Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Glad-handing and Time-wasting


Have you noticed how much time ministers spend glad-handing these days? Over weekends, the Prime Minister attends as many functions as she can fit in, always with sycophantic reporters and photographers in tow. They produce a TV clip or a photo of her, always smiling, speaking to someone connected with the event. An official has the job of scudding through books of dates and noteworthy events, hunting out potential photo ops. The Prime Minister's Department then swings into gear and organizes them. The cost won't be charged under the new election-spending bill.

This year there are plenty of photo opportunities. Seventy years since the opening of the first state house in Miramar, so the PM was there with some old folk, and cups of tea, smiling at an edentulous member of the first family. Then it was on to an afternoon tea with the National Cervical Screening Programme that she launched when Minister of Health. Lest you think this government has become a kind of political old folks home, whiling away its time over cups of tea and trips down memory lane just for this generation, there are several relating to our grandparents' era too. Lots of RSA gatherings with later generations of diggers to commemorate Passchendaele in 1917. And there's the centenary of the Plunket Society. In the Beehive tomorrow, there's a jamboree to celebrate Dominion Day. What, you ask? Yes, Dominion Day on 26 September. It commemorates the declaration of Dominion status in New Zealand in 1907. The Colonial Conference attended that year by then Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward, approved a sort of half-way house to autonomy for the senior colonies within the then British Empire. This week's affair isn't quite so fancy as Ward's 100 years ago. On that occasion proclamations were read from the steps of Parliament Buildings, the Governor entertained parliamentarians to lunch, there was a garden party for 2,400 people, and in the evening the Prime Minister addressed 5,000 at a Wellington Park. Helen Clark would repeat all that if she could, but she can't. She'd end up addressing a few party faithful and blades of grass. This time, there's an elaborate talk-fest at Parliament for invitees. I suspect from the very expensive programme mailed out, she plans to advance her republican agenda, but there are some other dogmas being advanced too. It would have made better sense to celebrate sixty years since we adopted the Statute of Westminster in 1947. That saw us move from Dominion status to full autonomy from Britain. In other words, this week's function celebrates something that hasn't existed for 60 years!

As someone who has made his living out of writing political history, I think commemorations are important. If we don't understand where we came from we can't be sure about where we are going. But, concentrating on governing the country is more important. Glad-handing uses up time needed to think about the serious problems building up. Yes, the current tight numbers under our Much More Paralysis electoral system make change difficult, but ministers should constantly be pointing the electorate forward. They aren't. Talk of tax cuts get waved away with the claim they would be inflationary. To current ministers, money taken and spent by them isn't as inflationary as it would be left in your hands to spend. Nonsense. The flow-on effects from easy welfare accumulate before our eyes. Nowadays two or three pages of a Monday's paper contain the weekend's murders, mayhem and misery that can almost always be traced back to easy welfare that encouraged women to breed children they had no prospect of looking after. Domestic violence, child abuse, home invasions, gangs, knives, drugs, low educational achievement and poor health are all part and parcel of the easy welfare culture tolerated by this see-no-evil government. Someone will have to tackle it. And then, when several people suggested an obvious solution to the Clint Rickard problem confronting the Police, Helen Clark dismissed them with cheap political rhetoric. Meantime, they glad hand, celebrating past generations' achievements. Have they no shame?

Local elections are upon us. Many weeks ago, a Royal Commission to review local governance in Auckland was announced. So little time is being spent thinking about serious matters that no terms of reference, let alone personnel, have been announced. Maybe ministers are waiting to see which of their cronies lose their council seats so they can be given plum jobs?

One thing is sure: in 2108, the centennial of the exit of this government, no prime minister worthy of the name will be celebrating its achievements. There haven't been many.