Don't mention the war

Last updated 18:08 03/10/2007

So the war in Iraq is finally over. Thank God for that. I'm sure Iraqis will be delighted. They can emerge from their homes where they have been hiding for four years now from the bombs and the bloodshed.

The Americans will be pretty pleased, too, given they've sent 768 soldiers home in body bags since February alone.

Surprising British Prime Minister Gordon Brown didn't have anything to say about this momentous day at Number 10 when he thrust Prime Minister Helen Clark out into the rain last night, but perhaps he just didn't want to share the limelight with a small country that opposed the war in the first place.

OK, I'll release the facetious button on my computer now. I know what National leader John Key meant to say on Morning Report this morning when he explained that the reason National hadn't mentioned Iraq in its foreign policy discussion document was because "frankly the war in Iraq is over".

In a technical sense the illegal incursion by the US and Britain and Australia is over, and what's left is the UN-sanctioned force struggling and mostly failing to keep order. But the reality is little different from warfare for the inhabitants of that god-forsaken country and not much different for the coalition forces either.

At the very least Key's comments were insensitive; at worst they betrayed a surprisingly slippery grasp of foreign affairs.

Politicians were lining up to mock Key today. Clark had a crack from London, Defence Minister Phil Goff chimed in, and even Green MP Keith Locke, normally the mocked rather than the mocker, joined the fray.

Locke said he hoped Key would phone United States President George Bush to tell him the "good news".

"Until Mr Key put me wise I had assumed the US and its coalition allies were bogged down fighting an intractable insurgency in Iraq that had seen a surge in US troop numbers earlier this year."  

Yes, very funny - let's all have a laugh at Key's expense. But seriously, what's going on in National at the moment? The party has gone from walking on air to flailing in quicksand within the space of ten days.

Suddenly, National doesn't seem to know what it stands for or what its policies and principles are. Key has gone from sure-footed and confident to bumbling, shifty, and evasive in a matter of days.

Witness his response yesterday to a question on whether Macquarie bank, a big Aussie investor in public-private partnerships (PPPs) had lobbied him over his policy of allowing PPPs into the education sector:

"Ah, nope, no. I mean, other than the general, sort of, I've looked at PPPs. What I am very focused on is how can we deliver services and infrastructure that New Zealanders desperately need on a faster, more effective and hopefully cheaper basis."

Sorry? "Oh, well, no. I mean, well, I go to functions where there are bankers and I'm sure that some of them have been from Macquarie Bank.''

Right then. Or, on whether or not National would sell state assets on Morning Report today:  

KEY: Yeah and I think look, that was portrayed the wrong way and taken completely out of proportion. When I was the, the [sic] Finance spokesman, and I hold the same view now, New Zealand does not need to rush in and sell assets. We... firstly, ah we don't have a debt crisis as we had in the 80s and 90s, and in fact net debt's positive in New Zealand, ah those things make a lot of money now. They didn't make money in the old days, SOEs lost money. PRESENTER: So, so [sic] what is your policy. KEY: Well our point is simply this ah, last time we had a very, very timid policy of saying we might sell a quarter of ah, Solid Energy and some farms on Landcorp. Now, we're listening to the public, we're happy to have that debate, we know they don't want to ah sell assets and we understand that, in fact... PRESENTER: So what is your policy. KEY: Well we'll declare that in 2008, going into the election. PRESENTER: So you don't have a policy. KEY: No, we, we [sic] are in the process of putting together policy 

That's funny because on TVNZ's Agenda programme at the weekend, Deputy Leader Bill English said:

PRESENTER:  How far along is this policy because it seems like it is very much in its initial stages? ENGLISH:  Oh, well it’s essentially a restatement of, um, policy we’ve had for some time, so there’s nothing new. 

National has also been backing away from its policy to lift the cap on what GPs can charge and Key's initially firm statements on allowing the private sector into the compulsory education sector have morphed into more of a vague intention to investigate the possibility of using PPPs.

Even on foreign policy, where National should have been on firm ground since it doesn't differentiate much from Labour, the party has been under the spotlight for not mentioning Iraq - probably still the greatest conflagration in the world at present - in its discussion document.   

I'm left wondering whether it's just National stuffing up or whether the media is placing the party under more intense scrutiny. Are we being fair? Are we over-analysing? I'd be interested in your views.

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