OPINION: It was Prime Minister John Key's response to the claim that we lead the stakes for the world's most promiscuous young women that gets my political award for the week.
Caught on the hop by this comment from Conservatives leader Colin Craig - a potential coalition partner - Mr Key's face was a moving canvas: bemused, then incredulous and finally resigned to political realities.
"It's going to be a long two-and-a-half years, isn't it."
You have to spare him a thought. With Government finances worsening, a zero Budget next week and world economic stability being threatened by the Eurozone crisis, he will be expected to react each time there is a sensational statement from the religious Right.
It is not as if there is a lack of real issues. The Queensland fruit-fly threat is the horticultural equivalent of foot and mouth disease and we will be extraordinarily lucky if the incursion is limited to the single male fly. Meanwhile, the frustratingly slow progress of the massive Christchurch quake cleanup seems bound to create an anti-Government backlash from despairing homeowners and businessmen.
Protesters are still marching in the streets over the sell-down of state assets, although the proceeds would make our national balance sheet look better when the Greeks ultimately default, return to the drachma, and set off a Eurozone and world banking crisis along with a flurry of risk regradings.
A reactivated Pike River mine would help with export receipts, but even though Solid Energy is prepared to act, that is being threatened by a boycott by locals who want to "bring our boys back". The emotion is understandable, but at some stage it has to be accepted that the scattered ashes and bone fragments which are all that is left of the dead miners will only be reachable when the rest of the mine is activated and made safe.
As for Government spending cuts, the real savings will not come from fiddling with the Foreign Affairs and Trade budget, although bashing diplomats and their travel and entertainment bills is easy politics. What is needed is a serious reassessment of other major departments (for example, Justice and its inflated judges list and 62 courthouses used only 46 per cent of the time) and the massive $6 billion-plus welfare budget.
To its credit the Government is initially spending money to make the welfare system work more efficiently in order to reap savings down the track. Its thanks for this was strident criticism over the provision offering free long-term contraception to mothers on the domestic purposes benefit, and their daughters. This, the critics said, was interfering with women's bodies. This was in spite of the offer being voluntary, reversible, and aimed at those not able to afford birth control.
The Government should also launch a blitz on spendthrift local government. The revolt in Northland's Mangawhai over an average 30 per cent rates rise for a new sewerage system is symptomatic of a national problem which is bleeding homeowners at a time of economic hardship.
Former ACT leader Rodney Hide was on the right track with his proposal some years ago to limit rate rises to no more than the rate of inflation unless there were special circumstances approved by a poll of ratepayers. Everyone gulped nervously at the time and mumbled "blunt instrument", but shock tactics are needed to cut local body excesses and curb eager councillors and their grandiose wish-lists.
Mr Hide could have gone further and halved the salaries of those vastly overpaid local body chief executives. If they resign, no problem, they could be replaced with their deputies. The responsible mayor and councillors of Upper Hutt City, who voluntarily abandoned their own pay rises in recognition of the current economic climate, should be publicly praised by Mr Key and other councils urged to follow their example.
Mr Key could set an example by curbing or culling the Higher Salaries Commission and unwinding those MP perks he recently cemented in place.
- The Dominion Post