Hard News by Russell Brown


The One News Colmar Brunton poll will have been the one that Labour was sweating on. Through some vagary of polling method, it is traditionally the unkindest poll for the centre-left. It was also the poll that confirmed the Brash backlash earlier this year. If that turned, then things were looking up.

And turn it did, quite markedly. If the Maori Party and Green votes are added to Labour's 44% then the centre-left is suddenly in a stronger position than it was at the last election. For all the fussing and fighting, the Maori Party is not going to get in bed with National, and its emergence may even have helped Labour by separating off the politically unpalatable staunch end of the Maori vote.

The Maori Party is going to win an electorate seat - and perhaps two or three - next year, but the Greens can't be as confident of reaching the 5% national benchmark. There will be room for tactical voting on either side of the political divide.

So wassup? My Mum's little birthday party in a Kapiti retirement village recently was the closest I've got to a focus group, and that was interesting. With a sole exception, the ladies thought Helen Clark, who had visited the area the week before, was a pretty good sort. And they thought that the week-long speeding-motorcade story was silly. For all the furious speculation about the political damage that might flow from the incident, I get the feeling that the reverse was the case.

National may, like New Zealand First before it, have discovered the limits of the grumpy vote. Its major policy announcements so far - the Treaty, law and order - have focused on grievance, and on luring a constituency, rather than on governance. The next one off the blocks - welfare - is from the same mould. It may be that there is an insufficient reservoir of anger out there to sustain such a strategy.

The electorate may also be starting to feel, with the present dream run of economic numbers, that things actually aren't too foul at the moment. Meanwhile, the conservative backlash has been tainted and will be rendered more so by tthe forthcoming National Front march in Wellington. No, of course, the National Party does not want a bar of the National Front, but the anti-liberal circus is brought low nonetheless by its presence. I have a feeling that Destiny New Zealand's Enough Is Enough rally won't chime with the public either.

But yesterday's poll demonstrates amply that Labour's key electoral asset is leadership. Don Brash shed seven points on the preferred Prime Minister question, down to 25% support, and Clark is riding high on 37%. The arrival in that poll of John Tamihere will hardly be unwelcome either. National has a clearly articulated message around Brash - that of a decent and serious man, untainted by politics - but the leader himself has struggled to do it justice. National might have to risk letting him ask some Parliamentary questions to let him get more air. After all, if he can't be trusted to ask questions, how can he be expected to answer them as Prime Minister?

This is hardly the final word of course. The NBR Philips Fox poll did show a boost after the law and order speech, and National is in a far better position than it was late last year. Labour has shown that it's more than capable of screwing up again. But Act is flatlining as a potential coalition partner and National's loss of its implicit role as a government-in-waiting may hurt as much as anything. The media's reef fish may now get bored and start swimming the other way.

Tracey's All Black game stats from the diabolical test match in Johannesburg are in, and it's not pretty. As she notes:

If you want to understand why we looked so appalling in this game, take a good look at the First 3 to the Breakdown numbers – compare them with previous games and you’ll notice that the figures are lower than normal (about half of what we normally expect) and also take a look at where our loose forwards feature in the list. You’d at least expect to see our opensider appearing in the first three names, and certainly it wouldn’t be expecting too much to see our blindsider and No 8 in the first eight named! Give the Boks that much latitude up front and you’re going to suffer. Add to that the “hot potato” game the backs were playing, then it was just a recipe for disaster.

We were clearly done like a dinner in the loose forwards. The absence of Richie McCaw has had a serious impact this season, and without him we're in a spot where our loose trio is outmatched for pace and power by those of our Tri-Nations opponents. Rush and Gibbes are stout journeymen well-equipped to take on the ponderous England loosies, but they simply lack the athleticism required for the top flight of the southern hemisphere game.

But who's in line? Jerry Collins is increasingly one-dimensional and Lauaki was a shambles in Auckland's Ranfurly Shield loss to Bay of Plenty yesterday (congratulations to the Bay, by the way). Tuiali'i still doesn't look the business either. This NPC season has suddenly taken on a whole new vibe: there will be a bolter or two for the end-of-year tour to England.

Word in the Sunday papers was that Tasesa Lavea will be among them. The Auckland first-five, a relatively recent convert back from rugby league, stood out for Auckland yesterday, and Auckland coach Pat Lam has hinted that he might yet hold his place ahead of Carlos Spencer. It seems an experiment worth considering for the AB tour too: if the coaching masterminds want to stick with their flat-backline theory then they should pick a first-five who can take the ball to the line.

Speaking of the Sunday papers, does the Star Times' Sunday magazine have a rule about never putting a story that's actually about something on its front cover? Yesterday's edition featured a really good profile of Auckland art dealer and former rocker Gary Langsford. He's a good-looking man, charming and the very picture of suave baby-boomer Auckland: a sitter for the cover, surely. But no: that went to another arbitrary social trend story, this time on "eco-chic", or, rather, an eight-years-too late story on Grey Lynn matrons who spend the household budget on organic food and alternative remedies. Zzzzz …

In the news section, Tony Wall has a story headed Destiny defends use of children, whose elements will be, er, familiar to Hard News readers. Don't Tamaki and his mates look like thugs in the photograph?

My Wide Area News column in the new Listener gathers the threads of the recent Herald plagiarism scandal. It is liable to upset one or two people, but some things needed saying …

Meanwhile, Yamis at BloggingItReal is doing a comma count on me! No, really, full stops are so last year.

And this just in … a stunning story from Atlantic Monthly's Alan Cullison about
coming into possession of al-Qaeda's computers in Afghanistan.:

Perhaps one of the most important insights to emerge from the computer is that 9/11 sprang not so much from al-Qaeda's strengths as from its weaknesses. The computer did not reveal any links to Iraq or any other deep-pocketed government; amid the group's penury the members fell to bitter infighting. The blow against the United States was meant to put an end to the internal rivalries, which are manifest in vitriolic memos between Kabul and cells abroad. Al-Qaeda's leaders worried about a military response from the United States, but in such a response they spied opportunity: they had fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and they fondly remembered that war as a galvanizing experience, an event that roused the indifferent of the Arab world to fight and win against a technologically superior Western infidel. The jihadis expected the United States, like the Soviet Union, to be a clumsy opponent. Afghanistan would again become a slowly filling graveyard for the imperial ambitions of a superpower.

Like the early Russian anarchists who wrote some of the most persuasive tracts on the uses of terror, al-Qaeda understood that its attacks would not lead to a quick collapse of the great powers. Rather, its aim was to tempt the powers to strike back in a way that would create sympathy for the terrorists. Al-Qaeda has so far gained little from the ground war in Afghanistan; the conflict in Iraq, closer to the center of the Arab world, is potentially more fruitful. As Arab resentment against the United States spreads, al-Qaeda may look less like a tightly knit terror group and more like a mass movement. And as the group develops synergy in working with other groups branded by the United States as enemies (in Iraq, the Israeli-occupied territories, Kashmir, the Mindanao Peninsula, and Chechnya, to name a few places), one wonders if the United States is indeed playing the role written for it on the computer.

Unintended consequences? Surely not …