National given a good old-fashioned hiding

Shame on National. That party's behaviour in Parliament over the past couple of weeks has on occasion veered close to being a disgrace, both to itself and the institution.

Not that many people would have noticed, however.

National's antics inside the House have been totally shrouded by those of Chris Carter outside.

National seems to have taken the media's concentration on Labour's trials and tribulations as licence to let down its guard.

That arrogance has proved costly.

National has ended up being done like a dog's dinner over one of its most fundamental planks - the closing of the gap between what New Zealanders earn in comparison to Australians.

Whether the goal for doing that by 2025 was ever realistic or merely aspirational does not really matter.

Its importance lies - or rather lay - in it being a target with which people could identify and which National had consequently used as the rationale to bed down its mix of economic policies.

The concept suffered some minor damage when Don Brash's 2025 Taskforce came up with an austere set of right-wing policy recommendations late last year which were dismissed by the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance before they had barely seen the light of day.

Brash could now well be excused for having a quiet chuckle about that.

The 2025 target is now shot as a political tool as a result of Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee's mistake in claiming the income gap has narrowed since National took office in 2008.

His subsequent failure to provide convincing evidence that is the case left the concept's credibility in tatters.

John Key, who has not covered himself in glory either, finally had to admit that it was a "statement of fact" that the wage gap had grown.

Again, not a lot of people would have noticed that.

Arguments about statistics do not make it to the top of the news bulletins.

What has been disturbing in this debacle, however, has been the way National has responded to parliamentary questions about the income gap.

The low point came on Wednesday when Steven Joyce briefly deputised for Mr Brownlee.

Tributes to the fallen New Zealand soldier in Afghanistan had delayed normal proceedings and Mr Brownlee had to leave to catch a plane before the House had got to his question.


 A week earlier, Mr Brownlee had told the House in response to a question from Labour that "yes", the Government did have milestones by which it would measure the progress it was making towards closing the income gap, although he would not reveal them.

So eyebrows shot through the chamber's ceiling when Mr Joyce made the startling admission that there were, in fact, no such milestones.

Even more startling was what Mr Joyce said next.

Mr Brownlee had given Labour what was technically known as a "brush-off".

A perusal of Parliament's standing orders fails to list a "brush-off" - technical or otherwise - as an acceptable means of answering a parliamentary question.

All this might seem trivial in the grand scheme of things.

However, question-time is the one part of the day when the Opposition can call a minister to account.

If ministers are going to provide answers which are just plain wrong and get away with it, then everybody might as well go home.

To his credit, Mr Brownlee confessed the next day that he had advised Mr Joyce to use the "brush-off" line.

Labour had already complained to the Speaker about Mr Brownlee's replies to questions, but got little change out of Lockwood Smith.

The latter has been refreshingly vigorous in demanding ministers actually answer questions rather than fudge or obfuscate.

In this case, however, the Speaker was hamstrung.

Mr Brownlee had answered the original question in emphatic fashion.

Dr Smith ruled it was for the public to make its own judgement on that answer - not him.

Labour gave fleeting thought to mounting a breach of privilege case but decided that would be going over the top in the circumstances.

The upshot is that Labour - almost by accident - has given National an old-fashioned hiding on that most fundamental of all questions: which party can be can best trusted with the reins of economic management.

The one compensating factor for National is that all this has happened largely out of public view.


However, it has given considerable momentum to the three-pronged strategy that Labour is developing in order to try to win the economic policy argument at next year's election.

The first prong is to endlessly repeat that National has "no plan".

The second involves convincing people that the measures National is implementing will make little difference to economic growth.

The third is the development of Labour's economic agenda.

It will be characterised by policies that National cannot match or will not want to match for ideological reasons.

What all this has done is make Bill English's job even more difficult than it already was.

The Finance Minister is the one person who should be exempted from the criticism that his colleagues richly deserve.

He will have to pick up the pieces, however. Heaven knows what he thinks of it all.


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