Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: End of rainbow man golden chance for Labour

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Maurice Williamson never made it to the Ellen Show. Photo / Getty Images
Maurice Williamson never made it to the Ellen Show. Photo / Getty Images

Maurice Williamson never did get to take up that offer to appear on The Ellen Show. Back in those heady days of gay rainbows, the Pakuranga space cowboy was a fleeting global celebrity, his stellar, improvised speech on marriage equality YouTubing giddily around the globe. Today, a dark cloud hangs over the MP of 27 years, and he's more likely to get an invitation to weep out his mistakes on The Jerry Springer Show.

Williamson had already faced criticism around revelations he had successfully lobbied to overturn the rejection of a citizenship application by Chinese businessman and National Party donor Donghua Liu. When it emerged yesterday morning, again following a Herald investigation, that the MP had personally called police in relation to Liu's arrest on domestic violence charges, the minister was a gonner. In 2008, John Key had described the Pakuranga MP as "excitable" after a series of indiscreet comments. This time, it's much worse than that: the most generous explanation is sheer stupidity.

For Labour , the Williamson resignation caps comfortably their sunniest week since David Cunliffe assumed the leadership. God knows they needed one. While it may well be a long-term blessing, the Shane Jones resignation was last week a steel-cap in the solar plexus.

Labour must sometimes feel the cards are stacked against them: case in point being the coverage given this week to the discovery, revealed on Cameron Slater's Whaleoil blog, that Cunliffe had in a speech made a minor category error relating to the kind of medal his grandfather had won. (Next week: how the Labour leader split an infinitive in a 2001 essay!) But it's all part of the political gravity, and propelled by a well-oiled party machine. As Labour have tripped on their shoelaces, the momentum has for a long time belonged to National.

But what goes up must come down. The first Labour fillip came with the flustered announcement by Peter Dunne that legal highs exempt from the testing process would be forced to go through it after all. No matter how the bow-tied crusader attempted to spin it - claiming that he had planned to introduce surprise legislation to avoid stockpiling, but opposition grandstanding had forced his hand - the clear impression was of the Government scrambling in response to pressure from Labour and NZ First.

Next came Tuesday's monetary policy. It's fair to say Labour have hardly excelled in the craft of policy announcements of late, but David Parker's idea, to design a new economic lever to address inflation and exchange rates, in the form of a compulsory KiwiSaver with tweakable contribution levels, received a cautious thumbs up from a number of commentators, and especially exporters, who are rarely seen in the wild supporting Labour economic initiatives. And to cap it all, the Williamson exit. His humiliation is appallingly timed for National, plainly. The challenge for the opposition is to persuade people that it amounts to more than some isolated misstep.

Within moments of Williamson's resignation, opposition MPs, led by another old salt, Winston Peters, were leaping to draw parallels with the melee around Judith Collins and Oravida. When Parliament rose for Easter recess a fortnight ago, the Justice Minister appeared to have survived a second wave of attacks over her "private dinner" in Shanghai with the chairman of the milk exporter, for which her husband is a director, and a Chinese customs official.

For all the efforts by Grant Robertson and Peters, however, the Oravida controversy has remained predominantly a beltway preoccupation, never quite crossing into watercooler-conversation territory. Williamson's ignominy may now change that. Certainly it breathes fresh oxygen into the affair. Paradoxically, that may make Collins' immediate future safer - for Key to sack a second senior, long-serving and well-known minister within five months of the election would signal serious dysfunction in government - but that will only embolden her opponents to entwine the scandals. Whether they can do so in a concerted, unhistrionic and disciplined fashion is another matter.

There are numerous points of comparison between the Williamson and Collins cases that can and have already been rehearsed, but the overarching impression plays directly into the opposition's primary line of attack: cronyism, special treatment for special friends. If there is a weak link in National's stonking popularity, it is the perception that this second-term government is increasingly detached from New Zealanders at large. Reid Research's polling for 3 News measures the number of voters who believe the PM is "out of touch with ordinary New Zealanders". That figure has grown by 20 per cent over four years, to more than 50 per cent. If there is an Achilles heel, it is in that trend.

The broader charge sheet runs from Collins to the SkyCity casino deal to coat-tail electorate deals to Hobbit laws to made-up jobs for opposition frontbenchers. Labour has failed so far to convincingly join these dots, just as it had failed to paint itself as a plausible alternative. In brute political terms, the Williamson defenestration is the crucial opportunity to break with recent tradition by winning and retaining the momentum. If this week has been their brightest for a long time, next week, as politicians return to the debating chamber, is their most important.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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