Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Labour runs for the hills over Burgess

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Confucius says when something is coming back to bite you, run for the hills.

So when National Party ministers turned up to bait Labour leader Phil Goff over Bruce Burgess, it was to find Mr Goff had indeed run for a conveniently prearranged engagement in Timaru.

That didn't stop National's fun. The story Labour told was that Mr Burgess had lost his engineering job and did not qualify for a benefit because of his wife's $21,000 income. That story was printed in the Herald - and then Mr Goff went on to tell the rest of the world via media interviews and his Twitter account.

The story Labour did not tell was that Mr Burgess also had two investment properties - which he had told them but which they deemed irrelevant.

Unfortunately for Labour, National did not deem it irrelevant.

So it was that Mr Burgess began the week as the champion of the Labour Party for epitomising the need for their brand new, shiny policy to abolish the spousal income test on people laid off in the recession.

He ended the week as the champion of the National Party because of the opportunity to rub Mr Goff's nose in the badly backfiring publicity.

Finance Minister Bill English took line honours in Parliament yesterday.

First up was a statement he found from MP Charles Chauvel's time as president of the Labour Youth Council in a previous year of recession - 1988. Mr Chauvel told then Employment Minister Phil Goff to "take action or resign".

"Charles Chauvel is probably feeling the same way today," Mr English said.

He goes on with further pearls from Labour's former years - this time deputy leader Annette King berating others for "using the backs of unemployed people to make political points. I despair at the gamesmanship of politicians trying to get votes from the problem of unemployment".

Clearly worried that Labour has not quite understood, he returns to the topic with a more overt dig - noting he had heard about one man suffering in the recession "who was used for political purposes by the Labour Party, which has now left him high and dry".

Labour does itself no favours in return. Trevor Mallard and David Cunliffe stand simultaneously to speak, only to eyeball each other for a lengthy period, neither apparently willing to make way for the other. National's front bench are merciless, hooting at such a display of two alpha males. The Speaker has to intervene, cautioning he will not tolerate such "barracking" and warning "a Government member will be taking an early shower".

But, alas, it was Labour which ended up with the cold shower. The Burgess incident blunted its attempts to tackle the Government on unemployment. When Labour confronts Mr English with "New Zealanders like Trudy" and "Christine of Gisborne, a solo mother of four" he has only to raise a sceptical eyebrow and ponder "whether Christine of Gisborne even exists and also whether she is on the domestic purposes benefit, whether she owns three investment houses and whether all the information she has given to the Labour Party about her situation has been truthfully represented here".

He wraps up with a list of dos and don'ts for any others unfortunate enough to be laid off. Do go to a Work and Income office to check if they can help. Don't "make an appointment with the Labour Party, because they will never quite know when they will be dragged into political debate and have their personal circumstances misrepresented for political purposes".

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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