Gordon Campbell Reviews The PM’s Presser July 28July 29th, 2008
Late on Monday July 29th, means that its time for the Prime Minister’s weekly post Cabinet press conference. How late the conference is scheduled is in itself a vehicle for spin conjecture. If it comes early (3:30 to 4 ish ) this is taken to mean that it’s a Good News Day, timed for optimum coverage on the nightly television bulletins. Late, and the reverse reading applies. Today, in the depths of l’affaire Peters, the 5:30pm start is assumed to be a form of damage control.
But perhaps not. When the Prime Minister finally shows up at
5:35pm, she attributes the lateness of the hour to her flight back from the Local Government conference in Rotorua. Conspiracy theorists may be reduced to gleaning what they can from her decision today to wear a white double breasted jacket. A palpable echo of Winston, yet at an inverse distance ? Yes, of course. .
Before Clark gets to taking questions, there is the ritual of the Cabinet business of the day. Usually, this entails the PM racing through a laundry list of unrelentingly tedious bits of business. A sample from today’s list : the orders in council bringing the China/NZ FTA into force on October 1st have been approved.
An increasingly rare parliamentary item : a Bill for introduction called the Trade Safeguard Measures Bill in the name of the Minister of Commerce, will tie up some ends regarding our compliance with WTO rules, Thank goodness, a double tax agreement with the Czech Republic has been finalized and sent off to the Executive Council. An existing double tax with Britain has been renewed.
The assembled hacks doodle, stare at the ceiling and shuffle papers. Clark barrels on. There has been a report back on the consultation DOC has been running on the trade in whalebone, and on the role of Maori in the management of whale strandings, both of which will require amendments to the Marine Mammals Protection legislation. Next month MSD’s Social Report 2008 on social and economic indicators will be released.
Today We are told only that it is a very thick report. Further attention will be given to a proposed national policy statement for renewable electricity generation under the RMA, in co-ordination with two other such reports, on freshwater management and electricity transmission. The end result will empower local government to handle issues that arise in those three areas.
Patience, patience. Sometimes, hidden amongst this stuff and in no ranking order, can be significant material. The best morsel of wider interest today: Clark will be going up to Tonga for the coronation on Friday, and while there she will be having talks with the Tongan Prime Minister and other Pacific Island Forum leaders about the Forum agenda in Niue, and Fiji’s sure-to-be contentious place within those talks.
Later, she is asked whether those talks will include expressing New Zealand’s concerns about the legal actions being taken by the Tongan government against opposition MPs. Clark hedges. Obviously, she says, she will have a briefing before she goes up there. She sees positive developments are occurring on the democratization process (unsaid : jailing your opponents for alleged sedition isn’t quite so rosy) “But I don’t have a briefing on that particular issue today.”
Finally in the preamble comes the outline of the House business this week. The highlights ? There will be an eight hour debate on the Estimates, the last major confidence and supply item before the election. There will also be a rare Members Day on Wednesday, offering a final chance to advance two Green Party members Bills – namely, Sue Bradford’s bill on facilities for mothers with babies in prisons, and the Waste Minimisation Bill that Russel Norman has inherited from the departed Nandor Tanczos. Oh, and Kiwisaver membership is rolling past the 750,000 mark.
Pause. Then the real press conference begins. L’affaire Winston Peters, is front of stage, and first up is TVNZ’s Guyon Espiner. When meeting Peters at her scheduled meeting [today, Tuesday 30th] what assurances she be seeking from him? “Obviously the basic assurance I seek is that his behaviour is lawful. He’s given me those assurances and at each point these issues have arisen in the public arena, there has been contact – either directly between him and me, or through the offices. I think it was at the press conference he held on Friday evening on his return from Singapore that [he said] he would be seeking to meet with me this week to put his position again, and that’s what I expect to happen.”
