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Peter Wilson: Key Makes The Hard Calls

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson
John Key
John Key

So who said John Key was a populist prime minister? No one, actually, but the suspicion had been there that he might be prepared to compromise policy to stay on the right side of public opinion.

No way. Two decisions last week showed Key as a leader ready to make the hard calls when they threaten hazards ahead.

The first was refusing to allow reserved seats for Maori on Auckland's new super city council.

The Royal Commission that carried out an exhaustive inquiry into the city's future local government structure recommended them but the Cabinet decided in April it wasn't going to go along with that.

Then the pressure went on, mainly from the Maori Party which has a support agreement with National. That agreement, and the relationship Key has forged with its leaders, is important for the future because it will help National gather a parliamentary majority after the next election.

Maori organisations and some of Auckland's mayors were also vocal supporters of reserved seats but Key didn't back down from the position taken in April.

When he announced the decision last Monday he carefully set out scenarios through which Maori could still have the reserved seats they want, saying any candidate could run a mayoral campaign which included putting them in place.

That has happened, with Manukau mayor Len Brown announcing he would run for office with designated Maori seats in his manifesto.

But Key faces continued political opposition over the Maori seats. Labour wants them, and it is going to put up amendments to the super council legislation when it comes up for its committee stage in Parliament.

So is the Maori Party, and it will be voting with Labour. The Greens support the seats as well, and although National and ACT will have a slender majority when it comes to a vote, there is going to be a long and fiery debate before the bill goes through.

The second hard call Key faced was responding to the smacking referendum, in which 87.4 percent of those who voted said they didn't think a light smack should be a criminal offence.

He decided he wasn't going to change the law and would instead would give new and stronger assurances that welfare authorities and the police wouldn't prosecute inconsequential cases.

The pro-smacking lobby wailed and gnashed their teeth, arguing that the only way to fix the problem was to amend the law so a light smack wasn't a criminal offence.

Key was accused of ignoring the wishes of the vast majority of New Zealand voters and one MP, ACT's John Boscawen, said he had fallen into the same sort of trap that brought down former prime minister Helen Clark.

And then, with exquisite timing, a bill Boscawen drafted months ago was drawn from the member's ballot on Thursday.

That bill would make it legal for parents to lightly smack their children, meeting the wishes of the majority as they are defined by the promoters of the referendum.

Key faced another test -- should he allow the bill through its first reading, without committing himself to supporting it any further, on the grounds that the issue could be thrashed out through public submissions?

He didn't make an immediate call on that, telling reporters at 2pm he would hold a press conference about two hours later. The press gallery, alarmed by the prospect of having to again live through the smacking debate of 2007, speculated that he had changed his mind and was looking for a way to appease his critics.

No one is going to know what went through his mind during those two hours, but when he did front up to the media he announced a firm decision. National was going to vote against the bill on its first reading.

What he had done was sort out his reasoning for that decision.

"I gave this due consideration. I feel very strongly I've got a message from New Zealanders and they want a degree of comfort," he said.

"I'm going to try and provide that comfort, I'm very firm in the view that I can deliver that comfort that the law is working."

His assessment of what the message meant was a shrewd assessment of the situation.

It was that parents were uneasy about the law, but they had not been asked whether they wanted it changed.

The promoters of the referendum maintain it is implicit that 87.4 percent do want the law changed, but that wasn't the way they drafted the question.

Boscawen wanted Key to give his MPs a free vote on the bill, but he wasn't having any of that either.

Labour, much as it might have wanted to score points and court public opinion, finds itself on the same side as National.

It backed the bill that banned smacking in 2007, when there was an uproar over Clark's refusal to allow her MPs a free vote on it.

Phil Goff could allow Labour MPs a free vote this time, but he isn't likely to allow the sort of internal strife that could bring with it.

The Greens will vote against Boscawen's bill because it was one of their MPs, Sue Bradford, who started it all with her member's bill. So will the Maori Party, which strongly supported the smacking ban.

The only votes Boscawen can count on are ACT's, and unless something unexpected happens his bill is going to go down on a count of 117-5.

That will be Parliament's decision on whether the law should be changed. It will take the heat off Key, and the pro-smacking lobby will be fighting against huge odds if it continues its campaign for an amendment.

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