John Armstrong on politics

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Politics permeate post quake actions

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Nacey Lee talks Phil Goff as he joined the Prime Minister with Christchurch Earthquake victims at Addington Race Course. Photo / Greg Bowker
Nacey Lee talks Phil Goff as he joined the Prime Minister with Christchurch Earthquake victims at Addington Race Course. Photo / Greg Bowker

Phil Goff is right. The chaos and destruction wreaked on Christchurch by Saturday's earthquake leaves no room for playing party politics.

Perhaps that ought to read as "should" leave no room for playing party politics. Goff is too optimistic. Soon enough, the politics will come creeping through the door and find plenty of room within which to play. So far, though, party politics has yet to shatter the impromptu and informal consensus between Labour and National not to exploit the city's misery for political benefit.

That truce has so far remained intact because it is in neither party's interest to be seen to be breaking it when feelings in Christchurch are so raw and so on edge.

The politicians are already playing politics, however, though not too flagrantly. Saying you are not going to play politics - as Goff effectively did - is itself a political statement. As was John Key's decision to cancel his trip to Britain and France.

As was Labour's suggestion that yesterday was not the day for the verbal combat of ministers' question-time in Parliament to be on display. As was the PM's second visit to Christchurch since the quake. As was Goff's decision to ask to accompany Key in what was his second visit to the city in almost as many days.

Labour argues that Goff's presence is justified by Christchurch being a Labour city. Moreover, Goff has been careful not to be seen to be upstaging the Prime Minister. However, Labour's strategy for now is to be seen to be party to solutions to Christchurch's woes by offering to work constructively alongside National. But National does not need Labour's help. And it more than likely does not want it.

For its part, Labour cannot afford to allow National a free run at fixing the multitude of problems caused by the quake. That is why Goff chose his words carefully in yesterday's debate in Parliament. While he pledged Labour would support the "strongest assistance" to affected Christchurch residents, he qualified that by saying Labour will support any "necessary" initiatives. That leaves Labour free to pick and choose which initiatives it considers necessary or not. Similarly, Goff can validly argue it is not the Opposition's role to adopt a stance of unquestioning silence if there are mistakes, foul-ups or shortcomings in the Government's attempts to fix Christchurch.

Overshadowing all that is the growing realisation that dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake is a potential election "game-changer". Getting Christchurch back on its feet is looming as a test of the Government's competence second only to management of the economy. Get it right in a reasonable time and National will get substantial kudos for doing so just months before the next election.

Handling it badly will be a black mark for the Key Administration which could help Labour get back in the race for the Government benches.

National's task is made more difficult by Christchurch being one of Labour's few remaining strongholds. There will therefore be high expectations on the populace's part of Government intervention and assistance with which National Party ideology does not sit comfortably. The pressure to open the wallet also risks undermining National's determination to keep tight control on spending.

All in all, the political stakes have suddenly become very high as the enormity of the earthquake's impact becomes more and more apparent.

- NZ Herald

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