Colin James: Stand by for more skeletons in cupboards to be rattled

The past is the present in politics. Rodney Hide and Judith Collins last week reasserted that as a principle. Heaven help half of Parliament.

Hide and Collins fronted accusations that David Benson-Pope's past behaviour as a teacher was inconsistent with his promoting an anti-bullying programme. One former pupil accuser then spoke anonymously on National Radio.

Benson-Pope denied inappropriate behaviour. Some former pupils fronted, with their names, in support. Some caucus colleagues might recall him as a strict senior whip.

It is not a nice business, politics. Skeletons are hauled out of cupboards and rattled. Nothing in a politician's past is sacred.

Hide himself was whacked by Winston Peters a couple of months back for his role in Jim Peron's immigration. Peters had a dinner repeat on him last year.

Nice game, eh? Yet scores of people are scrambling over each other to get on party lists to play it.

Most of this stuff advances the national interest not a whit. At most it scores points for the attacker's party and against the party of the attacked.

Which is the relevance of the finer points of what Helen Clark said five years ago about Peter Doone, the police chief who resigned under a thick, black cloud.

It was inappropriate for Clark to talk about Doone for the reason Murray McCully identified - she chaired the committee that decided Doone's fate.

Moreover, Doone headed an organisation that has a unique constitutional autonomy. Ministers by convention must not tell the police what to do. That is so politicians can't set the police on to individuals or groups they don't like or find politically inconvenient.

That she did talk suggests a failure to grasp, or at least respect, the constitutional dimension. But as such failures go it was at the minor end of the scale.

And in her favour is that her motivation is much more likely to have been to be helpful than, as some allege, manipulative. She has been much the most accessible and forthcoming Prime Minister in modern times and that has generally been to the country's benefit.

Not in her favour have been her economical explanations of what she said. She has pleaded a plausible memory gap five years on. The Opposition has tried to fashion that into duplicity, a difference between what she has told the media and Parliament and what she actually said, darkly hinting of tapes and transcripts that will expose this duplicity.

As of yesterday there was one statement, unsourced, from a transcript and that seemed to support Clark's explanations. But in any case this is hardly the stuff on which an election would turn.

However, add that to the 111 outcry and Iraqi refugees and Benson-Pope. Result: Clark has begun to look a bit less believable, in command and competent. That is important, because competence is one of the Government's two big electoral plusses.

The other is the economy, which is coming off the boil. That in itself will not count against the Government on election day because households will not by then have felt the cooling: real wages are rising and will continue to rise until well after the election and jobs will still be plentiful.

But if expectation of a slowdown - now clearly depicted in polls - turns to fear, that will be an issue.

Is there fear? Not proven. The polling may just be picking up realism about the future after a boom. Most people know good times cannot roll forever.

And none other than the Government's high priest of the economy, Michael Cullen, is telling them exactly that. His Budget on Thursday will feature warnings of a slowdown and a consequent lack of fiscal headroom for quick, large tax cuts.

Cullen's purpose in that is to suggest National is reckless, in contrast with his sobriety and competence. Even if voters' expectations turn to fear, he will aim to convince them that in uncertain times it is better to stick with the devil you know.

But that won't wash if, in addition to the end of the economy's grasshopper summer, people begin to doubt the Government's general competence.

Trust in the police has plunged (not least because of police leakers' own white-anting). Peters has had Paul Swain swivelling on migration policy. Add Doone and Benson-Pope. The likely result is that potential informants about other MPs' skeletons in cupboards are now more emboldened. Stand by.

The issue is not whether Clark told the truth about Doone. Political trust - as shifty John Howard's re-election in Australia last year showed - is not about whether voters believe a politician is truthful. It is about whether voters believe a party or government can get the job done.

So far, the answer to that question in the Clark-Cullen Government's case is a broad yes. If the answer is still yes on election day, that should deliver a third term.

However, there is now a "but" after that "yes" that wasn't there three months ago. That is what the Opposition parties' small cuts have done.

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