Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


The Laager Mentality

25/05/2004

Governments under pressure often reveal a desperate side. I recall how the Third Labour Government in 1974-5 started name-calling their National opponents in an effort to stop Robert Muldoon's brutal assault on office. It didn't work, and neither did our attempts fifteen years later to light fires in Jim Bolger's backyard. The Lange-Palmer-Moore ministry gradually stumbled into the dustbin of history.

Over the last couple of weeks we have seen normally sensible Labour ministers lose their heads in several poorly focused efforts to stop Don Brash. First was the disgraceful misuse of a Foreign Affairs memo of a meeting between Brash and several American senators. Brash seems to have been almost naively truthful in his remarks to the senators about his personal views, again revealing that side of himself that the public likes. Somehow the memo found its way out of the Ministry's archives, where it should have stayed, and into Phil Goff's hands. He then passed it on to the Prime Minister. In my day, that would never have happened: top public servants knew better than to risk putting such ammunition into any minister's hands. As Minister of Health, I once inquired about the way officials had been handling complaints against a company owned by a National Party opponent. I was left in no doubt that it was a matter they would discuss with me only in general terms. I accepted this, and could see the reason for confidentiality.

Why that didn't happen with the Brash memo is something that Simon Murdoch of Foreign Affairs and Phil Goff should explain. For a minister to prance about TV selectively interpreting a document that hadn't been shown to the person supposedly in the gun has reduced Goff's good reputation within his department, and with the wider public. Why did he do it? Because Labour ministers have been captured by the laager mentality and are revealing their baser instincts. Instead of addressing National's criticisms of our current idiotic anti-nuclear policy, they have drawn their wagons into a circle and are firing indiscriminately at Don Brash. In reality, time has overtaken the 1987 anti-nuclear legislation. Nuclear weapons aren't on surface US naval ships any more, and many vessels aren't nuclear-powered either. Without compromising the 1987 legislation one iota, there are plenty of US ships Helen Clark could invite. Instead, she plays silly games.

By Tuesday last week ministers were at it again. Brash had said what every sensible observer knows to be true: that Maori are the victims of patronising educational policies that make their struggle in life harder, rather than easier. After weeks of evidence about badly targeted spending by wananga and polytechs where money is wasted in order to lift the number of enrollees so that the institutions can get bigger subsidies, people knew Brash had a point. He could have continued about the many low decile primary schools where too much time is invested in guitar strumming and cultural studies, and not enough on literacy. Career options have been stunted by the time many Maori and Pacific Island kids reach secondary schools. Achievement levels never recover. Guitar strumming accelerates to while away class-room hours.

What did ministers Horomia, Maharey and Tamihere do? Seated on a pile of booklets detailing Labour's initiatives in Maori education, they accused Brash of not doing his homework! They reeled out confusing statistics claiming they demonstrated Maori had high rates of progression within the tertiary sector.

Throughout history working class kids have gained the most from rigorous school discipline and a concentration on reading, writing and arithmetic. In Auckland these days, concerned parents are fleeing from state schools in search of the more structured environments associated with Catholic education. A combination of rigid zoning and misplaced educational engineering in some state schools is doing untold damage to low decile kids' futures. Our ministers would be better advised to re-examine what is really going on in our schools than lashing out when somebody states the obvious.

National is guilty of many things. It deserves a spotlight. Too many of the educational and welfare failings it now complains of were pushed along by those lazy ministries of the 1990s that placed themselves at the beck and call of hyperactive social engineers. Sheeting home the causes of today's problems, rather than indiscriminate firing at Brash who carries no responsibility for his party's lack-lustre past would be a more constructive use of ministers' time. And it just might educate them on where to begin fixing things.