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John Armstrong's opinion: Bridges' Christchurch Call politicking may persuade voters he's not fit for highest office

Scandal? What scandal? Well might you ask. This week has witnessed a Labour Party still shocked to its very core, but doing its darnedest to convey the impression that things are very much business as usual.

It isn’t business as usual. And it won’t be so for quite some time to come.

The cacophony of widespread indignation and near universal condemnation directed at the governing party following exposure of its dirty, dark and not so little secret has abated — and more quickly than Labour might have dared to hope.

Such has been the revulsion with the party’s abominable behaviour that it is going to take quite some time to rebuild the confidence and trust of a crucial target audience —female voters.

It has long been the case that Labour has a higher ratio of female voters than male ones. That changed somewhat during John Key’s tenure as National’s leader. He lured a chunk of the female vote away from Labour. Jacinda Ardern’s elevation to Labour’s leadership saw many in that category switching back to Labour.

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The Prime Minister said that the “complaints made to the party were of significant concern and needed to be heard in a timely way”. Source: 1 NEWS

The allegations of sexual assaults by a now-former Labour staffer, the party’s blatant cover-up of those allegations and its shoddy treatment of those who laid complaints of assault is unlikely to see a mass exodus of female voters heading in National’s direction despite Paula Bennett’s best efforts to prompt one.

But Labour is now very much on notice. The party’s capacity to absorb scandal has reached its maximum allowable limit.
As it is, rescue and recovery of its previous standing with voters is going to require Labour take quite a number of special initiatives over quite a lengthy period.

The first such step came on Monday with Ardern providing further detail of the patchwork of inquiries she has established to get to the bottom of why the party behaved in a manner which contradicted everything Labour purports to stand for.

It was imperative that Ardern should draw a line under what is one of the most tawdry episodes in the party’s 103-year history.
She repeatedly asserted that she had chosen “to call time” on the claims and counterclaims being flung around with abandon. She was right to do so.

The many questions that remain unanswered won’t get answered by them being thrashed to death in the political arena. The various investigations commissioned by Ardern must be allowed to take their course.

There are already doubts, however, about how much of the findings of those probes will end up being made public.
The party cannot expect to get away with using privacy considerations to shelter senior party figures whose actions —or lack of actions — are found to have been wanting.

Ardern has contained the damage — at least for now. So far, however, it is only problem postponed. It is all an awful long way from being problem resolved.

A clue as to just how far away was amply illustrated by the issuing of a statement by Auckland lawyer Simon Mitchell, one of that region’s representatives on Labour’s New Zealand Council, the party’s governing body.

Mitchell sat on the party’s panel which investigated complaints against the aforementioned staffer. His statement insisted that one of the complainants told a different story to the media to the version put in front of the panel.

Ardern was distinctly unimpressed with Mitchell for going public. In doing so, however, he left her with a quandary. Who should she believe? The senior party official or the complainant?

She can duck that question for now. It was vital that she was able to do so. The last thing she needed was for this can of worms to become unwanted baggage that she would have had to carry during her current visit to Japan and next week’s scheduled appearance at the United Nations General Assembly where she will further promote her “Christchurch Call for Action” — her initiative seeking a commitment by countries and tech companies to eliminate violent extremist content online.

Enter Simon Bridges. It seems to be taking a long time for National’s leader to work out that although the Leader of the Opposition is expected to respond to most things the governing parties say or do, there are occasions when it is best to button lip and say nothing.
A week or so ago he fired a broadside at the Christchurch Call, dismissing the proposal as a "nebulous, feel-good thing" which had not achieved anything.

He suggested that the Prime Minister would do better spending her time focusing on things which were of much greater concern to New Zealanders — things like the current outbreak of measles, the failings of the country’s education system and the shoddy condition of the nation’s roading network.

Bridges remarks were made as part of his strategy to paint Ardern as a prime minister fixated with her image on the international stage and running away from problems back home.

In making that tactical ploy, Bridges did not bargain on Wednesday’s statement by Facebook acknowledging that while some of its policy changes aimed at combating violent extremism online predated the March 15 terrorist atrocity, the Christchurch Call had “strongly influenced” the recent updates of Facebook’s policies and the company’s enforcement of them.

That statement pulled the rug from under Bridges. Given hints of a further announcement of more such measures under the aegis of the Christchurch Call once the Prime Minister is in New York, Bridges is going to find it hard to pick himself up from the floor.

As the Prime Minister has noted, Bridges’ assertion that she ditch the Christchurch Call and concentrate on tackling priorities on the home front is absurd. It is absurd because it implies that it is not possible for a government to do several things at the same time.
It is also absurd because Bridges would have been the first to pour scorn on Ardern had she not made the effort to get other countries to tackle extremism on the web in a co-ordinated fashion.

It is absurd because the public expectation has been that Ardern would continue to display leadership both at home and abroad in confronting the vast gaps in New Zealand’s laws and regulatory regime which has allowed extremism to take hold —be that lax controls on gun ownership, silencing hate speech or bringing order and oversight to the internet, the latter day version of the Wild West.

Putting all that to one side, it is apparent that painting the Christchurch Call as a failure is so far just plain wrong. It will be some time before it becomes clear whether the countries that have signed up to the accord are serious about fulfilling the commitments that being a signatory obliges them to adopt. It is early days, but as things stand the odds are on Ardern having pulled off a major diplomatic coup.

It is understandable why Bridges would want to rain on Ardern’s parade. But it is questionable whether it makes any sense for him to do so. In hindsight, it might have been wiser had Bridges instead pledged National’s willingness to back Ardern’s venture on a bipartisan basis much in the manner that Labour and National have co-operated in campaigns to secure a seat for New Zealand on the United Nations Security Council.

Such a manoeuvre might have earned Bridges some much-needed respect in his struggle to convince voters he is of sufficient calibre and moral fibre to hold the highest office in the land. In playing politics with the Christchurch Call, Bridges has more likely than not persuaded voters that he is not fit for that role. But then in Bridges case, that is business as usual.

Source: 1 NEWS


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