Labour and New Zealand First may not have secured Judith
Collins' head on a platter, but that is a mere technicality
Tempting as it must have been for him to have done so,
John Key apparently did not read the Riot Act to his fellow
National MPs at their weekly caucus meeting last Tuesday.
That was probably wise. His colleagues did not need a
lecture. What they wanted was reassurance.
They would have wanted answers to three questions: why are
things suddenly turning to custard for National; what on
earth is going to happen next; and, what are they going to do
National is floundering. It may turn out be a temporary
aberration - Mr Key will call on every device in his
political repertoire to ensure it is.
But right now it feels as if the political gods are bored
with the widely held assumption National will cruise to
victory in September's general election. Someone or something
has torn up National's script which was supposed to guarantee
the party safe passage through to polling day.
That plan was designed to take advantage of a series of
events in the countdown to the poll.
These included the prime minister's trip to China in March;
April's media feeding frenzy courtesy of the future King
George VII and his mother; next week's likely unspectacular
but responsible Budget; and, an as-yet-to-be-confirmed prime
ministerial visit to the White House.
These election-year distractions would keep the media focused
anywhere but on Labour, thus starving it of the oxygen of
publicity. National, meanwhile, would project a
business-as-usual image of a safe governing party, such that
there would be little for voters to get excited about and
continuity would be the name of the game by the time election
But things have suddenly gone horribly awry for National. Two
experienced ministers have fallen from grace having exhibited
all the classic symptoms of Beehive arrogance and
The party now finds itself being smacked around by an
Opposition campaign highlighting some of National's highly
questionable fundraising techniques, most notably ''cash for
access'' to a minister and the party's shadowy ''Cabinet
The prime minister may well argue he is highly accessible
across society regardless of how often his time is put up for
sale at National's fundraising dinners.
He can warn the costs of fighting elections mean the only
viable alternative to such fundraisers is state funding of
None of that rationalising of ''cash for access'' makes
people any more comfortable with a practice which allows
those with money to buy influence in government circles.
The politicians can argue there is no quid pro quo for such
donations. The public, rightly or wrongly, believes
otherwise. People feel equally uncomfortable about National
taking money from Chinese nationals whose culture is much
more explicit about reciprocal obligations on those who
However, no political party can claim the moral high ground
in any argument about political donations.
Mr Key hammered that point in Parliament on Wednesday
afternoon, catching Labour off guard by revealing it had its
own version of ''cash for access'' which enabled party
members to meet an MP of their choice in return for a $1250
But this is small beer compared with the sums National has
been charging for access to Cabinet ministers. Moreover,
those ministers have the power to change things.
However, of most significance is that ''cash for access'' is
a complete about-turn on the standard practice of ensuring
politicians do not know the identity of the source of large
donations. If you are prime minister, then you know the
person sitting next to you at a fundraising dinner has paid
handsomely for the privilege.
National is getting its comeuppance, however. Mr Key might
have wiped the floor with his opponents on Wednesday but he
was away from Wellington on Thursday when the Opposition
comprehensively mauled National.
Mr Key's headache is that all this is feeding neatly into
David Cunliffe's ''cronyism'' narrative which seeks to paint
National as only helping its rich mates.
But it is an open question as to what degree Mr Cunliffe's
''cronyism'' line is gaining traction with voters. One of the
reasons Ms Collins has survived the axe is because there is
no groundswell of public opinion demanding she be cut adrift.
She is very damaged goods, however. Labour and New Zealand
First may not have secured her head on a platter, but that is
a mere technicality.
The two Opposition parties can feel well chuffed with their
detective work as they sought to entangle Ms Collins, her
husband, the milk exporting company Oravida and China's
border control in a web of alleged corruption.
They have so far failed to prove Ms Collins has benefited
financially from an obvious conflict of interest to which she
initially purported to be oblivious.
But that failure barely matters now. The hounding of Ms
Collins has produced another, arguably more useful dividend.
The pair have spiked one of National's best weapons. And not
only that. Rather than causing trouble for National's
enemies, the Justice Minister has instead become a source of
aggravation for her own political kin.
Mr Key is punting on a few (Twitterless) days of stress leave
seeing Ms Collins coming to her senses.
Mr Key and his senior colleagues must be dreading what might
happen if she does not. That, and the need to avoid doing
anything to puncture caucus unity and morale little more than
four months out from election day, is one reason why Mr Key
will not sack Ms Collins from the Cabinet unless solid
On that score, Winston Peters says there is ''more to come''.
But, as National's Gerry Brownlee told Parliament, Mr Peters
always says there is ''more to come''.
Mr Brownlee's colleagues will willingly bow to his experience
because for the past two weeks National has lost control of
the political agenda.
This Thursday will see the delivery of the Budget. Normally,
that document is an agenda-setting device. However, if this
year's specimen turns out to be as low-key as its advance
billing, then it will not be setting anyone's agenda. Such is
National's current misfortune.
- John Armstrong is the political correspondent for The
New Zealand Herald.