John Armstrong: Policy u-turns and political flip-flops

By John Armstrong

When it comes to photo-opportunities, John Key might well add rubber sandals to W.C. Fields' famous Hollywood adage about things you should never work alongside.

Labour MPs hooted and applauded in Parliament yesterday after Michael Cullen held up a newspaper photograph of National's leader standing next to a giant pair of flip-flops.

No matter that the picture was too small for anyone outside Dr Cullen's immediate vicinity to make out.

As Finance Minister, Dr Cullen has devoted much time and effort in recent weeks trying to convince voters that National, having retreated on a number of major policy fronts, intends to also go back on the big one - its 2005 election promise of large tax cuts.

But all he previously had as evidence were some lukewarm statements by Mr Key's deputy and finance spokesman, Bill English.

Now Dr Cullen had photographic proof that Mr Key was indeed National's spokesman on flip-flops.

However, unlike the damaging pictures of Don Brash walking the plank or squeezing into a midget racing car, Mr Key had little option but to pose with the oversized footwear.

It is the Helensville MP's fortune that the Kumeu Coast and Country Promotions Group is running a "Jafa and Jandal Festival". As the local MP, he was obliged to endorse the charity event though that, possibly, did not require him to go quite as far as agreeing to leave the blue-and-white replicas sitting on his electorate office's roof for the next month.

The flip-flop fuss offered some much-needed light relief to Labour amid the continuing gloom of the never-ending saga of the Corrections Department. The latest instalment has seen the Prime Minister order a review of the structure of the justice bureaucracy and does not rule out Corrections being folded into the Ministry of Justice.

That set National talking about flip-flops too. When Mr Key suggested the structural review looked a lot like a u-turn, Dr Cullen, as Acting Prime Minister in Helen Clark's absence in Washington, replied that it had been National that had split up the old Department of Justice in the 1990s and created Corrections. Labour had never supported that separation.

Unfortunately for Dr Cullen, Labour had. National's law and order spokesman Simon Power dug out a copy of Hansard from 1995 showing Labour MPs, including Trevor Mallard, telling Parliament that Labour would support the-then National Government's legislation establishing Corrections a standalone entity.

"I've made a few mistakes in my time," a smiling Mr Mallard conceded.

But National had more to come.

Only last month, Corrections Minister Damien O'Connor described National's intention to fold Corrections back into the Ministry of Justice as an "extraordinary proposal" which had "all the hallmarks of policy being created on the hoof".

So - Mr Key pondered - why was the Prime Minister now talking of doing just that?

Dr Cullen made a fair job of digging Labour out from under by emphasising that carrying out a review was the proper way of developing policy. "The question implies that governments can never change direction at all because to do so would be policy on the hoof."

Is one politician's flip-flop another's mere "change in direction"? By this stage, however, the clattering of policy and flip-flops on the hoof and on the roof made it impossible to tell.

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