John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Nats caught with guard down

Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Shame on National. That party's behaviour in Parliament over the past couple of weeks has on occasion veered close to being a disgrace both to itself and the institution.

Not that many people would have noticed, however. National's antics inside the House have been totally shrouded by those of Chris Carter outside.

National seems to have taken the media's concentration on Labour's trials and tribulations as licence to let down its guard.

That arrogance has proved costly. National has ended up being done like a dog's dinner over one of its most fundamental planks - the closing of the gap between what New Zealanders earn in comparison to Australians.

Whether the goal for doing that by 2025 was ever realistic or merely aspirational does not really matter.

Its importance lies - or rather lay - in it being a target with which people could identify and which National had consequently used as the rationale to bed down its mix of economic policies.

The concept suffered some minor damage when Don Brash's 2025 Taskforce came up with an austere set of right-wing policy recommendations late last year which were dismissed by the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance before they had barely seen the light of day.

Brash could now well be excused for having a quiet chuckle about that. For what goes around has come around. A strange kind of political karma has seen the shabby treatment handed out to him rebounding on its perpetrators.

The 2025 target is now shot as a political tool as a result of Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee's mistake in claiming the income gap has narrowed since National took office in 2008.

His subsequent failure to provide convincing evidence that is the case left the concept's credibility in tatters. John Key, who has not covered himself in glory either, finally had to admit that it was a "statement of fact" that the wage gap had grown.

Again, not a lot of people would have noticed that. Arguments about statistics do not make it to the top of the news bulletins. But such has been the comprehensive mauling of the concept by Labour over the past week or so that National will now be loath to resurrect it. It is now a loser for National and looks like remaining so through to next year's election.

What has been disturbing in this debacle, however, has been the way National has responded to parliamentary questions about the income gap. The low point came on Wednesday when Steven Joyce briefly deputised for Brownlee. Tributes to the fallen New Zealand soldier in Afghanistan had delayed normal proceedings and Brownlee had to leave to catch a plane before the House had got to his question.

A week earlier, Brownlee had told the House in response to a question from Labour that "yes", the Government did have milestones by which it would measure the progress it was making towards closing the income gap, although he would not reveal them.

So eyebrows shot through the chamber's ceiling when Joyce made the startling admission that there were, in fact, no such milestones. Even more startling was what Joyce said next. Brownlee had given Labour what was technically known as a "brush-off". A perusal of Parliament's standing orders fails to list a "brush-off" - technical or otherwise - as an acceptable means of answering a parliamentary question.

All this might seem relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things. However, question-time is the one part of the day when the Opposition can call a minister to account. If ministers are going to provide answers which are just plain wrong and get away with it, then everybody might as well pack up and go home.

To his credit, Brownlee confessed the next day that he had advised Joyce to use the "brush-off" line. Labour is sceptical that was the case and believes Brownlee is covering for his Cabinet colleague.

Labour had already complained to the Speaker about Brownlee's replies to questions, but got little change out of Lockwood Smith. The latter has been refreshingly vigorous in demanding ministers actually answer questions rather than fudge or obfuscate. In this case, however, the Speaker was hamstrung. Brownlee had answered the original question in emphatic fashion. Smith ruled it was for the public to make its own judgment on that answer - not him. Labour gave fleeting thought to mounting a breach of privilege case but decided that would be going over the top in the circumstances.

Moreover, Labour did not wish to push its objections to Brownlee's behaviour too hard when it was deriving so much benefit from it.

As it was, Labour already had much to smile about.

Brownlee's gaffe about the income gap having narrowed since National came to power prompted a desperate search by National for anything that served as evidence, however questionable, of that being the case. Much of the evidence is to the contrary - including some of the material National has dug up. The upshot is that Labour - almost by accident - has given National an old-fashioned hiding on that most fundamental of all questions: which party can be can best trusted with the reins of economic management. The one compensating factor for National is that all this has happened largely out of public view.

However, it has given considerable momentum to the three-pronged strategy that Labour is developing in order to try to win the economic policy argument at next year's election.

The first prong is to endlessly repeat that National has "no plan" - that National has no solutions which will lift economic growth.

That notion has gained currency following National's recent clutch of policy reversals. The damage done to National's 2025 goal is of considerable help in reinforcing that narrative.

The second prong involves convincing people that the measures National is implementing - be it a rise in GST or changing employment law to put new employees on 90-day probation periods - will make little appreciable difference to economic growth.

They will - Labour argues - make an appreciable difference for the well-off and employers. The sub-text is that economic policy has become the vehicle by which National gets to reward its mates.

The third prong is the development of Labour's economic agenda. It will be characterised by policies that National cannot match or will not want to match for ideological reasons.

The most obvious one is monetary policy. Labour would broaden the objectives of the Reserve Bank to help exporters, while retaining a "full commitment" to keeping inflation under control.

Labour is also working on as-yet-unspecified initiatives to lift New Zealand's savings rate.

What all this has done is make Bill English's job even more difficult than it already was. The Finance Minister is the one person who should be exempted from the criticism that his colleagues richly deserve.

He is too cautious to fall into the kind of trap which snared Brownlee. Labour has also deliberately tried to keep him on the sidelines of the income gap squabble. He will have to pick up the pieces, however. Heaven knows what he thinks of it all.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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