Hard News by Russell Brown

50

Bob each way

Here's the good thing about John Key's speech this week: it highlights genuine need rather than, as those of his predecessor did, targeting latent resentment. If its content drifts into the banal sometimes - Key's evocation of "the Kiwi way" is spectacularly shallow - it is certainly an improvement.

More canny, on the other hand, was Key's invitation for Helen Clark to accompany him to McGehan Close in Owairaka, the street the National leader described in his speech as a "dead end" and a place "where rungs on the ladder of opportunity have been broken." It was not an accident that Key chose a street in Clark's own electorate.

Clark can't accept such an invitation - and let Key set the agenda - of course, and she has spent vastly more time as a politician in poor neighbourhoods than Key has. But her inevitable refusal can easily be made to look churlish.

NB: From Mark Easterbrook in the discussion for this post: "I'll agree they've put Helen in a bit of a spot, but if John Key wants to use McGehan Close to score political points, he better stop refering to it as being in "South Auckland", as he did when talking to Havoc on bFM this morning."

Yikes.

The commentary since has been interesting: in its editorial, the Herald had even more of a bob each way than Key did in his speech (the Northern Advocate's effort was much more interesting), while John Armstrong mused on the new leadership's differences from the old:

To forestall criticism that he is not offering solutions either, Mr Key suggests as a starter that business and the Government work together to help low-decile schools feed deprived pupils who turn up every morning on an empty stomach.
This sounds like 19th-century philanthropy, rather than the welfare state. It illustrates Mr Key's inclination for pragmatic solutions. Dr Brash would have looked at sanctions against the children's parents.

But eventually concluded: ho-hum.

The Herald was doing its best to lend the speech some gravity and relevance this week, visiting McGehan Close, where residents agreed that it is a scary place to live, with street crime and fighting between youth gangs. Perhaps part of the answer is to continue to break away from the slum model, and to place public housing tenants in more diverse neighbourhoods. If you asked John Key now, I suspect he'd agree.

But if he did, he'd be saying something quite different from what he said last year, when he slammed plans to place 500 new Housing New Zealand properties in a housing development on the old Hobsonville air base land as an act of "economic vandalism" that could create a ghetto amid $500,000 sections. He said Hobsonville was a pristine piece of land and there was the opportunity to build "something pretty good there." But only if those pesky poor people aren't allowed to spoil it, right?

As the Greens' Sue Bradford said at the time: "There is no reason that state house tenants should not be able to live near the water on prime real estate. Why should they be bundled off to the back blocks like second class citizens - out of sight and out of mind?"

A subsequent interview with Scoop's Kevin List didn't really clear things up: apparently Key is for "pepper-potting" of state housing except where he's against it.

So while Key's concern for the underclass might usefully prick Labour's conscience, he would be more personally convincing if he could keep a political idea in his head for more than a few months.

I'm not saying this idly. A third of the properties in the street where I live are public housing, and that has led to real difficulties at times (we had more than our share of former jailbirds and crazy people for a while), but it's a better way. And while he's evoking his childhood, Key would do well to recall that Burnside High School had quite a varied catchment when he attended it: I had friends who lived in state houses in Bryndwr and friends who lived in big, flash houses off Memorial Ave.

Anyway, the two major parties' research units have been duelling with statistics: Labour's pointing to the gains of recent years, National's highlighting deficits. Labour's data are more substantial - some of the National facts are simply a recitation of the last few weeks' headlines - and the numbers on employment and housing costs are quite compelling, but one does function as a critique of the other: a notice that not everything is rosy yet. I will find John Key's critique more convincing if and when he offers more convincing solutions.

Update: Anyway, after posting this, I thought I might as well take the opportunity to take a five-minute drive and visit McGehan Close before John Key does. It's a pocket of state housing in a cul de sac in Mt Albert: mostly modern well-kept townhouses, with a 60s-vintage block of pensioner flats at one end. The pensioner flats are being upgraded at the moment, as are the footpaths. It doesn't look like a slum: I lived in far worse places in London, and the houses are in much better nick than the older Housing New Zealand properties in my street. OTOH, there was broken glass crunching under my wheels as I turned around, which might be testament to the local youth crime problem.

Meanwhile, one of our readers, who knows the area well, is taking strong issue with the "street of shame" idea.

PS: I'm sad to hear about the Rising Sun pub on K Road suffering serious fire damage this morning, but glad that it has now been established that everyone is safe. I had some great times in that place. Update: Not as serious as first feared, and only the top floor damaged - they're talking about being open again by the weekend. Yay.

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