MP quite right to say Key's remarks petty and nasty.
For the Prime Minister, taking pot shots at Hone Harawira must appeal as an easy and risk-free exercise. That comes from the many instances over the years on which the Mana Party leader could justifiably be criticised. Hence John Key did not beat around the bush in claiming Mr Harawira was "taking the mickey" because he was away from Parliament so often. This, however, was not one of those instances where criticism was warranted. Indeed, Mr Harawira was quite entitled to describe the Prime Minister's comment as "petty, nasty and unbecoming".
The Te Tai Tokerau MP's record came under the spotlight last week thanks to the introduction of a register of attendance at Parliament. MPs now face penalties of at least $295 a day after three days for unjustified absences from the House, a big hike from the previous punishment of just $10 a day for absences longer than nine days. Mr Harawira was absent from Parliament for 68 days last year, a record that prompted Mr Key to suggest he did not show enough respect for the place.
But a politician's work ethic and effectiveness should never be measured by their attendance at Parliament. As Mr Harawira pointed out, every one of his absent days had been authorised by the Speaker's Office. Approval had been given only after he had outlined where he was going. "I could be in many places ... in Wanganui talking about housing, in Gisborne talking about the gang issue there ... it could be anything." Indeed, he was, he said, "one of the hard-working members of this House".
It would be understandable if that were so. Mr Harawira has two burdens that separate him from most other MPs. His electorate, encompassing all of Northland, is comparatively huge and notable for its many social and economic woes. Serving his constituents effectively entails a substantial amount of time and effort traversing the region. That service cannot be provided sitting in Parliament listening to debates on issues of little or no interest to those constituents. That, however, is the unfortunate fate of many backbench MPs who, at the behest of their party whip, sit for long and unproductive hours in the House.
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Further, Mr Harawira is the leader of a political party and must embrace the extra workload that comes with this. That means his travels take him far and wide around the country. Nonetheless, he was at pains last week to say that, even though he has no speaking rights, he attended Parliament for every bill that he considered important for Mana. The party's views were also reflected in votes cast on its behalf by the Greens.
Also, in Mr Harawira's defence, it is hardly unique for a party leader to take more time away from the House than a backbench MP. Every Thursday, Mr Key goes off on a politicking jaunt to some part of the country. His predecessor, Helen Clark, did the same. In sum, that exercise entails about 30 days a year away from the House.
This is not the first time that the Prime Minister has made an ill-judged attack on Mr Harawira. His criticism of the Mana leader's decision to go to South Africa to farewell Nelson Mandela was similarly petty. This was strongly reinforced by an Opinion article that Mr Harawira wrote for the Herald at the time.
It listed the many good reasons for his presence at the funeral and, referring directly to Mr Key, concluded, "if you want to condemn me for that then you go right ahead". There were thin grounds for censure then, and no more now over Mr Harawira's attendance at Parliament.
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