Southern say: Electoral rhetoric has truly begun

Listeners who tuned in to Morning Report on Wednesday for the show’s weekly interview with National Party leader Christopher Luxon would have heard Corin Dann musing, to little demurral from his interview subject, that there were few policy differences between the two main parties.

Dann cited Mr Luxon having ruled out asset sales, substantive spending cuts and alterations to welfare payments, and his seeming abandonment of socially conservative causes, in evidence for his argument.

Mr Luxon’s reply, that New Zealand was a great country going in the wrong direction and that National would put it on the right path again - whatever that might mean - was hardly cleaving out a great philosophical difference between National and Labour ... but given their respective places in the polls right now, maybe he feels no need to?

Mr Luxon was being quizzed in the context of the appalling but unsurprising decision by the US Supreme Court to repeal Roe v Wade, as to whether his own conservative views on abortion would shape National policy.

He has been adamant that they will not, although his comments earlier in the week that Roe was settled law do not sit easily given that was exactly what several of the Supreme Court justices who have just overturned it said during their confirmation hearings.

Christopher Luxon. Photo: ODT files
Christopher Luxon. Photo: ODT files
While Mr Luxon was trying to walk in lockstep with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on the issue, her deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson was doing his considerable best to trip Mr Luxon up.

Right up until Thursday, when South Dunedin’s favourite son became the latest MP to fall foul of Covid-19, Mr Robertson was using every single one of his considerable media opportunities to cast doubt on Mr Luxon’s position on abortion, and he made a play of it on Wednesday as well when leading off for Labour in the weekly general debate.

It is unusual for another country’s issues to be at centre of New Zealand political debate, and even more so for an individual’s personal views on what has traditionally been a conscience matter for MPs to be debated so hotly.

It is, perhaps, a sign that Labour is rattled by Mr Luxon and in abortion rights feels it has found an issue through which it can cast him as the boogey man and scare wavering middle ground voters back to its cause.

But National is also doing plenty of scaring people about what Labour might do as well, and it spent most of Wednesday offering more dire warnings and prognostications.

Most of the day’s debate was taken up with the Canterbury Regional Council (Ngai Tahu) Representation Bill, which is being steered through very choppy waters by Te Tai Tonga MP Rino Tirikatene.

Local Bills are rare beasts - very few have been passed in the previous five years - and given they are only required when existing law requires central government to alter something which affects a region or location, they seldom attract much national excitement.

This one is different because, if passed, it would permit Ngai Tahu to appoint two members to the Canterbury Regional Council (ECan).

Those appointed members would have the same functions and powers as other councillors including, crucially, voting rights.

So far as National, and Act New Zealand for that matter, are concerned, this is nothing less than an attack on the fundamental basis of democracy - one person, one vote - and will open the floodgates to similar legislation.

On that front, there are no doubt many in Labour’s Maori caucus and beyond who would like the Bill to be exactly that, the thin end of the wedge for a more expansive law change than simply within Canterbury’s borders.

The argument runs that, in similar vein to the Maori seats in Parliament, mandated Maori representation on local authorities would reflect the partnership envisaged by the Treaty of Waitangi.

Attempts to pass a similar Bill for Rotorua were withdrawn amid great controversy, but the ECan legislation looks likely to become law soon, despite Opposition attempts to filibuster a very short law for as long as possible.

National and Act profess to be all for Maori representation on any elected institution, but only as long as those representatives have actually been elected to it.

New Zealanders like to think we live in an egalitarian and accountable nation, and for many there is something deeply disturbing about the thought of people not needing to submit themselves for election before becoming their representative.

There are problems here for both parties.

For many younger New Zealanders, perhaps raised with a different view of the significance of the Treaty from that taught to their forebears, the argument for Maori representation seems entirely reasonable: National does not want to alienate those voters by appearing too strident.

But Labour, equally, knows that a decent percentage of middle New Zealand, often the people whose votes decide elections, are disconcerted by the generational shift happening before their eyes: Labour does not want to alienate those voters by appearing to be ahead of public opinion.

The next election is some way off, but the electoral rhetoric is well and truly under way.

Gone, not forgotten

Former Dunedin South MP Clare Curran, who was even more formerly the minister of broadcasting, made an unexpected "return" to the debating chamber on Thursday, being cited by both Melissa Lee and Judith Collins in their speeches in the first reading of the Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media Bill.

"Let Clare Curran go," Labour MP Dr Deborah Russell implored, only for the newer, nicer Ms Collins to respond:

"The member Deborah Russell suggests that I let Clare Curran go.

"Well, I certainly have, and so did they. That’s fine. She’s a lovely human being, but let’s just focus on this.

"Move on, move on", Dr Russell implored, and Parliament did, off for the three-week winter recess.

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