John Armstrong: MPs with self-preservation skills of crash-test dummies

By John Armstrong

It must be presumed - though you cannot be absolutely sure - that Bob Clarkson was joking when he suggested he might wear a crash helmet in Parliament yesterday.

Had he done so, the National MP would have looked even sillier than he already does for having laid a privilege complaint against Labour's Trevor Mallard.

Just as silly is Mr Mallard, who allegedly biffed Mr Clarkson around the ears with one or more manila folders in Parliament last week and who did not apologise to the Tauranga MP when the opportunity presented itself when the House sat yesterday.

The ludicrous stand-off could have been easily defused had Mr Mallard done the decent thing and Mr Clarkson reciprocated by withdrawing his complaint.

Fat chance. The two men may both be MPs, but Mr Mallard is a senior Cabinet minister harbouring ambitions to be Minister of Finance while Mr Clarkson is a lowly, disposable Opposition backbencher, albeit an outspoken one.

Given Mr Mallard's bovver-boy image, it is debatable whether his reputation could suffer any more harm from his being dragged in front of the privileges committee.

However, National obviously believes it is in its interests to press the assault allegation regardless of the distinct possibility that any hearing may quickly descend into farce and rebound on all participants.

The incident has echoes of the 1996 privileges hearing which followed National's John Banks claiming he had been grabbed and physically shaken by Winston Peters in the parliamentary lobby one night. At the time, National and New Zealand First were supposed to be coalition allies. The only beneficiary of the subsequent privileges case was Labour.

The Speaker is still considering Mr Clarkson's complaint. But Margaret Wilson told him in a terse letter not to even think about wearing a crash helmet in the House.

More's the pity, perhaps. Why stop at crash helmets? Given the capacity of the two major parties to get down and dirty in recent weeks, why not go the whole hog and allow shoulder pads, chest pads, knee protectors, face guards and mouth-guards.

However, as one of Mr Clarkson's colleagues could attest yesterday, no amount of safety gear offers protection against Labour's most vicious weapon - Michael Cullen's tongue.

National finance spokesman John Key continued to taunt Dr Cullen over claims from New Zealand First and United Future that they have forced the reluctant Finance Minister to cut personal taxes before the next election.

But poking fun at Dr Cullen is like poking a stick at a hissing cobra. Sooner or later he bites back.

The tipping point came when Mr Key asked if Dr Cullen would be telling next weekend's Labour Party conference whether, after seven years of bumper surpluses, he had finally realised tax cuts might make sense.

"Can he also understand why the workers in his audience ... will be looking across the Tasman with the feeling of a seven-year itch when they see the Australian Labor Party arguing for tax cuts?"

Dr Cullen did not even pause for breath before mercilessly turning the question back on Mr Key, a former merchant banker who grew up in a state house.

"When it comes to seven-year itches, Labour Party members know a working-class scab when they see one."

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