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Upton-on-line: Superannuation Secrets

Upton-on-line continues to be intrigued by Dr Michael Cullen's superambulations - and the totally benign, bored way in which commentators seem to regard them.

Having given over the Budget Policy Statement to announcing the Great Superannuation Fund (described by the Herald as 'breathtaking'), the Minister has announced that there won't after all be anything much about it in the Budget although "with a bit of luck" he'll be able to say more about it later in the year.

Upton-on-line is unaware of any previous instance of multi-billion dollar spending plans being airily discussed in such a vacuum. He keeps asking himself what he did wrong, as a minister over the last nine years, to attract so much attention to himself over sums as tiny as David Bale's salary at the Lotteries Commission. Do big number cock-ups have an anaesthetising effect on investigative journalism?

Equally extraordinary was Dr Cullen's thoughtful offer to anaesthetise Bill English by inviting him into his parlour for a secret briefing on his super fund plans. As the air of mystery surrounding the fund deepens, Dr Cullen sounds more and more like the mad scientist in a James Bond movie. Who knows whether Mr English would ever re-emerge from behind the laboratory door if he accepted the invitation?

The sharp issue is this: if there's one policy issue that you can't cook up in secret and impose unilaterally it's retirement income policy. Labour and National have been there, done that and paid the price. Secret briefings and a failure to disclose any official advice in support of the proposal seems a strange way to proceed...

Glowing in the Dark

The Finance Minister has been up to more funny business in the preparation of his Budget. This time it involves trying to head off dashed expectations that almost inevitably lie in the Budget's wake.

In the Pre-election Fiscal Update (PREFU) the previous Minister and the Treasury Secretary signed off - as they are required to do by law - a statement of all expenditure commitments entered into since the previous Budget and detailed all the risks (quantified and unquantified) that lay ahead of the Government.

At that stage the forecast surplus was just $17 million so there was precious little room to manoeuvre. That didn't deter Dr Cullen whose spending plans just ignored the risks. Now some of them have come to pass and Dr Cullen's room for manoeuvre is squeezed - as he should have known had he read the PREFU and taken a prudent position on spending promises.

So he has chosen to pretend that these forecast risks were skeletons in the cupboard "and those bones were radioactive - they glowed in the dark". The trouble is that the forecast budget surplus for this year is no longer $17 million but $400 million and rising. There should be plenty of headroom. It's just that Dr Cullen has unleashed expectations he has no hope of containing.

The only thing glowing in the dark is the Finance Minister's face.

Collective Cabinet Responsibility

New ground has again been broken by Tariana Turia who has bravely taken on the impassive and phlegmatic Police Minister George Hawkins in attacking the finger-printing of children as a move to "pre-criminalise" them.

Helpfully seeking to clarify matters, Mr Brian Neeson (National, Waitakere) asked Mr Hawkins whether these views represented Government policy. "No", replied the ever loquacious Mr Hawkins. He had discussed the matter with her on many occasions.

Upton-on-line could not resist seeking some elaboration on this non sequitur. Given the fact that these many conversations meant there could be no room for misunderstanding, did not Ms Turia's continuing assertion that the police were simply getting ready to catch their prey in advance amount to a breach of the rules demanding that Ministers take collective responsibility for their decisions.

"No", disagreed Mr Hawkins. Upton-on-line was plainly unaware that Ms Turia was not a member of the Cabinet.

So now we are quite clear: Ministers outside of Cabinet have free rein to advance whatever heresies they like. They are not part of the Cabinet. One assumes their views are given similar weight. Which raises the question what they're being paid to do at all.

>From the Plains of the Serengeti

The first week back on the trek has seen the animals much absorbed by bickering over their blood lines.

It all started when the cheetah with the sharpest fangs headed south into Zimbabwean territory. There's only one thing more dangerous than clever and articulate people at the helm and that's clever and articulate people on a roll.

Michael Cullen just couldn't resist a swipe at the wretched Greens who have most unreasonably declined to fall in with Labour's plans for a spot more rimu logging notwithstanding some inconvenient contracts in the way.

"There may", Dr Cullen sneered, "be people in this Parliament who believe one should just willy-nilly rush in, close off contracts which have been signed, not honour them, not offer compensation. That is essentially the Robert Mugabe approach to commercial law."

The charge conjured up an alarming image of rampaging veteran greenies occupying vast tracts of rimu forest while terrified chainsaw-toting foresters huddled behind defensive lines of bulldozers.

Cullen has always been a carnivore in sheep's clothing and the Greens were very unwise to have come within gouging distance. Rod Donald found the comment "silly and personally offensive" and retired bleeding, seeking an apology. There was about as much chance of that as getting Jeanette Fitzsimons to strangle a kiwi.

But it didn't end there because the Prime Minister couldn't resist a salutary swipe at Dr Cullen. Helen Clark categorised the exchange as a 'playground dispute' and coolly noted that "women seldom operate this way". The only trouble was that National's Tony Ryall (the man with a memory as insomniac as rust is corrosive) recalled her Olympian thunderbolt aimed at the poor benighted West Coasters - "feral, a Kentucky-like lynch mob and, according to some, inbred."

It was a splendid put-down delivered with the sort of classy hauteur that middle market Tories can never match. But it did seem ever so slightly reminiscent of the play-ground, albeit one for thoroughbreds. "How", he asked, "could she explain the lapse?".

Upton-on-line recalls being taught that 'sticks and stones can break your bones but names can never hurt you'. The time-honoured adage doesn't, apparently, extend to placards. They can and did - especially the ones that read "Bugger Labour" and "Up Helen".

Hasty meetings with the aggrieved greenery were convened and Dr Cullen was appropriately humbled although the breaking of contracts is now to be described rather grandly as force majeure rather than welching on a deal.

Again that might have been the end of it all - the Prime Minister leading her herd into the sunset with wounded Greens in her baggage train and a disgruntled Finance Minister sulking in the rear. But the scars had barely time to form a scab before another attack was launched - this time from the mongrel strain within the governing herd.

Associate Health Minister Ruth Dyson was unwise enough to try to brush off an earnest question from the Greens' very own scion of good breeding - the always haute coutured Sue Kedgley. Why, she wanted to know, was there going to be a delay in having little labels on every pork chop warning of the risks of extra toes or mutant tonsils should they harbour alien genes?

Ms Dyson tried to remind her inquisitor that they had had private chats about this and that she knew full well what was going on. Ms Kedgley was unmollified. She sought leave of the House to table the notes of her discussions with the Minister. No-one objected, leave was granted.

But only because Trevor Mallard was asleep and failed to deny leave. Awakened, too late, to the awful possibility of yet another gaping rift in the Government's relationship with the Greens, Trevor summoned all his hybrid vigour and stormed across the chamber in the direction of the frightened bunch snarling "that's an end to the briefings".

Kedgley looked dazed. The rest of the animals were in an uproar. For defenceless, wounded herbivores to be gored within sight of their Prime Ministerial protector, in full big-screen Technicolour, was more than anyone had dared hope for. As sun set over the Valley, a tense and divided camp prepared to pitch camp for the night......

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