A couple of questioners sought Clark’s views on Peters’ credibility and whether she would be seeking documentary proof of what he says. “I’ve made it clear that the convention is to accept an honourable member’s word unless there is good reason not to accept it.” In a textbook example of how to manage a line of media questioning, Clark then framed the issue herself, in terms of the three differing tiers of concern that are involved.
Firstly, the parliamentary propriety issue. “ There are issues of whether the matter is in any way a matter of [parliamentary] privilege. That’s something only the Speaker can determine. I’ve mentioned before there are issues around pecuniary interests – where they can be explored, by the Registrar or the Auditor-General.
Secondly, there is the question of legality. “ There’s the question of whether there are legal issues and allegations around those are at best implicit – because it is a very serious matter to make allegations for example, of fraud. “ Thirdly, come the politics of it all. “ There are political issues [where] the court of public opinion. is the judge.” For the rest of the press conference, Clark sought to slot the questions into one, or other of these categories. Expect her to re-deploy this same trio of distinctions during Question Time today.
Does she believe Peters when he says he knows little or nothing about the workings of the Spencer Trust ? Obviously, she replies, she hasn’t had the opportunity to discuss that with him. “ But I have to say.[ with respect to] my own party, I don’t have involvement with the New Zealand Labour Party’s fundraising. So, any matters like that won’t be known to me.”
Not for the last time, the question of hypocrisy on Peters’ part was raised. “ I think that’s where it comes into that category of the political issues. In that various stands have been taken over a period of time, which could be read as being in contradiction to what is emerging in the public arena. As I say, that in itself is not a privilege matter, and that in itself is not a legal matter…I think its essentially a political matter, for the court of public opinion.”
Only on rare occasions do prime ministerial press conferences erupt and stray from this patient, plodding pathway. Clark’s real skill at media management lies in her capacity to quickly define the tone and the intellectual framework on which debate largely proceeds. Its easier today. There’s a sense that the gallery has lost any belief it might have entertained last week that the Peters affair had legs, and could imperil either the NZF leader or – always a long shot – capsize the government.
The best sign of imminent surrender? A question comes winging in… as to whether she knows if the Labour Party operates secret funds that she’s not aware of ? Hilarious. How do you know whether you may not know what you don’t know ? With a straight face, she sighs and says : “Well, I suppose standing back and looking at this as objectively as I can, the point I have to make is
That electoral funding laws in New Zealand has been sufficiently broad for bulldozers to be driven through…. “
“It is the case now,” Clark continues, “ as it has been the case in the past, that donations of under $10,000 to a political party have not had to be declared. Therefore, it undoubtedly is the case that a range of political parties have had donations made, in $10,000 lumps from different organisations.” But no, she’s not aware of the NZ Labour Party Council operating such a trust [ as the Spencer Trust] I think if you look at our election returns, there has been in the past donations that have come through lawyers’ trust funds.”
As yet, Clark hadn’t read through the transcripts from Peters’ Friday press conference – “ obviously the Greatest Show on Earth” – and nor had she found time to peruse the 25 further pages of transcripts from [Monday’s ] Morning Report and Nine to Noon programmes. Could become a full time job. “ All I’m saying is that I’m watching to see which of the issues fall into the three categories that I have identified…”
Does she think Peters’ credibility has been dented? Patiently, she treats that as a Category Number Three Question. “That’s where the political issue arises. If you have said things in the public arena, and then information emerges which suggests you may have received such funding yourself..” Uh oh, correction needed. “ Not yourself, but your party though one vehicle or another, those are issues for the court of public opinion.”
A Number Two Question then arrives – about legality – and it elicits Clark’s most laconic response of the day. “Mr Peters is a lawyer. His brother Wayne Peters is a lawyer. Mr [Brian] Henry is a lawyer, and has a good deal to say around this. Taking all those things into account, and taking into account that electoral law has been wide enough to drive bulldozers through, I would be surprised if there’s illegality.”
