At times, Minister of Social Development Paula Bennett serves as a useful diversion figure for her colleagues, by drawing away the media flak when the Government comes under fire elsewhere.
OPINION: A few months ago for instance, when National was in deep trouble over school class sizes, Bennett burst into the news bulletins to deflect the media into debating whether the courts really should be empowered to force beneficiaries not to have any more children.
Last week, however, it was Bennett herself who was triggering a small avalanche of bad news stories.
Bennett has not only flatly refused to apologise for using private information to discredit a beneficiary critic of the government's welfare policies, but indicated that she might do it again. Later in Parliament, Bennett responded so flippantly to questions about the extent of child poverty in New Zealand that Speaker Lockwood Smith was finally moved to give her a stern telling off, saying she was behaving worse than a three year old child.
Bennett is becoming a liability, especially as the centre-right struggles to keep women voters on side with the reform policies central to the Key government's second term agenda. The gender voting gap could well increase, given the likely impact of the recently released MMP review paper. The main recommendations from the MMP review were that the entry threshold for parties to Parliament should be lowered to 4 per cent. It also advocated scrapping the provision that allows parties that win an electorate seat to bring others into Parliament on their coat-tails.
The review paper got a mixed reception. Some critics claimed that the review panel had blown a rare opportunity to make Parliament more representative. Given the relative stability of our parliamentary culture over the last five MMP elections, the threshold could (arguably) have been reduced to 3 per cent, or even lower. The proposals will now be open for a period of further public comment, until decisions are made on which will be adopted.
In effect, all the arguments about 'what might have been' are now history, and the more interesting speculation has been about what impact the proposals are likely to have on the 2014 election outcome.
Certainly, the proposed changes to MMP would help resolve National's chronic lack of meaningful coalition partners. Under the suggested rules, National could afford to lose both the Act Party and United Future and to run its own candidates strongly in Epsom and Ohariu. More to the point, a 4 per cent MMP threshold would almost certainly see Colin Craig's Conservative Party in Parliament next time, given that the Conservatives scored a healthy 2.65 per cent of the vote last year. Winston Peters could also conceivably gain more in 2014 within a centre-right coalition. By some estimates, National could afford to drop as low as 40 per cent in the polls, and still form the next government.
True, it would be a socially conservative coalition, with Colin Craig and his Christian colleagues. Meaning, the women already alienated by the antics of Paula Bennett might well find additional reasons to vote with the centre left, come 2014. The usual gender gap among voters appears set to widen.
- The Wellingtonian