Gordon Campbell | Parliament TV | Parliament Today | Video | Questions Of the Day | Search 14 July 2006 14 July 2006

A Weekly Report from the Keyboard of Murray McCully MP for East Coast Bays

Off to Court

It’s official: The National Party Spokesman on Conservation does not have "a genuine or proper interest" in the Court proceedings of the Whangamata Marina Society against the Conservation Minister. He is not, therefore permitted to view or to copy the Court file. That’s the decision received in writing from Justice Wild late this week. But, by contrast, Radio New Zealand and the Dominion Post do have such a "genuine or proper interest" and may view and copy the file, the Judge had earlier found.

Papers will be filed today asking the Court of Appeal to overturn the Wild decision. The notion that journalists have "genuine or proper interest" in seeing a Court file but the Opposition Spokesman - the person who, under our system, is charged with scrutinising the actions of the Minister to hold him to account - does not, can only be taken as a fairly derogatory assertion from this particular judge of his views about politicians. In effect Justice Wild has invented a new class of constitutional leper into which he has now cast our elected Members of Parliament. The judgment has serious ramifications and it must not be allowed to stand.

Foreign Affairs Rapped by Select Committee

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of the biggest and most influential departments of State was in big trouble with Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee this week. Before the Committee was their annual Estimate - the allocation made by Michael Cullen in this year’s Budget. Departments are required to answer questions and provide supporting material to justify their share of the Budget cake.

Asked to provide a range of reports they had prepared on various topics, MFAT duly obliged. But strangely, some of the reports had stamped across every page the words "Released Under the Official Information Act." And to make the point, various paragraphs had been deleted, with an annotation of the section of the Official Information under which they had been withheld. All perfectly in order if they had been meeting an OIA request from the public or the media. But all very much out of order when responding to a question from one of Parliament’s select committees.

Select committees conduct two annual examinations of departments of state: one to sign off on the annual Estimate (as was the case this week) and another to sign off on the annual report. In conducting the examinations they are entitled to require departments to deliver pretty much anything they want. And the actions of Foreign Affairs this week amounted to a serious breach of their standing obligations to the Parliament. Not to mention gross incompetence. All of which led to the committee noting the “serious misunderstanding of the constitutional obligations of departments of State to Parliament and its Committees”.

So just who, we hear you ask, could be responsible for such a monumental mistake. Well, the person who signed the material off before it was delivered to the Committee, of course. And that would be none other than that old champion of Parliamentary supremacy - the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Peters.

We’re not kidding, actually. The final sign-off on the papers being supplied to the Committee is from the Minister. And Mr Peters is adamant that nothing may be dispatched until it has been past his office. The last desk the offending paperwork would have seen before its departure was his. But here’s betting that Peters treated them just like his Cabinet papers and departmental reports - and none of them had ever been opened.

Mr Peters Goes to Washington

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters heads for Washington early next week. For around two months his Foreign Affairs flunkies have had him in the diary of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But Peters himself had until this morning failed to announce, and even refused to confirm the visit (despite the fact that his colleague Mr Goff had all but confirmed it). Just what is going on?

The visit of Trade and Defence Minister Phil Goff to Washington, to coincide with the Business Partnership Forum, attended by National Party Leader Don Brash, saw some progress. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill sent a number of public signals that a way forward was being sought. And Mr Peters, who had earlier identified the improvement of NZ/US relations as a top priority, immediately started his manoeuvering. If any trophies were in prospect, he was determined to be in Washington to receive them.

But then Mr Peters’ old, uncontrollable instincts took over. Unable to resist the urge, he joined with Trevor Mallard in a shameful Parliamentary display of American-bashing, asserting that wealthy Americans had conspired to influence the 2005 New Zealand election.

Incensed, the American authorities left Peters in no doubt that his recklessness had done enormous harm to the relationship. In a rare move, the US ambassador fronted in the media to confirm the damage. The trophies came off the table. Progress would now be slower. And the Peters’ visit to Washington would no longer be the success that might have been.

The Guessing Games

As word of next week’s US visit leaked out this week, Mr Peters was secretive, and then cantankerous. Proving, yet again, that he is simply too petty and too small for the important post of Foreign Minister.

