John Armstrong: National won't be smacked twice

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No matter what spin the anti-smacking brigade puts on last week's referendum, the result is still mind-boggling.

The referendum's opponents have naturally sought to downplay the 88 per cent "no" vote as not unexpected, arguing that people were confused by the referendum question which was anyway heavily loaded to increase the "no" vote, while only 56 per cent of eligible voters actually bothered to return their ballot paper.

However, the turnout was marginally higher than that recorded in the first MMP referendum in 1992.

In some electorates, it was as high as 66 per cent, which is the same level as that registered in the Maori electorates at the last general election and not all that far short of overall turnout, which in recent elections has hovered around the 80 per cent mark.

The assumption of voter ignorance is the typical sort of patronising claptrap used by the liberal elites to conveniently explain away something that disturbs their comfort zones.

Faced with predictions of mass confusion following the introduction of GST in the 1980s, a Labour MP at the time noted most people had no problems filling out a TAB betting slip which was equally complex.

Ditto with the smacking referendum. Voters understood exactly what they were doing. Politicians ignore the outcome at their peril.

Those in National's senior ranks are most definitely taking note. The highest "no" votes were registered in provincial and rural seats held by that party.

Once it was clear that the turnout was going to be much higher than predicted, the Prime Minister ensured he had a response prepared. This amounted to more monitoring of the existing law to ensure it is working as intended.

That was obviously not going to satisfy the referendum's organisers, who were seeking the repeal of the relevant section of the Crimes Act.

While Sue Bradford's amended initiative remains the law, National has taken on board the message from the referendum that voters are drawing a line in the sand against any more measures which might be termed liberal, socially progressive or nanny state-ish.

In marked contrast, National's reform agenda for the economy and social service delivery is meeting little resistance. For example, Bill English has now mentioned on several occasions three dreaded words that usually spell political death - "capital gains tax" - without his world caving in.

That is not to say the Finance Minister is about to bring in such a tax.

But the lack of opposition is emboldening the Government to move faster on the economic front than it might otherwise have done, another example being National's willingness to allow mining of minerals on parts of the Department of Conservation estate.

National's shift to the right in such policy areas is one reason there is less concern within the party about Act's current muscle-flexing over the anti-smacking law and Maori seats on the Auckland "Super City" Council.

Act is clearly seeking to fill a gap left on the right by John Key's relationship-building with Maoridom and his unwillingness to ditch the anti-smacking law.

If nothing else, the politics surrounding the latter is proof there is a God - and that he or she has a wicked sense of humour.

How else to explain the private member's bill promoted by Act's John Boscawen, which allows parents to give their child a "light" smack for corrective purposes, making it onto Parliament's order paper for debate.

The odds on the measure securing the sole spot available were a staggering 28-1 against. Beating those odds in the ballot of private member's bills - plus the timing just days after the referendum result - suggested divine intervention.

The Prime Minister is said to have been torn initially between voting down Boscawen's bill and allowing it to go as far as being scrutinised by a select committee.

The referendum result weighed heavily on Key's mind. However, it is understood that colleagues who had previously been supportive of legalising smacking argued for Boscawen's bill to be killed as swiftly as possible.

They and Key did not want the public distracted by what would have been a lengthy sideshow as MPs grappled with the complexities of defining what was acceptable and not acceptable in terms of a "light" smack.

National is relaxed about Act getting a pay-off in the polls from Hide appearing principled by saying he would resign his Local Government portfolio rather than steer legislation through Parliament with which he could not agree.

Act has struggled to register above 1.5 per cent support since the election, while backing for National is up to 10 percentage points higher than the party got at the ballot box last year.

While Act appears to have decided to be less supine in its four-way relationship with National, the Maori Party and United Future, it has to ensure it does not overreach itself and become the docked tail wagging a very large National dog.

National ultimately holds the whip hand. Act's survival as a parliamentary party rests on Hide holding his Epsom seat. National has no qualms about reminding him that it retains the right to select a quality candidate and make a proper fight of it in the electorate.

Hide's threat to resign his portfolios is akin to the Black Knight's sword fight with King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As Arthur hacks off the Black Knight's limbs one-by-one, the latter insists his wounds are nothing more than a scratch and suggests the pair call it a draw.

It is likewise difficult to see how Hide's loss of his ministerial portfolios would help Act to maintain a profile through to the 2011 election. Act has nowhere to go but to maintain support for a National-led Administration - unlike the Maori Party.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from the Byzantine nature of MMP politics, it is not to view an argument over something like the non-establishment of Maori seats in isolation. The Maori Party has been the loser in that instance, it should be the winner elsewhere, thereby reinforcing its current inclination to stick with National.

The review of the foreshore and seabed law will see it emerge the winner when it comes to concessions.

It is another opportunity for Act to make National look like it is soft on Maori because National will have to agree to some kind of recognition of customary rights. That is deemed by the Maori Party to be non-negotiable. In the meantime, National's talks with Labour over a revised emissions trading scheme have broken down, forcing National to negotiate with the Maori Party to get legislation setting up a new scheme through Parliament.

The Maori Party will get no truck from National in its promotion of a carbon tax, but should be able to ring something out of the governing party given the Kyoto liabilities faced by Maori-owned forests.

National insiders, however, say the Maori Party still tends to treat issues in isolation rather than striking deals by agreeing to trade-offs over a range of issues. The party will in time.

For now, Act is far more demanding of National. That was one reason National announced it would be voting down Boscawen's bill on smacking. Appearing weak in the face of Hide's threat to resign was bad enough. Allowing Act to claim a second victory at National's expense in the space of a week was simply beyond the pale.

- NZ Herald

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