Wrecking balls entertaining

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Last updated 05:00 18/01/2014

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OPINION: If this week is any thing to go by, election year will be a ripper.

The serious theatre starts next week with the first Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister John Key's state of the nation speech and Labour leader David Cunliffe's offering the following Monday - and a likely Cabinet reshuffle - before Parliament resumes.

But for sheer entertainment value it will struggle to outdo this week's warm-up act.

First, the comedy of errors.

The Kim Dotcom vortex, that had already sucked in and crushed so many careers in 2013, has swung into action again.

There were rumours late last year that the usual suspects in the politico-legal world were jockeying for position around the giant German wrecking ball's plans for his new party. Lawyer and former ACT MP Stephen Franks and his trusty sidekick, Jordan Williams, were rumoured to have been elbowed aside before Christmas, though neither would confirm or deny if Mr Dotcom was a client.

Constitutional lawyer Mai Chen's firm has confirmed its involvement in giving advice ahead of the launch.

On the pure political side, news service Scoop's press gallery reporter, Alastair Thompson, has also confirmed a role (interestingly, his stepson, who was once a Scoop employee, now works for Ms Chen's firm). When Thompson came on to the scene, blogger Martyn Bradbury seems to have been given the heave- ho, along with his strategy "white paper" revealed by Cameron Slater's Whaleoil blog this week. Thompson has since quit Scoop - or taken a sabbatical, depending on which version of events you hear - and is interim secretary of the embryonic Internet Party.

But the irony will not be lost on anyone that some of the commentariat who are hottest on rooting out influence and conflicts of interest - and are most sanctimonious about it - were themselves so conflicted.

It is anyone's guess why, in all the planning, no-one realised Mr Dotcom's giant free birthday bash - dubbed the "Party Party" - could fall foul of the electoral law on "treating".

But whatever the ins and outs, his party has gone backwards this week.

It had the potential to be a real influence on the election - less so now.

The choice of the Internet Party as a name narrows its anti- establishment, anti-politics credentials, making it look increasingly like a game of "insider baseball" - a sort of geek-heavy digital beltway.

The party, and Mr Dotcom's undoubted charisma, still has the potential to make a difference but is more likely to draw votes from the Green Left than from the Government - another irony of the involvement of Bradbury and Thompson.

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In the end, that impact on the Left may be marginal. As one MP put it this week, Mr Dotcom's natural constituency is the Left non-vote; "the difference between the Greens' poll ratings and their lower election- day vote".

Meanwhile, ACT put in its vignette, kicking around the possibility of splitting the roles of its next leader and its Epsom candidate before John Boscawen threw his lamington-adorned hat in the ring. If they choose anyone but him, despite his strange other-worldly manner and a tendency to unconscious humour, they will be mugs.

He has the form, a level of trust in Epsom and is more likely to get the sympathetic ear of Mr Key - crucial to an electoral deal in Epsom - than any of his rivals.

The comic highlight of the week, though, was Judith Collins' over-the- top attack on the canned ACC-funded training scheme. Maybe she is starting to believe her own press too much as a tough no-nonsense politician, but she did herself no favours with her colleagues or in the race with the preternaturally restrained Steven Joyce as heir apparent in National.

By week's end she was toning down her rhetoric. But in what universe did she think it was a good idea to throw around language like "rort" and "scam" about a scheme that included Business NZ - essentially the National Party in a suit?

By contrast, next week's offerings will be a whiter shade of pale, but are key to election-year positioning.

Signals from National are it has thought long and hard about its approach to a knife-edge election where it will run a "46-47 per cent strategy" - suggesting it is eyeing a few minnows, including the Conservatives, as allies. But not NZ First.

Holding that level of support dictates a more nuanced policy platform than a simple message of austerity and sticking to "the chosen path" that helped sink the Shipley Administration in the 1990s.

Even as the economy picks up, it is unlikely to go on a spending splurge because the extra tax dollars will allow for only a modest expansion in the current tight allocation for new spending. But look for National to push back against Labour's messages about income inequality, which is likely to be a central theme in Mr Cunliffe's speech. The Government has already softened its initial - and unnecessarily flinty-faced - opposition to extending paid parental leave and may make a significant move on the minimum wage this year as it pushes into Labour's natural constituency, including women voters.

Not as much fun as the collateral damage from the swings of the Dotcom or Collins wrecking balls, but more important in the long run.

- The Dominion Post

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