Ministers generally announce overseas visits well in advance and release their itineraries. It is, after all, the public who are picking up the tab for the travel. And Ministers do not travel in a personal capacity. They travel as the official representatives of the public. That same public is entitled to know where and how they are being represented.

The goal of improving New Zealand’s relationship with the United States draws strong support from the National Party. The earlier bi-partisan effort with Trade Minister Goff clearly demonstrated such. Mr Peters could have gone to Washington with the public goodwill and good wishes of the Opposition parties. But for some reason Mr Peters just cannot bring himself to deliver the dignity and professionalism his office demands. For him, the task of restoring better relations with the US is a mission to be pursued furtively and in the dead of night. The leopard simply cannot change his spots.

Skyhawk Bungle Unmasked

Another layer of the Skyhawk sale bungle was stripped away this week. Answering a written question 10 days after the due date, Defence Minister Phil Goff revealed that $1.5 million of taxpayers’ money has been spent on sales agents and lawyers for a sale that has not occurred. And may never occur.

In a classic exercise in political duplicity, one week before the 2005 election, former Defence Minister Mark Burton announced the sale. There was nothing equivocal or conditional about the announcement. All of the required approvals had been “extensively discussed” with foreign governments and the aircraft would be “progressively shipped over the next few months”, he said.

But layer by layer, the facts are now being stripped bare. Since the election we have discovered:

- The contract is far from unconditional.

- No deposit has been paid.

- US State Department approval still has not been given.

- The purchaser needs a capital injection from a new shareholder in order to fund the deal.

This week Mr Goff had to confess that, to date over $1.1 million has been paid to Ernst Young, the sales agents, and over $330,000 to Russell McVeagh, lawyers. All for a sale that is looking shakier by the minute.

No ordinary New Zealander selling their home would go paying the agents commission, or for that matter the legal costs, until they had both an unconditional contract, and a deposit sitting in the bank account. And the question which remains is why our Government would do things so differently. Oh, and why the deal that was looking so very very tidy when it was announced a week before the last election is looking so very very untidy now.

Net Gain For Labour Gay and Left Lobbies

The announcement that former farmer and Trade Minister Jim Sutton would retire from Parliament, making way for Wellington lawyer Charles Chauvel was made, without authorisation, by Conservation Minister Chris Carter at a Premier House function of the Rainbow Labour Branch. The news leaked and the Sutton retirement was formalised the following day.

Quite why Sutton was targeted over at least half a dozen Labour colleagues who have never held Ministerial rank is surprising. There is obviously, from Clark's perspective, a personal element to the decision. But she would also have been mindful of the shift to the balance of her caucus.

The change further entrenches the shift to the left in the Labour party, as a pillar of Labour's conservative right, Sutton, makes way for an obvious leftist and a leading member of Labour's gay lobby. And the news doesn't get much better from here. The next retirement will bring back trade unionist Lesley Soper. And the one after, Louisa Wall, another member of Labour’s gay lobby, currently employed by the Human Rights Commission (a statement in itself). And Helen Clark thinks that's the sort of thing that's going to rejuvenate her government?

Rampant Cronyism

Judith Tizard didn't even wait for former Labour Party president Bob Harvey to get clear of his involvement in the Whangamata Marina High Court case (where he and Chris Carter are trying to reconcile conflicting accounts of their conversations) before appointing him to the board of Te Papa. As the Te Papa board starts to look increasingly like a branch of the Labour Party, no doubt the hands will go out for more and more public money to keep the place afloat.

An increasingly impatient Clark will no doubt be offering ambassadorships, SOE chairs, and other government appointments as blandishments to dislodge at least another three or four of her caucus. The worldwide headquarters has not criticised the terms of the Sutton departure. On the grounds of ability and experience it would be hard to argue that Sutton isn't up to the task of Landcorp chair.

Using his skills and contacts for occasional trade ambassador forays makes sense, and is something an incoming National Government would not be averse to doing. But for the next three or four Labour retirees, the situation is entirely different. Having correctly concluded that not one of them was up to serving in her Ministry whilst in Parliament, won't it be interesting to find out what tasks Clark now imagines they are up to in their retirements.


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