Saturday, October 31, 2009

Memo Joris de Bres: It's no longer 2008

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 27.)

SOMEONE should point out to Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres that there has been a change of government.

Last week, Mr de Bres presented six girls from Otaki School’s kura kaupapa Maori language unit with certificates honouring them for their well-publicised conflict with Wanganui mayor Michael Laws over the proposal to insert an “h” in the city’s name.

Regardless of how one feels about Mr Laws or the spelling of Wanganui, this was a gratuitously mischievous and provocative act on the part of Mr de Bres. It served only to poke a pitbull that would have been better left sleeping.

Ostensibly, the certificates recognised the “dignity” with which the girls behaved during their confrontation with Mr Laws. This seemed a contrived justification for a blatant political stunt.

Not content with wading in to the row uninvited (or so we must assume) and in a highly partisan fashion, Mr de Bres seemed to go out of his way to antagonise Mr Laws, commending the girls for putting up with “rubbish” from the mayor.

The commissioner’s behaviour doesn’t exactly square with the stated objectives of the Human Rights Commission of which he is a member, which include the encouragement of “harmonious relations between individuals and among the diverse groups in New Zealand”. Here he is winding things up when his job is to keep things calm.

Mr de Bres, a Labour appointee and former Public Service Association official with impeccably PC credentials, seems trapped in some sort of time warp. He needs to be reminded that the previous government, which might have smiled indulgently on his antics, was tossed out by a public tired of suffocating political correctness and official busybodies.

National may be less tolerant. It would be justified in taking the view that a statutorily independent figure such as Mr de Bres should be above trying to score points in petty political rows.

The Race Relations Commissioner also needs to be reminded that Mr Laws will always be able to claim the moral high ground over him for one very good reason: unlike Mr de Bres, he’s elected and publicly accountable.

* * *

THIS NEWSPAPER presented a very thorough assessment at the weekend of John Key’s first year as prime minister, but I thought it missed one significant point about his leadership.

Arguably Mr Key’s most notable achievement has been to bring a sense of unity and cohesion to a country that was previously highly polarised. He has done this not only through his disarming “gee golly” personality, as Mike Moore described it, but by being ideologically non-threatening. Virtually no one can think of a good reason to take violent exception to him.

The country is enjoying a blessed respite after all the bitter, fractious politics of the Clark-Brash-Peters era, and its gratitude is reflected in the opinion polls. However I wouldn’t be surprised if, when he’s tucked up in bed at night, Mr Key utters a prayer of thanks for the fact that the divisive figure of Winston Peters has left the political stage. If anyone was capable of sabotaging his dream run, it was the New Zealand First leader.

* * *

SPARE A thought, meanwhile, for poor Phil Goff, who is lurking, metaphorically speaking, in a dank basement while Mr Key enjoys the adulation of the crowds from a sunny Beehive balcony.

From a public relations point of view, Mr Goff’s problem is that he doesn’t have the personality to withstand the close exposure he faces as Opposition leader.

He is a pleasant and reasonable man. This works well enough when you are merely a Cabinet minister or shadow spokesman, but it becomes a liability when you are subjected to the harsh glare of the spotlight as party leader. In a high-profile job that requires Mr Goff to provide constant sound-bites to the media, pleasant and reasonable soon translates to boring. The public switches off.

Even at her lowest ebb in opposition, there was something about the steely Helen Clark that commanded the public’s attention. But Mr Goff hasn’t got it, and it’s a moot point whether even the Brian Edwards-Judy Callingham media training that helped humanise Ms Clark could save him.

* * *

OBSERVED last week on the Hutt motorway: three Fulton Hogan trucks travelling in convoy in the outside right-hand lane with big flashing arrows indicating that the lane was either closed or about to be closed and forcing vehicles to converge in the remaining lanes. As traffic was building up toward the afternoon peak this caused a bit of a squeeze and there was much sudden braking.

Having passed the Fulton Hogan trucks I naturally looked for the reason why the lane was closed. There was nothing; the highway in front of them was clear.

I have often wondered whether the constant processions of slow-moving Fulton Hogan trucks up and down the Hutt motorway were someone’s idea of an elaborate practical joke. Now I’m convinced.

1 comment:

macdoctor said...

Mr Key utters a prayer of thanks for the fact that the divisive figure of Winston Peters has left the political stage

I suspect he engineered it that way, Karl. It is only in the light of removing Peters that his steadfast refusal to do anything to pensions makes any sense. Not being able to fear-monger amongst the elderly was the death-blow to Peters' career and the greatest hindrance to his return.