John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: No special protocol for Harawira's demise

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Hone Harawira. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Hone Harawira. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Ignore the flowery twaddle being talked up in Maoridom about how the prosecution of Hone Harawira ought to have proceeded according to the principles of kaupapa Maori from the very start.

When push comes to shove - and Harawira must surely get the final shove from the Maori Party next week - the punishment being meted out to the renegade MP demonstrates that day-to-day political tactics are essentially race-blind; that there is no Maori world view to fall back on here that would see things done any differently. Realpolitik rules, okay.

Perhaps more so in this instance. Pita Sharples' warning that the collapse of the Maori Party could result in a future without any kind of Maori party was a very sobering thought which Maori leaders have taken on board.

No wonder Tariana Turia - effectively Harawira's judge and jury - showed no mercy in exorcising him from the party's caucus. She wants him out of the party. And what Turia wants, Turia gets.

If the party's disciplinary committee fails to make the required recommendation to the party's national council then Turia's authority - along with Sharples' - will be in tatters.

That is unthinkable. There can only be one outcome.

Harawira's exit has been deja vu for National and Labour. When it comes to dealing with rebels, they have been there, done that - and many times over.

The immediate thing bothering John Key and Phil Goff was how much the media focus on Harawira would shift attention away from the Prime Minister's annual statement to Parliament delivered on the first sitting day of the year.

Harawira's fate is of only passing interest for the two major parties this side of the election. Afterwards it will be a different story if he holds his seat however.

Such distractions will punctuate election year. But the run-up to this election will be dominated by economic growth or, more particularly, the lack of it.

The economy will be the crucial determinant in whether National can get the 45 per cent of the vote that it will almost certainly need to get as a minimum to stay in government.

A big ask. Moreover, it will take only a slippage of a few percentage points for National to miss out and for victory to be Labour's and the Greens'.

A continuing or further slump in economic activity which triggered even a small exodus of voters could be devastating for National.

One question Harawira's demise does pose for Key is the degree to which the former's forthright attacks on National have resonated with the Maori Party's wider membership.

Only Labour stands to benefit from the ructions either in picking up more Maori votes or the Maori Party switching allegiance post-election.

That is why Labour is pitching to low-income earners, citing the pressure on families from the rising cost of living, while trying to compound voter unhappiness by arguing National's last round of tax cuts benefited the already well off.

National this week sought to combat that line of attack with figures showing that the average after-tax wage has risen by 16 per cent since 2008, whereas consumer prices have risen by only 6 per cent.

The figures take in three rounds of tax cuts, including Labour's last-minute ones which took effect from October 2008.

National has not tried to hide Labour's contribution to its argument. But neither has it publicised it. It simply argues that compilation of the measure would be too difficult if Labour's cuts were not included.

Labour counters by arguing that no other country uses after-tax figures and that the better measure is income growth before tax. Labour says National has failed miserably with average incomes rising by only 0.4 per cent.

Moreover, the international recession is no excuse given Australian incomes have risen further.

Labour could strike a chord here. People do measure the progress they are making by increases in their gross wage or salary.

Goff also intends to attack Key over his rhetoric not matching reality.

At the start of each year, the Prime Minister has praised New Zealanders for coming through tough times, while holding out the prospect of better times ahead.

That has not happened. Labour argues this is because National lacks an economic plan. Labour asserts that selling a minority stake in some state-owned enterprises while dismantling the public service does not add up to one.

Key and Finance Minister Bill English remain relaxed, however, about Labour's attempt to fight the election on an issue which they feel they have a clear advantage in terms of credibility and majority voter backing for the overall policy direction.

The Government was rocked, however, by Statistics New Zealand figures showing the economy contracting by 0.2 per cent in the September quarter of last year.

Since then, anecdotal evidence picked up by Government ministers suggests economic confidence is growing again, albeit slowly.

No one is in the business of making predictions. Good news keeps being swallowed up by bad. High export commodity prices are being offset by fears of a slowdown in the Australian economy.

The uncertain outlook is making even an optimist like Key hedge his language, while English conceded this week that New Zealand could experience a double-dip recession.

While the fiscal stimulus provided by tax cuts and increased Government spending saw the economy weather the international downturn, domestic consumption has nose-dived.

Likewise, the Government is now preaching austerity. This year's Budget will be National's tightest - unusual in an election year.

National, however, firmly believes that the Government's penchant for restraint is very much in line with the public's mood for such. English's job is to keep that symmetry intact.

For at some point, the public's low expectations will change to rising ones. And throughout history, the track record shows that revolutions occur and administrations fall when governments cannot meet rising expectations, rather than static ones.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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