John Armstrong on politics

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Labour believes it's found the Government's 'tipping point'

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David Cunliffe, new leader of the Labour Party. Photo / Marty Melville
David Cunliffe, new leader of the Labour Party. Photo / Marty Melville

To be sacked twice as a Cabinet minister in one parliamentary term would set some kind of unfortunate record. It is a fate to which Nick Smith has yet to succumb. Not for want of trying on his part, some of his National colleagues might be tempted to mutter under their breath as they witness his seeming death-wish flirtation with trouble.

And not for want of trying either on the part of Labour and the Greens. Parliament's question-time has seen those two parties try every conceivable variation in questioning to try to tease out contradictions in Smith's denial that he heavied his Department of Conservation officials to water down their submission on the Ruataniwha irrigation project in Hawkes Bay.

Despite tabling various documents in Parliament that might imply Smith's interest in his department's position was followed by a drastic change in that submission, so far the two Opposition parties have failed to come up with irrefutable evidence to convict Smith of the the crime of misleading Parliament which would force his resignation from the Cabinet for the second time in 18 months.

Smith has responded to those attacks by repeatedly pointing to a statement by the senior DoC official at the very heart of the affair declaring the minister did not interfere. That another official subsequently resigned after changes were made to the submission is neither here nor there when it comes to establishing Smith's guilt or otherwise.

Yesterday, Labour and the Greens took stock during Parliament's general debate. Flushed with his party's surge in support in the latest Herald-DigiPoll survey, new Labour leader David Cunliffe suggested the current Government had reached a "tipping-point" as a result of behaviour like Smith's.

The minister's department had been fulfilling its duties but Smith had stomped all over that process.

Greens co-leader Russel Norman also took Smith's interference as a given. Smith had censored his department to ensure it did not weaken National's agenda to extract "every last drop of milk from the last blade of grass" despite the impact on the environment.

Acting Prime Minister Bill English responded by trying to put matters into some kind of perspective. "It must be a good Government when the issue of the week is whether a minister saw a draft report before he knew it existed ... it does show how out of touch the pale, male and stale Labour Party is."

The measure of that will be whether the Herald poll is a one-off.

- NZ Herald

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