National’s secret agenda presents a new low in New Zealand politics

Have we reached a new low in politics?

Any number of commentators and politicians are suggesting so with the publication in the last week of private comments made by National Party politicians attending their annual party conference.

An interloper questioned three senior party figures at a cocktail party on sensitive policy areas and with their guards down each provided some quotable quotes much to the embarrassment of the party.

Deputy Leader Bill English was caught saying Kiwibank would be sold by National eventually, but not now. MP Lockwood Smith explained that “there’s some bloody dead fish you have to swallow . . . to get into Government to do the kinds of things you want to do”. Nelson MP Nick Smith said National was in a neutralise phase with its election strategy. To cap it off, National Party staff are suggesting someone has been going through the rubbish at John Key’s party office in Helensville while police are investigating a break-in at Labour Minister David Cunliffe’s electoral office where sensitive computer files are reported to have been stolen.

Perhaps we’ll see photocopies of sauce-stained jottings made by Key of a dagger through the Kiwibank logo or a draft David Cunliffe letter to a migrant family apologising for the appalling treatment he has meted out to them in his former role as immigration minister.

United Future MP Peter Dunne has called on John Key and Helen Clark to make a clear statement denouncing dirty politics and I’m sure they will but we shouldn’t expect anything to change.

None of the revelations from National so far would be surprising to those who follow politics with even a mild interest. We know National reveres the private sector and has an almost pathological dislike of public ownership of anything. While they have promised no privatisations in a first term of government we all know they will work hard preparing for that objective. They will move quickly to sell state assets once they feel they can do so without too much electoral fallout.

Selling Kiwibank is an ideological goal for Bill English. Instead of apologising for his poor choice of words, English should front up to what he believes in. The apology he offered was an added insult to the electorate.

We also know the dead fish Lockwood Smith refers to. These are the policies National fought against but which are popular with voters and therefore too dangerous to toss out. Such things as support for Working for Families; interest-free student loans; nuclear-free policy; keeping Kiwirail and Kiwibank (for a while at least); KiwiSaver (albeit with changes) etc.

Nick Smith’s comments about neutralising issues we have seen before too. Ahead of the last election he proposed that National inoculate itself against unpopular policies. Leaked emails revealed him urging National to identify its weak spots and neutralise them early on.

At that time he saw these as four-weeks holiday (which National had opposed but which the electorate supported), asset sales and national superannuation.

He said he thought National in 2005 had already successfully neutralised the nuclear issue and tax cuts for the rich.

National did indeed neutralise its remaining unpopular policies in 2005 just as it has already swallowed a lot of dead fish this year.

Most of us would not want our private comments examined in the public spotlight but when the private comments of politicians are about matters of legitimate public interest and are at variance with what they tell us publicly, then they can hardly complain. Whether it’s National Party politicians at a cocktail party or Labour President Mike Williams taped privately telling party delegates how to avoid electoral spending limits by distributing government information leaflets, they are fair game.

The most sensitive revelation was Bill English’s comment that National would sell Kiwibank and one might think this area of privatisation is where real differences in party policy show up but the differences are small.

Labour opposed the sale of Auckland Airport to a Canadian company last year but in the next breath approved the Wellington electricity network being sold overseas.

Both parties are now talking about so-called public-private partnerships. This is the new description for privatisation where we are told it gives us the best of both worlds, the supposed financial discipline of the private sector with the guarantee of investment in the public interest.

Labour has opened the door to PPPs in roading while National wants to extend the idea for the likes of funding the building of schools and managing prisons.

However, most of us also know that overseas experience with PPPs show they contain the same mix of rip-offs, corporate greed and community debasement we have seen so many times before.

PPPs are the next new low in politics.