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Peter Wilson: Election Has Delivered A Promising Parliament

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson

Putting Parliament into urgency and passing two controversial bills last week was the best thing the Government could have done for the Labour Party.

Fresh from an election defeat and with a new front bench, Labour needed to kick start its caucus and show the country what opposition is all about.

It did just that, and it did it well.

The 90-day probation bill was perfect for its purposes. The Government says giving businesses with fewer than 20 employees the right to sack a new worker without facing the risk of legal action is a win-win for both sides.

Companies will give young people, particularly immigrants, the chance to show they can do the job, ministers say. And employers are spared costs "associated with recruitment".

No way, said Labour, it's a vicious assault on workers' rights. Backed by unions, the Human Rights Commission, employment lawyers and numerous other watchdogs, they ripped into the Government.

Phil Goff, Clayton Cosgrove, Ruth Dyson and even some of Labour's rookie MPs stoked up furious debates and National's recruits must have wondered what was going on. Wasn't Labour supposed to be behaving like losers? It isn't, it's got 43 MPs and the Government is going to know they're there.

The big ticket item on the agenda was the Government's tax bill, which also carried changes to KiwiSaver.

Another gift for Labour, and on this one the Government ran into not just the new fired-up finance spokesman David Cunliffe but the former finance minister as well, Michael Cullen.

Those two make a mean team and National is going to really wish Cullen had sought a more peaceful life outside Parliament. He isn't showing any signs of wanting that.

The problem with tax bills is that both sides produce figures which don't stack up and it's extremely difficult to establish which are valid.

In this case, Labour insisted low income workers were significantly worse off under National's plan than they would have been if its own tax package had been allowed to run its course.

Finance Minister Bill English dismissed this as "opposition rubbish" and said there were no losers.

But Cunliffe and Cullen had a plan. They put up an amendment to the bill which, they said, would even out the difference between the two packages by introducing a new tax credit.

English invoked the financial veto, a device ministers use to wipe out opposition amendments which would cost the Government money it hasn't budgeted for. That's standard procedure, but to do it he had to say how much it would cost if Labour's amendment was passed. It was "at least $730 million over five years" the veto document said.

Labour was ecstatic, claiming proof from the Government's own hand that there was a big difference between the tax packages.

The veto meant Parliament wouldn't vote on the amendment, but later that chaotic evening English withdrew the veto -- it still hasn't been explained why -- and the amendment went to a vote.

It was defeated 68-52, it was always going to be defeated, and English would have been a lot better off just letting it die quietly.

Labour said he had been afraid the Maori Party might support the amendment, which it didn't, but it would have been voted down anyway on the core majority held by National and ACT.

Maybe he didn't want the veto notice hanging around because it contained the incriminating figure, but it isn't going to go away because by issuing it he made it a public document.

Then there was a third bill also tailor-made for the opposition. This piece of legislation, the Education (National Standards) Amendment Bill, allows the minister of education to set national literacy and numeracy standards which students will be assessed against.

Chris Carter, the former education minister and now Labour's spokesman for education, said it would be a disaster because it would bring back standard tests, league tables and, inevitably, comparisons between schools.

But the Government put up a compelling case as well, with new Education Minister Anne Tolley saying parents wanted to know how well their children were doing and this would show them, clearly and unequivocally.

"We promised that and we're keeping our promise," she said.

Although Labour can safely be said to have come out on top after the first week of the new Parliament, "winning the House" as it's called, it didn't have everything its own way.

National has some talented newcomers on its benches and when they're through the initiation rites their presence is going to be felt.

Sam Lotu-Iiga and Melissa Lee delivered strong maiden speeches and others, who haven't yet given their maidens, weren't shy to take part in the debates on the bills.

National's new Rotorua MP, Todd McClay, was outstanding on the education bill and showed he's a gifted speaker.

Lockwood Smith, the new Speaker, handled the house quietly and effectively. His deputy, Lindsay Tische, made it clear from the start that he wasn't going to put up with any nonsense from either side of the House.

The 49th Parliament looks like being a very good one. A government with a strong mandate and a solid majority and an opposition with enough seats to be really effective led by highly experienced MPs like Goff and Annette King.

Sitting right behind them are Cullen and Helen Clark, who ran the government for nine years through just about every sort of crisis that leaders have to manage.

On National's benches there's real cultural diversity that includes the first Sikh MP. There are new young women with can-do attitudes who are already mixing it with the opposition.

This is all good for Parliament, and the talent in National's ranks should have the effect of keeping ministers at the top of their game. If they don't deliver, others will be knocking on Prime Minister John Key's door.

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