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Richard Prebble's Letter From Wellington 19/8/2002

Richard Prebble's Letter From Wellington
Monday August 19, 2002

Setting the Scene Much of the action this Parliament will take place in select committees. In the past these committees have been rubber stamps for the executive. But the places on the 14 committees are allocated strictly proportionately. Now Helen Clark has 54 MPs out of 120 (counting Jim Anderton and his friend). Clark will be forced to rely on either United Future or the Greens at every single turn. She will lose a lot more control of the legislative agenda. Jeanette Fitzsimons will be chair of the local government and environment committee, giving her the ability to determine the committee's work programme. Peter Dunne will have the same ability as chair of the foreign affairs and trade committee. ACT New Zealand wants to help, and believes the chairs should be allocated proportionately to the make-up of Parliament. ACT has experienced members willing to help Labour. The Green Party and National both support ACT's stance.

Government Gains Weight Taxpayers are now footing the bill for more than half the Labour caucus to enjoy the trappings of office. The newly obese Labour cabinet reveals Helen Clark's fear of losing control over her caucus in her Government's second term. To ensure dissension doesn't take place, Ms Clark has made room inside the tent for everybody. This has meant she has had to go to extremes, creating the 'Associate Racing Minister' portfolio (Harry Duynhoven) and the 'Urban Affairs' portfolio (Marian Hobbs).

What This Means One effect of Helen Clark's "job creation scheme" is that Labour's weakest people are left over for select committee work. High-fliers Di Yates, Janet Mackey and Martin Gallagher will be carrying the load. Haven't heard of them? Neither had Helen Clark when she was handing out favours. It is ironic that Helen Clark's excuse for an early election was a 'logjam' of legislation. Now she has created the perfect conditions for a whole tonne of legislation to go nowhere at all.

Number Twenty Seven Maurice Williamson and Bill English need to find common ground. A history lesson serves a warning. In attempting to rejuvenate his Opposition front bench in the aftermath of Muldoon's hard reign, Jim McLay created a Cabinet that sealed his own fate. After McLay demoted Sir Robert Muldoon to last-place in the National caucus, Muldoon devoted his life to being a thorn in McLay's side. Dumped veterans George Gair and Bill Birch plotted McLay's demise from the back bench. The rest of the caucus was jealously unhappy as the likes of Ruth Richardson and Simon Upton leap-frogged them. Today, the National Party cannot afford the luxury of internal ructions.

Memory Loss? Australian news channels reported the Pacific Islands Forum as a success for Prime Minister John Howard, because no other leader cited Australia's immigration policies as a matter of concern. Having made such a song and dance at home in New Zealand, why was Helen Clark silent abroad?

Defining the Family The policy wonks are facing a rather tricky dilemma: how to define the "family" in a way that will keep both United Future and Labour happy. Labour has agreed to set up a Commission of the Family to placate United Future. The moral conservatives in United Future won't be happy if the definition is any broader than "a mother and father with children". But Labour wants the definition to be as broad as possible. Will United Future accept a definition that includes same-sex couples? And if the definition is too broad, will pets and flatmates be part of the "family"? The outcome will reveal how far both Helen Clark and Peter Dunne will bend in order to keep hold of power.

Musical Chairs An issue that seems small to those outside parliament and disproportionately important to some inside is seating in the debating chamber. National wants all of its 27 members to sit together directly opposite cabinet ministers. But they are unlikely to get what they want, because this would mean National (with 27 members) would hold nine of the 14 available opposition front bench seats, leaving just five for NZ First, ACT and the Greens (which combined have 31 seats). Although seemingly inconsequential, the debate does raise questions as to whether parliamentary practice needs to adapt further to the MMP environment. Should Bill English retain his position as Leader of the Opposition, representing - among others - Winston Peters and the Green Party? The position has been retained because Helen Clark insisted on it when she was in Opposition.

Are You a United Future MP? Last week, two front-bench National politicians encountered a taxi driver wandering around parliament, presumably trying to find his client. He joked to the Nat MPs that he had heard there were offices available, and he would like one. "Oh," replied one of the Nats in complete seriousness. "Are you a new United Future MP?"

The Reading Race Donna Awatere Huata has continued the ACT tradition of writing books about issues of national importance. Already a best-selling author, Donna's latest book is "The Reading Race: how every child can learn to read". This book argues that we must change the way we teach reading in New Zealand schools. Donna started writing the book after Education Minister Trevor Mallard rejected the unanimous recommendations of her Select Committee's inquiry into reading last year. She is on a nationwide tour promoting the book, which is available in all good bookstores.

Richard Prebble Recovering The Letter from Wellington spoke to Richard Prebble this morning, and can report that he is recovering very well. He hopes to be back in Wellington in time for the opening of parliament.


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