In short, she concludes, nothing has emerged in this issue to prevent her government from running its full term – whatever that timeframe might be. Barring accidents – or of someone dropping a safe full of fresh documents from on high – this affair is giving every sign of running out of steam. One last shot – given a choice on credibility between Winston Peters and Sir Robert Jones, who would she be more inclined to believe ? “ Too hard.”
Post Peters, Post Cabinet:
But there’s more to life than Peters! The visit of US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice may have seen New Zealand designated ‘an ally’ – but one questioner wanted to know why that’s isn’t capitalised. Why are we not, An Ally ? “ For very obvious reasons,” Clark replies, slipping readily into lecturer mode. “A Big A, Ally is one in a formal military relationship with the United States of America.” As it has for example under NATO, or with Australia, with Japan, or Korea. “
Yet under the new security paradigm that now operates post 9/11, she continues – listing Another Set of Three Categories – around counter proliferation, and around counter terrorism, and around activity in Afghanistan. “ On all three scores, New Zealand has been a participant. So has, for example, Sweden.”
It is all a digression, but one that Clark feels happy to run with. The relationship we now have with the United States, she indicates, is one of formal neutrality – but with a co-operation similar to that shared by a wider range of nations than those found be only within formal, big A, Alliances.
By now, the gallery is lying down, almost horizontal. The old “Big A” Alliance, she warbles on, pertained to a period in New Zealand’s history when we were much less secure in our region of the world – in the aftermath of a devastating world war which included a ‘grotesque’ war in the Pacific…among other factors. Times have changed, she says. “ We sit around the APEC table with Russia and with China, and with the United States…So in a sense there has been a new security agenda developing over quite a long period of time. And then, post September 11, again [offered] opportunities for New Zealand to work formally with the United States on a clear set of issues.
Normally, journalists treat the term “ The Hollow Men” like kryptonite, and reserve it for those occasions when they’re trying to incite a stoush. It is not part of the Mainstream Media’s own battery of terms. So when the PM is asked whether she has any idea why National should has given a high list position today to Stephen Joyce, formerly a prominent player in The Hollow Men during the Don Brash era, and what might that be telling her about John Key… this is an invitation to bucket on Key, and gladly accepted as such.
“It must be a reward for being part of the Hollow Men,” Clark begins. “Raising the money. Organising the Brethren. “ She warms to the task. “ What it really shows is that nothing has really changed about the National Party. Was it not a portion of the Herald’s lengthy part two on Saturday…where it was put to Mr Key that he still really believed in the same far right things, but was downplaying them for other reasons ? “
Clark triumphantly provides her own reply. “The answer to that of course was ‘Yes.’ The selection of Mr Joyce shows that the forces behind the Hollow Men and the New Right agenda are as active as they ever were ! ”
And that, to all intents is that. Barring a lot of shouting and posturing today in Question Time, the press conference has virtually confirmed Peters is for now, receding to sideshow status once again. He may still prove a key figure as the election race tightens up, but today’s Digipoll shows National’s lead expanding out again, and bringing the dream of one party majority back into the frame. Key, for his part, is still not taking any chances. Yesterday had begun with him embracing the Working for Families package and declaring that National will not borrow to fund its ( ever more endangered ) tax cuts.
With Peters in full trapped and wounded mode, Key must be nervous about his ability to woo the NZF leader successfully, further down the track. If he can’t, National’s current poll advantage over Labour may quickly be seen as an FPP mirage. To repeat the bleedingly obvious – under MMP, coalition bloc politics is everything. At some point – and most people who insist on this have expected this to happen well before now – the race will tighten up, and it doesn’t have to do so very much before Labour plus Peters plus the Greens plus the Maori Party ( and Peter Dunne would quickly jump onto such a bandwagon) will leave National with very little leg room for scaring the public on the policy front.
Which is why Key is busily agreeing with almost every Labour policy that he sees. Now that the Peters affair has been all but sidelined, perhaps we can now get back to the real election story – National’s margin for error. In that respect, Stephen Joyce’s list position may be a more enduring issue than most of the recent Petersmania.