Great week for Labour as National's dirty washing aired

This has been by far the best week for Labour this year, due in equal parts to the Maurice Williamson scandal and Labour's own good management of an important policy.

It is a long time since Labour and good management have been used in the same sentence.

If it can have many more similarly good weeks and capitalise on the National's misfortune, it may be able to arrest its slide into irrelevance before September's election.

The new boundaries make at least four more electorate seats potentially winnable for Labour - Napier, Kelston, Christchurch Central, and Tamaki Makaurau - which, all things being equal, would mean four fewer list positions, possibly of sitting MPs.

They are not in panic mode yet, the MPs who could lose their jobs, but it may not take much to get them there.

However, Labour could target an array of issues from the Williamson scandal, the police role for one. The police come out of it with a little credit but some discredit.

At least they stuck to their guns and pursued the charges of domestic violence against Donghua Liu in the face of inherent pressure from Mr Williamson's phone call and the withdrawal of the complaints.

But two questions remain: why did the police review the case after Mr Williamson's phone call and why did someone in the police not blow the whistle on Williamson's call?

It is evident a culture of toadyism exists to the extent senior officers did not recognise political interference or were willing to ignore it.

While the behaviour of the police is as disturbing as Mr Williamson's, Labour is more likely to go for political targets:

Prime Minister John Key and Police Minister Anne Tolley, as well as reigniting the saga of Justice Minister Judith Collins and her dealings in China with Oravida, whose directors include her husband.

Fresh papers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Oravida under the Official Information Act and further disclosures of political donations to National yesterday will provide more oxygen.

Anne Tolley will not be a useful target:

she was informed only on Monday by the Police Commissioner about Mr Williamson's call.

Mr Key will be a difficult target in terms of his precise response to events once he knew about them, but he cannot escape entirely.

The buck stops at the top and the mud is starting to stick. His Government and party look as if they will bend over backwards to help their wealthy Chinese friends and donors.

Mr Williamson's continued protestations that somehow it is normal for MPs to call the police on behalf of constituents in this sort of situation are compounding that reputation. If it is true, it is a disturbing state of affairs that needs immediate attention.

His claims also ignore the fact he was acting as a Minister of the Crown, not an MP.

Higher standards of behaviour are expected from ministers. Ministers control Budgets and policy and people's lives.

It turns out Mr Williamson, at the same time as being Building and Construction Minister, was donkey deep in efforts to help this property developer well beyond supporting him for citizenship, which in itself may not have been advisable.

In the absence of ministers setting boundaries for themselves, Mr Key may need to review the Cabinet Manual with a view to setting clearer boundaries for ministers, especially those acting in a supposedly non-ministerial capacity.

Can a minister really ever claim not to be a minister, or to be a minister for some purposes but not others?

The Williamson affair has not only left a stench over the Government, it helped Labour in eclipsing the furore over Shane Jones' imminent departure.

It also promises to provide a major distraction to National's neatly planned build-up to the May 15 Budget.

David Parker's successful launch of Labour's new monetary policy helped in that regard, confronting National's narrative around the Budget.

Mr Key and Finance Minister Bill English have so far tried to make the Budget about maintaining controls over Government spending to limit interest rate rises, which would otherwise run rampant under the ill-discipline of Labour economic management.

Labour's policy this week was all about offsetting interest rate rises.

The proposal that the independent Reserve Bank could vary employee savings rates between 8% and 10% as an alternative to raising the official cash rate was imaginative but not so unorthodox as to call it wacky.

Mr Parker may have achieved a first in being able to turn monetary policy in to a sound bite- ''wouldn't you rather pay more into your savings account than pay extra interest to a foreign bank?'' - as well as producing a 24-page backgrounder on the policy.

It created debate and enhanced Mr Parker's credibility as a finance spokesman, although the the extent of change in Labour's KiwiSaver policy has been understated.

Its previous policy was to reduce the minimum employee contribution from 3% to 2% and increase the employer contribution from 3% to 7%. It is now more likely to be a phase-in to 6% for employees, with employers at 3%.

The success of the launch was not a fluke.

It is an idea Mr Parker has fleshed out over time with former finance minister Michael Cullen, who stays with Mr Parker on his regular visits to Wellington, and Mr Cullen's former associate minister, Trevor Mallard.

Mr Cullen raised the idea of using compulsory KiwiSaver as a monetary policy tool in December 2012, during discussion on Treasury's long-term fiscal report. It has had a long gestation and its messaging has been finely honed.

Labour leader David Cunliffe should feel pleased heading into the House next week but the pressure on him will be immense.

The Speaker will almost certainly grant a snap debate on Tuesday, on Mr Williamson's resignation, and give Labour further opportunity to keep the Government on the back foot.

If Mr Cunliffe and Labour cannot make the most of next week, the last week may turn out to have been the best he ever had as leader.

Audrey Young is the The New Zealand Herald political editor.


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