering questions while being subjected to distractions such as professional wrestlers bodyslamming them.

In National's version, the contestants are the Opposition and the distractions have so far ranged from Spain to Maui's dolphins, as well as a few uninvited distractions such as Michelle Boag in an orange jacket.

It is a time-honoured tradition for governments in strife to try to find some way to divert attention away from the flashpoint. Running a government requires skills of the David Copperfield variety - a sleight of hand, pull a rabbit out of a hat, send in the clowns, and hope like hell all eyes are turned that way when the lady is sawn in half.

British Prime Minister David Cameron perhaps took things a bit too far by leaving his child behind in a pub. But there are two ways for a judicious government to do this. The first involves releasing another initiative in the hope that its popularity will outweigh the unpopularity of the initiative currently being spat out the top of the blender.

Cue the Ministers of Social Development and Police and Corrections, and mix with the fears and prejudices of the wider populace. Hence, Social Development Bennett's sudden blurt about banning child abusers from having babies and the announcement that all prison officers will have pepper spray.

The second is the save-the-fluffy-animals approach - or, in this case, the finned-mammal approach. Any Conservation Minister worth their salt will spend the happy summer days of a government's lifespan squirrelling away nuggets of good-news announcements, ready to be deployed at the first signs of a political winter.

Enter the Maui's dolphin.

On March 13, the news that details of thousands of ACC claimants were mistakenly sent to Bronwyn Pullar broke, and the Government was backing down on its restructuring of Mfat.

Enter Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson to announce the Government's plans to save Maui's dolphins. She was very clever about this - announcing some immediate measures and emphasising there were now even fewer of the dolphins than previously thought, while keeping other measures in reserve to pull out at a later date.

Sure enough, this very Tuesday just gone, Prime Minister John Key announced we could expect to see more announcements on saving the Maui's dolphin by week's end. Such distractions will dilute attention to only a certain degree, and the problem the Government has is that it's got to the vicious point where the only thing diverting attention from one scandal is another scandal.

Key's first job upon his return from Europe was to hose down any residual disgruntlement over the failed bid to increase class sizes. He knows how well a hair shirt becomes a Prime Minister for special occasions, so he'd fluffed up the weave, vaselined his skin to mitigate the scratches, and donned his best mea culpa expression.

No sooner was that done than the ACC issue steamed up again. Molesworth St was transformed into a bowling alley, such was the number of heads rolling down from ACC's head office. To add to this, the Auditor-General announced her office would investigate the Government's negotiations for a convention centre at SkyCity.

Key continued to face pressure for his refusal to countenance a rise in the retirement age, although it has to be said that Labour leader David Shearer was wearing his best Little Red Riding Hood's granny smile when he promised Labour would not politic on Key's promise to resign if he changed pension eligibility.

But the Opposition has by and large proved as immune from distraction as former Act MP John Boscawen with a lamington on his head.

There is no sign of relief in the medium term. The asset sales and welfare reform legislation are back in Parliament this week. Collins' defamation action against Labour MPs Andrew Little and Trevor Mallard will prevent any cauterising of that wound, no matter how big the cleanout she instigates, and Auditor-General reports can take up to a year.

The only possible benefit of this is that it gets all of National's most controversial policies out of the way at the same time, giving it two years to produce the results to show the changes were worth it.

The best diversions National can hope for are those that pop up through mere happenstance.

Key might have crowed about his own support levels holding up while his international counterparts flailed in the slough of unpopularity, but he was probably a smidgen jealous of Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard this week when a coroner ruled that a dingo did kill Azaria Chamberlain.

In the meantime, his best hope is to count sleeps until the return of Marmite to the supermarket shelves gives him a few days' reprieve.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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