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Opinion: Upton-On-Line - Delicious Delegations


The Prime Minister has released the schedule of responsibilities that has been drawn up for the myriad Associate Ministers that this government has spawned. There are no fewer than 18 different ministers (out of an Executive of 26) running around associating themselves with other ministers. They span a mind-boggling 38 portfolios.

Some are sensible divisions of sprawling portfolios that benefit from the synergies that ministers with associated portfolios can provide. This category includes:

 Paul Swain (associating himself with elements of the energy and justice portfolios that link up with his commerce job)
 Jim Sutton (who looks after the trade negotiations aspects of foreign affairs & trade)
 Margaret Wilson (who looks after the constitutional and electoral elements of the justice portfolio that appropriately embellish a former law professor turned Attorney-General)

There’s the odd trouble shooting role moulded around the personal attributes of the minister in question. Trevor Mallard’s associate finance role is ominously described as “assisting the Minister with bilaterals conducted as part of the Budget process”.

Translated into the vernacular Albanian, this means cutting off the arms, legs and ears of unfortunate spending ministers in the pre-budget carnage that the Treasury sponsors each year as a way of staying within pre-agreed fiscal limits. Bill Birch personally savoured this role in the last government. It says something for Michael Cullen’s squeamishness that Trevor is to be hauled back from the gulag of chief executive terrorisation squads to impose fiscal discipline.

Then there are a raft of associations that are consolation prizes for those who didn’t make it through the cabinet door – Ruth Dyson handling replies to letters from embittered ACC claimants, Judith Tizard doing all the arts things Helen won’t have time to do as well as mysteriously “overseeing the Heart of the Nation”.

The biggest tranche is probably the ‘eye-over-the-shoulder’ associate roles that are there to ensure that coalition partners do not stray. These ones are invariably described as “No specific delegations – to be involved in general policy development”. They include:

 Pete Hodgson spying on Jim Anderton in economic development and regional development
 Phillida Bunkle spying on Marian Hobbs in environment, and
 Laila Harre spying on Margaret Wilson on behalf of the unions on labour

A bland series of delegations have Tariana Turia and Parekura Horomia tripping all over everyone as they involve themselves in “general policy development with particular regard to Maori”.

Finally, and most scandalously, there is the sprawling make-work scheme that has John Wright, the only Parliamentary Under-Secretary, involved in

 “general policy development – no specific delegations” on economic development, industry and regional development
 assisting in “aspects of the racing portfolio as they arise”, and – most implausibly –
 working with the revenue minister on the arcane complexities of child support policy, compliance and penalty issues and the proposed “General Inquiry” into taxation.

There will be so many people informing on one another and getting in the way of any decisions ever being taken that they will need to install temporary bunks and a fast food counter outside the cabinet committee room on the 8th floor of the beehive to accommodate the hundreds of officials that will have to be on hand to help these associate ministers argue with one another.

Last week we described the basic, Darwinian dynamics of the House in Question Time. As a result of popular demand we have decided to report weekly From the Plains of the Serengeti.

As we commented last week, the cast is still only coming into focus. But from upton-on-line’s binoculars the key players are already marked out. There is the plain dwelling, vegetarian herd led by Helen Clark and the carnivores at the top of the food chain led by Jenny Shipley. There are one or two big game hunters like Rodney Hide and Gerry Brownlee. And there are the scavengers led by Winston Peters. Mr Speaker appears to be a large, occasionally fierce and immovable object with thickened skin and ancient mien who has stumped the savannah over more years than any of the other animals can remember.

And yesterday (Wednesday) there was a visitor from outer space (or was it Westport) who rose in the Gallery facing the Speaker and declared her undying love for Winston Peters. The menagerie loved it and an embattled minister was saved from attack as mirth erupted.

There have been two notable predatory raids so far this week. The first, on Tuesday, involved the unfortunate Marian Hobbs. This amiable herbivore continues to attract a high level of interest. Her inability to pull the word ‘operational’ from her hard disc (leaving it to be supplied by helpful opposition members) had the government front bench grimacing. Yesterday they closed ranks, put their heads down and hid their injured colleague from the snipers.

The second incident involved a timid, forest margin dweller rarely sighted by observers. Sandra Lee found herself surrounded by an inquisitive pack as she tried to explain why her car had been impounded and its driver charged with a string of traffic offences. Never straying far from the watchful eye of the leader of the herd, she stuck to her lines about it being inappropriate to comment further while an investigation was under way.

As the list of responsibilities held by associate ministers shows, there is plenty of big game hunting in store!

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