Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Gold Card

St Patrick’s Day. It’s the day the leprechauns have a picnic. Historian Patrick O’Farrell explored Irish migration in the nineteenth century to Australia and New Zealand. His basic argument was that these migrants both detested and admired the majority British culture. My forbears were part of that majority culture. During my youth intermarriage between Catholic and Protestant was frowned upon by both parties. That didn’t stop my lot singing with gusto "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" and "Danny Boy". Bing Crosby’s rendition of Galway Bay had them all dewy-eyed.

I didn’t mention the occasion on last year’s blog for the day. Instead I lamented the fact that having become eligible for a gold card – thank you Winston – I could not longer use it as I was incapable of using buses.

So I was interested a few days ago when Transport Minister Stephen Joyce talked about a review of the card use. In a fund of $18 million, $2 million was being spent on the Waiheke ferry service. The other big user was the rail trip from the Wairarapa to Wellington.

To my surprise and to an extent I found myself sympathetic. Fullers who provide the Waiheke service have done well from the card. So, probably have the retailers on the island itself. I don’t want to be a killjoy but it seemed to me that the intentions of the card were being overwhelmed by pensioners having jaunts. Again, why shouldn’t they. But as a taxpayer I was quite happy to have the government looking at the cost-benefits.

Let me say one thing clearly. I applaud the service going to people who use it because it lessened hardship and enabled them to make the trip to hospital, visit friends and go shopping. And, means tests are cumbersome and difficult to apply.

To my further surprise, almost immediately Joyce did a U-turn. He had been misinterpreted. He’d merely meant discussions with the providers. It had all the signs of a minister being lent on by someone higher up the Beehive. Joyce is normally a safe pair of hands. He’d apparently goofed on this one.

The change of heart seems to me to reflect two characteristics of this government. First – ministers are given considerable free rein. But what happens if their decisions are politically unpalatable? Second – I thought the Clark government was incredibly poll-driven. The Key government is even more so. Probably all modern democratic governments are.

There’s been a lot of huffing and puffing about mining in conservation reserves. But the prospect of a fight with the environmental lobby alarms the government. Likewise, the gold card. You can’t upset the golden oldies.

But you can’t govern a country deferring to lobby groups all the time. The foreshore issue waits like a time-bomb. I wonder what National’s polling is revealing on that one. The leprechauns can’t help them here.

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