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Preb's Letter From Wellington

The Letter

First you beat them in the House

Helen Clark took a battering in Parliament last week – her worst week since Paintergate. MPs who have been ministers saw through Clark’s untruthful claim she had given just a “verbal” instruction to Ambassador John Wood to convey an apology to the US. No civil servant would ever rely on a verbal instruction to give an apology on behalf of a minister. Labour won’t reveal the instructions or the apology, so there has to be more – and there is.

How to save the FTA

Ambassador Wood’s advice was blunt. First: Unless Clark apologised to President Bush, we could forget any deal with the world’s only superpower (apology delivered). Second: New Zealand must get out of the French-led Coalition of the Losers that insists post-war Iraq be administered by the UN (we’re out). And third: New Zealand could get back US favour by offering aid now to US-administered Iraq (we’re going to).

Nineteen fewer friends

Nineteen US senators signed a letter to the President pushing the case for a free trade deal with New Zealand. Then Clark bad-mouthed George Bush. The senators feel let-down.

The good news

The US still needs international support. Both Clark and Goff are on record saying New Zealand would only give aid when the UN authorised it. Last week, that policy was abandoned. A strong statement by New Zealand at the UN using Helen Clark’s favourite saying – “it is time to move on” – plus some aid, could repair much of the damage.

Trade and foreign policy

Labour refuses to admit that this US administration links trade and foreign policy. Last week, US Trade Representative Bob Zoellick announced he was putting on hold the implementation of Chile's (already negotiated) free trade agreement. Chile, a member of the Security Council, would not vote to enforce resolution 1441. "People are disappointed," Zoellick said. "We worked very closely with our Chilean partners. We hoped for their support at a time we thought was very important.” (

And in the letter by the nineteen senators advocating a trade deal with NZ, one reason cited was New Zealand's "major contribution to the campaign against terrorism".

We were warned

In March 1999, our allies in Nato responded to the proven cases of genocide in former Yugoslavia by launching a bombing raid to rattle brutal leader Slobodan Milosevic’s hold on power. Helen Clark – in Opposition at the time – attacked the US and UK. She called the raid a “complete disaster” with “no coherent strategy”. She claimed “the West would end up looking stupid”, and “Slobodan Milosevic will become further entrenched in power”. Richard Prebble said at the time: "For Helen Clark to decide there are votes in attacking the US and UK displays a dangerous antipathy towards our traditional allies. It's fortunate that Ms Clark is not Prime Minister, otherwise her statements would be causing New Zealand real damage.”

The non-apology apology

While New Zealand media still accepts that Helen Clark’s apology was ‘sincere’, media in the US are hearing otherwise from their administration. The influential, “inside-the-Beltway” Washington Times reported last Friday that Helen Clark’s apology was “a non-apology sort of apology”. Clark’s apology is now her most famous statement, having been printed around the world. See

Parliament has changed

The Opposition has developed new tactics at Question Time.

Each day there are 12 oral questions to Ministers – six from the Opposition and six patsy questions from Labour. The Speaker allows each questioner a further question, and then one question from each political party.

Even if the Minister misinterprets the question or gives an absurd answer, Speakers’ rulings accept this as “addressing the question”. So Helen Clark’s technique has been to give as short a reply as possible, knowing she has just a few Opposition questions to get through.

Labour lobbied the Speaker, saying under MMP the third parties (like ACT) get too many questions. So this year the Speaker ruled each party would get a strictly proportional number of questions. ACT receives just eight – after the one original question and supplementary, ACT is left with just six follow-up questions to each day’s twelve oral questions. The Speaker has ruled these questions can be used as the parties wish. “Including using more than one on a question?” Answer: “yes”. This is the major change.

Three weeks ago, ACT began using most of its supplementary questions to follow the best question of the day. It is like introducing the tank into parliamentary trench warfare. Suddenly, all force can be applied to the Government’s weakest link. Every other party has adopted ACT’s tactic. Opposition Parties can and are ignoring the patsy questions.

Last week was the first time that the Government’s chief minister was in trouble. The Opposition’s best questioners Winston Peters and Richard Prebble, took enough questions to be able to push evasive Clark. Example: on question number two on Thursday, Helen Clark faced eight supplementaries: four from English, three from Peters, and two from Prebble: an unprecedented grilling.

Prime ministerial question time

What Ministers are now wondering is if Prebble, Peters and English can give Clark a going-over, what will happen if they all have a go at, say, Booboo (aka Marian Hobbs) – or for that matter, any Minister?

Tax survey

The Letter has already received a strong response from our survey asking readers what Government should do with the $4 billion surplus. Just 12% want an across-the-board, $50 tax cut, 86% want a McLeod-style tax cut (25 cents for the top two individual rates and company rate, 18 cents bottom rate – a tax cut for every worker). And we were looking to cancel the subscription of eight Letter readers who claim to like being overtaxed $4 billion a year – but then we realised at least one must be from Michael Cullen’s office! ACT has launched its Five Point Tax Campaign. You can read the case for a tax cut and complete the two-minute online survey (with extra questions) which will be forwarded to Cullen in time for the Budget (15 May) at

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