Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

The Melissa Lee Factor

May 14th, 2009

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Melissa Lee’s emergence as the poster child of the Key government is so apt, it makes the process of politics seem karmically ordained. It is rare indeed to find arrogance and ignorance combined so exquisitely in the one harsh and clanging package, and the P.R. crew down at National party head office must be thinking that polling day in Mt Albert just can’t come soon enough, to get her off the front pages. Talk about himbos leading bimbos. The image of Lee’s ministerial mentor Jonathan Coleman silently mouthing instructions for her to say “I don’t know” at last night’s election meeting, and then to have Lee dutifully repeating “I don’t know” to a questioner only seconds later, was an example of political post-modernism to treasure for the ages.

Think about it. The government can ram legislation through Parliament under urgency, they can ravage democracy in Auckland, they can fiddle while the recession burns its way through the country… and they can get away with it, largely thanks to the Prime Minister’s ingenuous ways and winning smile. Then along comes Lee to represent the ugliness beneath, and to blare it across the front pages of the mainstream media.

Last night, Lee’s stigmatizing of south Auckland as a criminal zone was bad enough. The thought that the fabulously expensive Waterview Connection roading project might be able to prevent the dark hordes from Otara descending on the decent tree-lined streets of Mt Albert was even worse, and an interesting example though, of a certain style of politics in action.

For want of a better term, you could it governance by pandering. The thought process involved : South Auckland = crims = Nimby Response is not all that different a process of calculation though, than the one involved in appointing Christine Rankin to the Families Commission. Rankin = sop to social conservatives = room for the government to be negative towards the S59 referendum. Quite deftly so far, the government has parcelled up and posted out its largesse.It has made some token concessions to the Maori Party, offered some gains to the Greens (while gutting the RMA and Emissions Trading Scheme) made some ideological running space for Rodney Hide and his cohorts- and now tossed some concessions to the social conservatives, to mollify them for their looming disappointment over the government’s likely stance on the anti-smacking referendum.

Essentially, this has meant that the public face of politics has been conducted at middle management level on non-essentials, while the team in the penthouse has got on in private with core business like the broadband rollout, the re-shaping of the public service, and the revisions to the tax structure. All of which are presented as virtual fait accompli and rammed home ASAP. By being non-ideological on the smaller things, the government’s larger agenda has largely escaped controversy.

The Rankin move is a bit of a risk though, beyond the obvious pandering involved. By contrast the centre-left, when in government, made few concessions to its own ideological extremists and sought to control them far more often than it indulged or tried to mollify them. Rankin, like Lee, will alienate more people than she excites – and her elevation must be particularly galling to Peter Dunne. The Families Commission after all, was his baby and Rankin has been criticized publicly by Dunne in the past. The conspicuous lack of special goodies and bonbons for Dunne during these past six months reflects the government’s apparent belief that – just as Jim Anderton was for Labour – Dunne is part of the family, and can be taken virtually for granted.

What to do with Lee for the next couple of weeks until polling day? Luckily the Budget on May 28 will take her out of the spotlight. Sometime in the next day or so, Lee will no doubt be taken to one side by the minders. This time, they may not simply be silently mouthing the instructions. In all likelihood, the message will be along the lines of “If you keep your mouth shut Melissa, you reduce the chances of putting your foot in it.”


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