Editorial: Labour caught on the hop

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Housing New Zealand's expenditure of $65,000 on a two-day staff conference this month at the luxury Tongariro Lodge drew immediate comparisons with a Winz retreat at an exclusive Taupo resort in 1999. The National Party, which endured criticism of that event at the time, was only too ready to remind the Labour Government that it had promised to put an end to conferences at expensive venues. Yet here was another state agency charged with aiding the poor doing something similar, and apparently unaware how bad this looked.

The comparisons did not end there. The Housing NZ embarrassment occurred at a similar time in the Government's lifecycle as the Winz debacle happened in that of the Bolger-Shipley National Government.

This is not coincidental. It seems this is the time in such cycles when mini-scandals fall out of the woodwork and contrive to poison the atmosphere for the Government. It may have something to do with complacency, or perhaps inattention to detail. Whatever the reason, the parallels between the present Government and the Shipley Administration are striking.

For Mrs Shipley, there was the damage caused by her dithering over what was discussed during her infamous 1999 dinner with Saatchi & Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts. For the Government, there was, early this year, the embarrassment of Labour Party donor Owen Glenn talking about a Cabinet post or becoming New Zealand's honorary consul in Monaco only weeks after he had been awarded a New Year's honour.

The similarities do not end there. As the Shipley Government's fortunes waned, Labour added to its discomfort by scorning hefty payouts to departing members of the Tourism Board. Such largesse was to be eradicated when it came to power. Labour, said Helen Clark, would "abandon the culture of golden handshakes, negotiated in secrecy and paying people for doing nothing". Yet Ralph Craven left Transpower with a $350,000 payout, despite questions about the handling of Cook Strait cable problems.

Governments are acutely aware of the perception raised by such mini-scandals. So much so that ministerial brains can scramble, and flailing replaces finesse. Even so, the fallout from the Housing NZ embarrassment has been remarkable. There has been a stark breakdown in the Clark Government's legendary "political management". Housing Minister Maryan Street chose initially to back Tongariro Lodge as a venue, saying it "stacked up" economically, even though she had been advised by the Prime Minister not to defend such use of a tourist resort. Unusually, State Services Minister David Parker was one of the first to take her to task. He said Housing NZ's choice of conference location was "just not right" and that chief executive Lesley McTurk, who also defended the venue, should have her bonus docked.

The Prime Minister sought to repair the damage by blaming Ms Street's inexperience. She likened her to National backbencher Kate Wilkinson, who slipped up by suggesting her party would scrap compulsory employer contributions to KiwiSaver. But Ms Street has been active politically since the 1990s, when she was Labour Party president. Seemingly, the only explanation for her behaviour was a mindset that refused to acknowledge any criticism, no matter how justified, thrown at the Government.

By yesterday, a belated unison had been achieved. Ms Street and Dr McTurk had changed tack, chastened by disclosure of another Housing NZ conference, in 2003, at a plush hotel south of Auckland. But, as so often, an ill-considered response had sewn the seed for more trouble. And for voters, there was added ammunition for an impression that can count for much.

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