Hard News by Russell Brown

Sitting Ducks

Not such a great week for the Act Party, then. Indeed, let us count the ways in which things are turning pear-shaped for the party that formed to knock off Roger Douglas's unfinished business and got lost down the blind alley of populism.

There was, of course, Donna Awatere Huata, who stormed through the weekend in what appeared to be her own version of reality. The party either can't, or won't (for fear of losing nearly $100,000 of Parliamentary funding) properly cut her loose, even though she is surely doing it damage simply by being there.

Then, on Friday afternoon, there was another outbreak of the decidedly iffy, as the party's newest MP, Deborah Coddington, was obliged to issue a press statement in response to a call from the Sunday Star Times.

The SST had the story - which has been developing for a while - that Coddington's partner, Alister Taylor, faces supreme court action from the New South Wales Fair Trading Commission for failing to produce copies of two expensive vanity books - one on Australians who had won honours and awards and the other on those who had carried the Olympic flame - after taking the money.

Eight hundred people have complained about Taylor's business practices and former Aussie PM Gough Whitlam - quoted on one of the Australian Roll of Honour marketing brochures as endorsing the series - is flatly denying having given his endorsement or even having seen one of the books.

Coddington, a former director of Roll of Honour, severed most of her business ties with Taylor before entering Parliament, but problems with this company are hardly anything new. Vanity publishing of this kind is not only tacky (and vaguely predatory) by nature, it's rife with other problems - especially when, as Roll of Honour does, you allow people to write their own entries and don't check them. In one remarkable case, a man was able to concoct a fictional military record and have it published by Taylor. Taylor has, in the past, published some genuinely important New Zealand books. These days, however, you wouldn't touch him with a bargepole.

Things got even worse for Act with this morning's Herald, which had two rollicking stories based on strategy papers written by Richard Prebble and his MPs. There's too much great stuff to relay here, but highlights included Prebble's lament about credibility:

If a centre-right government is to win, then we must destroy Labour's economic credibility and establish ours. This will not be easy. Labour has high economic credibility. Act has never had economic credibility. We need a strategy to give Act economic credibility.

Prebble's distinctly two-faced attitude to Act's prospective coalition partner:

National has no strategy. I do not think there is anyone in their caucus. John Banks seems to be the best prospect. We cannot promote another leader, but I think we should not do anything to prevent it.

What are our lines towards National? A great party that will never recover. National must go for the middle ground. Our objective is to have National voters think Act for the list.

Act's research chief Peter McCardle on the party's Parliamentary secretaries:

Well, as best as I can tell, most spend a lot of time watching the clock and smoking. Actually you would think they could at least try and look busy, wouldn't you?

And finally - this is apparently not a joke - Deborah Coddington's literary ambitions:

I am also working on a children's book, the 'Little Yellow Duck of Freedom', after I heard an item on the radio about a container which fell off a ship in the ocean, broke apart, and released over 10,000 floating toys, including yellow ducks.

Scientists have used these ducks to study oceanic flows and winds etc. However, I got the idea of using a yellow duck, bobbing all around the world, overcoming disasters, meeting other ducks, and spreading freedom, choice and responsibility.

The thing is, none of this will elicit a jot of sympathy from anyone. Ever since Derek Quigley departed, Act has, with the occasional exception of Stephen Franks, presented as mean-spirited and cynical. The fact that its Machiavellian wangling in National's leadership change has had the ironic effect of slashing its poll rating will be causing a few chuckles in Wellington.

Labour, meanwhile, was having its own conference in Christchurch. Hugh Sundae asked Helen Clark this morning if Labour might be in danger of the same sort of embarrassing strategy leak as Act. "We don't tend to commit too much to paper," she observed dryly.

What did emerge from the conference were a couple of clear nods to a centre-left identity. A firm - but again delayed - commitment to a standard four weeks' leave for New Zealand workers, which Brash has already promised to repeal. And an attempt to halt the foreign land-grab on New Zealand's coastlines, which I expect will go down very well, not just with the public but with economists fretting about the impact of property prices.

Best on-the-ground comment from Baghdad I've read in a while. The Times' Simon Jenkins' Baghdad will survive even Western bunglers:

Yet the explosions are a sign to every Iraqi of what has apparently failed to materialise, at least in Baghdad and its surrounding region, which is order. Sitting in the bomb-gutted office of the American-appointed Mayor of Fallujah yesterday I could sense his despair. He had survived five assassination attempts and had just read of $87 billion being devoted to the rebuilding of Iraq. None was coming his way. There was no American soldier near his building. Requests for flak jackets and better guns had been ignored. His pathetic bodyguards were huddled behind sandbags, awaiting the next rocket. It reminded me of the Alamo.

Just up the road stands Saddam’s appalling Abu Ghraib prison camp. It passes belief that what should have been bulldozed as a publicity gesture was blithely reopened as the local Guantanamo Bay. A crowd outside was desperately seeking news of inmates. One had a son arrested two months ago after an Apache helicopter had seen him on the roof of the family home looking out after an explosion. He had vanished. Most of the crowd had news of relatives only from smuggled pieces of paper.

Anyway, thanks for all the emails - from as far afield as Japan, New York, Hawaii and Singapore - during the 95bFM alternative rugby commentary on Saturday night. We enjoyed it - especially after we got the crowd noise effect working properly after about 20 minutes, which really helped the atmosphere. We'll be back this Saturday for the semi-final against Australia, and hopefully the weekend after that for the final.

As regards the game, we got to see a little more of what Mitchell and his team have been keeping under wraps - Spencer's running game in particular. I'm picking that the poke down the touchline for Howlett to chase (Wendell Sailor turns around like a big old truck) will be deployed against Australia, but that we'll have to wait till the final for the banana kick. It's fascinating. Anyway, good story about Mitchell in victory ("indistinguishable from Mitchell in defeat") in the Observer.