Remember Novapay? National Cabinet Minister Craig Foss won’t ever forget it because this debacle was the beginning of the end of his political career. He handled the situation so badly that the Prime Minister took the responsibility for navigating a solution away from him and gave the task of PRing the issue to Steven Joyce. Joyce ended up convincing the majority of the public that all was okay, and Foss disappeared into oblivion.
Well, not quite. He retained the commerce portfolio. In the last major cabinet reshuffle, when Wilkinson and Heatley lost their jobs, the rumour doing the rounds was that Foss’s neck was also on the block. He somehow survived; and the same source tells me it was by the skin of his teeth due to a rather uncharacteristic sense of loyalty displayed by Key.
Surely with the latest round of incompetence displayed by the Minister of Commerce, Foss’s days as a cabinet minister are numbered. What has he done wrong? Well, simply proven that he hasn’t a political instinct in his body. This week Shane Jones came out firing in a way that only Jonesy can. He used parliamentary privilege to launch a stinging attack against Progressive Enterprises.
He knew exactly what he was doing, and the strategy is perfect. What it does is start a process that begins to flush out the truth: a truth that refused to be told by anyone directly affected, but that impacted upon the majority of New Zealanders. Virtually no one else could have done what Jonesy did, and certainly not without the legal immunity provided by parliamentary privilege.
He struck a chord that resonated with the media, the public, and almost everyone else except the Minister of Commerce. Alas Hon Mr Foss came out and said that it was nothing to do with him and that the Commerce Commission could investigate.
Of course technically Foss is right, but this is politics; this is election year; and this is quickly turning into a pretty big issue. People expect the type of leadership Jones showed, and that Key prides himself on delivering. Kiwis expect their political leaders to stand up for them; especially against big business – and absolutely against big Australian businesses that are ripping them off. And Foss failed totally. Utterly. In fact he couldn’t have misjudged the situation much worse than he did. The next thing we know Key himself is fronting the issue and I doubt we will hear anything more from the Minister of Commerce on this.
This also comes back to Labour’s House strategy. Key, English and Joyce are all good performers in the Chamber during question time. Very competent and rarely bettered. Ministers like Foss, Guy, Tremain are not good performers at all; characterized by an inability to think quickly on their feet in the face of sustained opposition attack. While the vast majority of New Zealanders don’t watch parliamentary TV, or give a damn about question time, the media does. But more importantly, ministers own colleagues are always there; critiquing, criticizing – and waiting.
House performance is critical to any Minister’s progress because this is where he or she is judged by a jury of his/her peers. It’s where weak ministers are exposed and, at the hands of a master, destroyed. Lockwood Smith got rid of Philip Field through relentless questioning day after day. Benson Pope cracked; Muldoon was the master assassin because, apparently, he took no prisoners, and if a man was down, he would take a ruthless delight in putting the boot in and kicking until the last little bit of shit had been expelled from the rotting political corpse.
Foss is now the weakest link in Key’s cabinet. He is damaged goods and any concerns Key must have had have now been confirmed. To be honest, with Chris Tremain gone in Napier, I am surprised that Foss decided to stay on in Tukituki, as Chris really was the name, the brand and the Hawkes Bay workhorse – and a thoroughly decent chap to match; Foss just rode the coat tails. In fact, when there was a massive rain event in Foss’ electorate that caused huge slips, Foss decided to continue on an overseas trip while Chris organized clean-up crews to go into Foss’ electorate and sort the situation out.
Foss may survive in cabinet until the next election, but expect Labour’s attack dogs to go for the jugular now that they smell blood and fear. Politics is a brutal game and Foss just got totally mauled by a combination of Jones’ competence, and a complete lack of his own. The best result for Foss this year: National lose and he doesn’t have to explain why he’s not in cabinet. Lets hope.