Has this leopard been thrown to the jackals?

03:12, Jun 19 2012

I have a soft spot for embattled-minister-of-the-week Paula Bennett. I met her when she visited Lower Moutere's Whenua Iti Outdoors three years ago, where the new minister for social development and youth affairs charmed the staff with her down-to-earth manner as she chatted with teenagers tackling the high ropes course.

Some of the staff tried to persuade the minister to attempt the ropes course herself, a lobbying effort I enthusiastically joined, camera in hand. The headlines for such a photo-op almost write themselves and despite her refusal to play along, I still led my story with a line about the "high-wire of Cabinet-level politics".

My sympathy is largely based on the level of vitriol she attracts. She gets more than her share of personal attacks, some of which seem unfairly motivated by her gender, relative inexperience and fondness for leopard-print clothing.

But over the past three years, I've come to the conclusion that she is, at the very least, complicit in the Government's apparent use of her as the attack dog of the day. If you do insist in painting your electorate car in leopard print, you can hardly be surprised when the other predators on the savannah start baying for blood.

Her personal history – solo mum, former beneficiary, proud Westie – is displayed as a protective cloak to shield her from charges of being out of touch with the welfare beneficiaries the Government is targeting.

Her latest high-wire act, floating the idea that the Government could prevent abusive parents from having more children, is a classic trial balloon of misdirection.


It first came up when she was being interviewed by Right-wing shock-jock Michael Laws, who asked whether the Government would consider a "state-ordered sanction" to prevent abusive parents having more children.

She said such measures were being discussed in Cabinet and a few days later had to claw back suggestions of forced sterilisation as a "step too far". Just how this ban on procreating would be achieved is only the most obvious of the flaws with this plan. For a party that made hay over Labour's "nanny state", keeping an eye on what happens in the bedroom when the lights are off is surely more of an intrusion than prescriptions on what kind of lightbulb you can install.

The commentators were already grazing on the carcass of the idea, with the spectre of eugenics fuelling the debate.

I heard Peter Dunne of UnitedFuture telling Radio New Zealand that he was reminded of a certain European country in the 1930s, which he agreed was an "extreme" comparison but an unavoidable one.

When one of your coalition members is comparing your policy to the eugenics policy of Nazi Germany, you know you have kicked off a full-blown public relations crisis.

And that may well be the point.

National has fallen below 50 per cent in the polls for the first time since taking office and teachers, principals, school boards and parents are howling over the Government's cuts to technology education and the now-axed raising of class ratios.

What better time for a outrage-fest over a non-policy to dominate the airwaves? Especially when the constituency that the non-policy might actually apply to is so small. In 2011, 148 babies were removed from parents within 30 days of them being born.

Cynical, you say? Let's put it this way. The cutting of technology education at intermediate level is an announced policy that the minister for education has said she will not be back-tracking on – at least until Thursday afternoon's reversal. But here in Motueka, Parklands School, where the Motueka Technology Education Centre is based, has yet to hear any details from the ministry about its fate or that of its staff.

At the same time, another minister is on the radio floating trial balloons of things that have been discussed in Cabinet and may be in a forthcoming White Paper.

It is similar to the furore over the possibility of mining in national parks. If you propose something outrageous, it gives you more room to push the envelope on the actual policy because your opponents are relieved you didn't follow through on the extreme threats.

From London, John Key was forced to defend his minister's comments, saying the country needed to have an "uncomfortable conversation" about child abuse.

He also said the Government needs to do a better job of explaining education changes to parents, as if their outrage was just because they didn't understand the cruel-to-be-kind logic of staff cuts.

Explaining the logic – and the details – to the schools themselves might be a better place to start.

An uncomfortable conversation about child abuse might include, as Mr Key said, "a very strong case to say some people are not fit to raise children". But it could also include a discussion on the role of the education system in teaching children to become the kinds of adults who are fit to raise children.

That would be a complex and patient discussion, so it is not one you are likely to hear on talk radio or from a Government eager to change the channel.