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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Labour owes Jones for changing game with voters

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In a week of political silliness MP perfectly judges public mood with savvy attack on supermarket tactics.

Shane Jones. Photo / APN
Shane Jones. Photo / APN

The applause from his colleagues ought to be long and loud when Shane Jones arrives for Labour's weekly caucus meeting on Tuesday. This week was Labour's by a country mile thanks to Jones' carefully conceived, astutely timed and precisely targeted blitzkrieg-style offensive on Countdown, the Australian-owned supermarket chain.

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In the space of just a few minutes in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon, Jones made an extremely serious allegation regarding Countdown's business practices. In doing so, he also entrenched Labour as the White Knight on the frontline of the Supermarket Wars.

It's all about repositioning Labour more firmly in voters' minds as the consumer's friend who will confront big business greed rather than being a corporate lap-dog like National.

It's about ensuring the economic debate at this year's election concentrates on prices, wages, income inequality and child poverty - not economic growth forecasts, Budget surpluses and debt repayment where National has a huge advantage.

Jones' virtuoso solo performance was but one episode in yet another extraordinary week in New Zealand politics. The week also witnessed behaviour varying from the simply bizarre (the Prime Minister confirming he is not a "reptilian alien"), to the constitutionally stupid (Greens co-leader Russel Norman giving the two-finger salute to the judiciary by revealing his party would likely veto any order made by the courts to extradite Kim Dotcom to the United States), to the plain silly (Winston Peters insisting he has been placed under surveillance by the Security Intelligence Service).

In fact, it could have been the perfect week for Labour had David Cunliffe not wasted an opportunity to nail the Greens to the wall, thereby making it very clear to the public who is going to be the boss in any Labour-Greens coalition Government.

Norman's musings aloud on the Greens' stance on Dotcom's fight against extradition was a major gaffe. The Greens seem to believe that the wide discretion the law gives to the Minister of Justice amounts to carte blanche for the minister to pick and and choose who goes and who stays.

That discretion in the law is obviously there to deal with any anomalies or unforeseen circumstances.

Norman's mistake was to talk about blocking Dotcom's extradition if given the chance, while in almost the same breath referring to Dotcom not going ahead with the launch of his Internet Party which would have dragged votes off the Greens and other left-leaning parties.

Norman might argue he was talking about two very different things. But it was inevitable Key would link them and declare the Greens, who have attacked National's electoral accommodations with minor parties, were about to strike a far more dodgy one of their own.

Norman can rightly argue at least he had been open about his meetings with Dotcom. At times, the Greens pay a price for such transparency.

Norman's embarrassment, however, is a timely wake-up call for a party which can guarantee that the forthcoming election being their best chance yet of making it into Government, every word uttered by their leaders and MPs will be scrutinised for any inconsistency and, where at all possible, deliberately misinterpreted. Peters doesn't have that problem as he's the only person in New Zealand First who is allowed to talk to the media.

He also remained silent about his Dotcom meetings - at least he did until Key stirred the pot and wound up Peters' paranoia levels by telling him how many he had held with the giant German.

Peters' subsequent press statement, asking how Key had become aware of that figure and suggesting he (Peters) was now being monitored by the intelligence agencies, looked like a fit of pique for Key getting one over him. At the end of the day, why would the SIS bother bugging him?

Unless, of course, Peters has plans to join the Syrian rebels to try to oust the Assad regime. Key confirmed on Monday that such recruitment was being monitored by the spooks. But it's unlikely Peters has had any road to Damascus conversion to the rebels' cause.

Much of all this was rightly overshadowed by Jones' ripsnorter of a speech, which lashed Countdown for allegedly mistreating the company's New Zealand-based suppliers by demanding they make special retrospective payments for past losses suffered by the company, with the threat of their products being kept off the shelves of Countdown's 200-plus supermarkets throughout the country.

It is the habit of Opposition parties to call for an inquiry when something goes wrong or things are seen to be seriously amiss. The habit of governing parties is to ignore those calls unless things are so serious or the public so incensed that one cannot be avoided.

A measure of Jones' success was that by Thursday lunchtime - less than 24 hours after he spoke in the House - Key could see which way public opinion was shifting in response. It was trademark Key behaviour - agree to hold an inquiry and thus get the matter off the front pages and pushed down the news bulletins as swiftly as possible.

The Commerce Commission got the message. By the end of the day it had announced it had received a complaint from Jones and outlined what steps it would take to ascertain whether Countdown had been in breach of anti-competitive provisions of the Commerce Act.

Countdown has "categorically" rejected Jones' allegations and promised to co-operate fully with the Commerce Commission investigation. Those assurances will do little to help Countdown to win the public relations battle.

There is already public indignation that Countdown is party to the "Buy Australian" campaign which has forced some New Zealand products off supermarket shelves across the Tasman.

Key had raised the latter matter the week before during his talks with his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott, but got nowhere because Abbott did not see any role for the federal government in monitoring such campaigns.

It was Jones who provided the retaliation which has otherwise been limited to scattered informal customer boycotts of Countdown stores.

Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but no New Zealand politician has ever lost votes in criticising the diggers over the Ditch.

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- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

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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