David Farrar
The week in politics with centre-right blogger David Farrar

David Farrar: National's Quartus Horribilis

Nick Smith with Bill English after giving his resignation at Parliament. Photo / Getty Images
Nick Smith with Bill English after giving his resignation at Parliament. Photo / Getty Images

The latin phrase annus horribilis was popularised by Queen Elizabeth when she used it to refer to refer to 1992, a year where her family had a divorce, a separation a tell-all book on a failed marriage and a fire. It means a "horrible year" or a "year of horrors".

The National-led Government's first quarter of 2012 ends tomorrow and it has also been a, shall we say, quartus horribilis.

This is not to say that the Government isn't making progress on a number of fronts. Yesterday Parliament passed into law no less than five full and final Treaty of Waitangi settlements. It also this week introduced a bill to move MPs travel entitlements from themselves to an independent authority - something long called for.

The first stage of their welfare reforms has been introduced to Parliament also. And John Key was held out by Barack Obama for special mention as a global nuclear security summit. And that's just the last week.

However these are not the stories making the front pages of the newspapers, the first segment of the television news, or even worse being chatted about at morning tea in workplaces around New Zealand.

It has been many weeks since the Government has been able to have attention focused on their agenda and what they are doing. The focus has been on numerous side-issues. On some days the Labour Opposition must have difficulty deciding what not to ask questions on, as there is so much to choose from.

These issues include:

• The Police decision in the Teapot taping saga
• Loose comments from the Minister of Finance over the amount of revenue the asset part-sales will generate
• The MFAT restructuring with even a former National Minister signing a letter condemning the proposed changes
• Finnish displeasure at negative comments on them
• The Crafar decision being overturned by a court
• And of course the ACC saga

Some of these issues are relatively minor and do not in themselves damage the Government, such as the scrap with Finland. I doubt a single voter changes their mind on who to vote for because Gerry Brownlee made a humourous speech that was derogatory of Finland.

However there is an opportunity cost with these issues. The front page is only so big. The first segment on television news is only 12 minutes long. If a story on upset Finns makes either of those, then it means a story on the Government's welfare reforms has been relegated down the news, if it makes it at all.

I didn't watch the news last night. The five Treaty settlements should probably have been the lead item, based on their importance. However I am pretty sure that they were not, and the ongoing ACC saga was probably high up on the news.
It is hard to tell how much more there is to come in the ACC saga. Normally a Ministerial resignation sees the end of an issue. However this saga seems to be a hydra - you cut one head off, and two more pop up.

Labour have been focusing on the e-mail from Michelle Boag to Judith Collins, and how it was made public. Judith Collins has announced defamation proceedings against Trevor Mallard and Andrew Little for stating that she leaked the e-mail.

It is fairly rare for one MP to sue another. The last time was Winston Peters (unsuccessfully) suing David Carter, off memory. This case could pose a challenge for the Labour MPs though.

Many people are vaguely aware of a court case called Lange v Atkinson which found that statements about a Member of Parliament can enjoy qualified privilege if they are honest opinion. However what some have not realised is that this only applies to opinions, not statements of fact.

An example is if I said David Lange (to use him as an example rather than a living MP) was a dishonest crook, then that may have qualified privilege as my honest opinion. But if I said I was at dinner with David Lange and while I was in the bathroom $100 went missing from my wallet, and he stole it - then that is not an opinion, but a statement of (untrue) fact.

I am not a lawyer but as I understand it when it comes to defamation cases about a statement of fact, all the plaintiff has to do is prove the statement was made, and that the statement would lessen their reputation. Once those two things have been established then the defendant has to prove their statement is true. It is not for the plaintiff to prove it is false.

So it has been a message first quarter for the Government, and not one they will be keen to repeat. Their challenge is to ensure that in the next three months they remain focused on implementing their programme and policies and concentrating on issues that matter to New Zealanders. If however they fail to do that, then it will start to look like more than a bad patch.

The upside for the Government from their quartus horribilis is that at least it was the first quarter of their second term, not the last quarter before the 2014 election.They have 11 more quarters to go.

*David Farrar is a centre-right blogger and affiliated with the National Party. A disclosure statement on his political views can be found here.

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