New Zealand's first comprehensive cabinet minutes date from 1948. At the time Peter Fraser's Labour government was desperately clinging to office. Ministers were paranoid about their opponents, second-guessing officials and trying to centralize decision-making. An exhausted Prime Minister and his colleagues sought to micro-manage everything. Public servants became wary lest blame for failed policies descended on them. Sound familiar? As the polls turn ever more sour for Helen Clark's ministry, and the consequences of bad policies multiply, her cabinet has become twitchy. One minister, Phil Goff, has taken to extravagant utterances hoping perhaps to topple his leader for five minutes in the sun before his career dwindles away.
The recent controversy over Air New Zealand's decision to use down-time for its planes to fly Australian troops to the Middle East has to be seen in the context of Labour's concern about an increasingly muscular National Party. The week before the story broke, Labour had combed through everything John Key had ever said publicly and unearthed statements supportive of the Americans when they first went into Iraq. Ministers contrived an ambush on him in Parliament because he had changed his mind about the war. Thank heavens he had. One hundred million Americans have done the same. Whatever its initial merit, the invasion of Iraq has been so badly managed since 2003 that it looks like becoming the worst rout in American history. Labour politicians, of course, argue you should never learn anything or change your mind. They couldn't wipe the smiles off their faces while they abused Key in the House
Five minutes of childish fun quickly turned to custard. Air New Zealand had acted without our ministers knowing. When told of this development, several turned feral. Instead of waving the issue away and referring it back to Air New Zealand, they were "furious". First they attacked the airline, but it was soon clear that it had advised its major shareholder through officials. Then the head of Foreign Affairs was hauled over the coals. Several in the Prime Minister's Department probably copped an earful, too. Something beyond ministers' responsibilities soon blotted out their coordinated attack on Key. Careful observers saw it as another sign that Labour ministers no longer understand commercial realities and can't keep their noses out.
While 76% of the shares of Air New Zealand are owned by the government, the company remains on the stock exchange. Under the Companies Act business decisions are made by managers and their boards, not shareholders. Micro-managing the use of aircraft that the government doesn't own has never been the responsibility of ministers, not even in the days when Air New Zealand was fully state-owned. Moreover, the airline is expected to post a dividend to you and me. Charter flights were worth $18 million to the company last year. We need the planes' down-time to be used profitably. Officials knew this, and acted appropriately. We should be celebrating that a spirit of enterprise is alive and well within the airline. And that officials understand the law, even if ministers don't.
But it got worse. As ministers thrashed about looking for someone to blame, their counterparts in Australia started taking offence. John Howard's ministers are in an equally brittle state, and perceived the "fury" of Clark, Cullen and Goff as a none-too-subtle attack on their unpopular foreign policy. In the background was our Labour Party's irritation that Alexander Downer had had the temerity to talk, albeit behind closed doors, to the National Party's conference. As we have learnt, nothing gets up our leader's nose faster than a little lese majeste.
The result of this mock trans Tasman indignation was that we lost. An end to Australian government contracts will impact on Air New Zealand's bottom line and reduce the size of the dividend it pays to our government. Moreover, many New Zealand organizations that currently trade with the Middle East are now worrying as our Caligula-like ministry thrashes about looking for people to punish for its current woes.
While Peter Fraser's cabinet micromanaged, it refrained from playing the man, rather than the ball. These days personal attacks seem to be all Helen Clark's government has to offer. Our busy Minister of Health has been checking John Key's addresses, and trawling through his business contacts. Aren't there some serious health and social welfare problems confronting us? Of course there are. But remember, these days politicians aren't allowed to learn from mistakes. Personal attacks are all that's left. Remember, however, those that dish dirt risk getting it back in spades. It's high time Helen Clark put a stop to this unedifying behaviour.