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www.mccully.co.nz 04 August 2006

www.mccully.co.nz 04 August 2006

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

Warning Signs in Camera Fiasco

It’s clearly time to step back and re-evaluate plans for the new $6 million TV broadcast facility in Parliament. The reactions of Michael Cullen and Speaker Margaret Wilson to coverage of Ron Mark’s obscene gesture in the chamber should have alarm bells ringing throughout the complex. The prospect that the new arrangements will be used as a vehicle for censorship should cause harder heads around Parliament to think again.

The fact that New Zealand First MP Ron Mark was prepared to make an obscene gesture, not once, but three times, this week is truly revealing, both as to the quality of Parliamentary communication from that quarter in particular, and the diminution of standards in the Chamber generally. That culture was not assisted by the fact that Speaker Wilson merely required a mumbled apology from Mark, whilst those who took exception to his actions were ejected from the Chamber.

More revealing was the reaction from House Leader Michael Cullen when the matter was raised with the Speaker, Margaret Wilson, by National frontbencher Bill English at the next sitting. TV3 coverage of the gesture, Cullen argued, had been in breach of the rules for filming Parliament. The solution, argued Cullen, was not for MPs to behave with decorum, but for the Speaker to censor what was filmed in the Chamber.

The Speaker appeared to agree, chiding the humble Member for East Coast Bays (who cautioned her that pursuing the Cullen line would make Parliament look even sillier) for arguing for a lax enforcement of the rules.

Let’s be clear about this: TV3 did the public a service by providing generous coverage of the Mark incident. Mark deserved every second of the media attention he received. This was not some private communication or action that deserved media discretion. His intent was to cause gross offence to those on the National Party benches, whilst avoiding detection by the Speaker. As such, his actions were a critical part of the substantive exchange in the Chamber at the time, and fair game for the news media.

That Cullen should immediately seek refuge in the rulebook is merely the application of the Helen Clark doctrine: “It’s the getting caught that counts”. Witness the Taito Phillip Field episode. Chase the witnesses away and we can all pretend that it didn’t happen at all.

Tell the cameras they can’t film, and Ron Mark really did sit there behaving like a choirboy. Really. Forget about the pictures. Helen Clark and Michael Cullen say so. This weeks’ fiasco will worry some that the introduction of official Parliamentary broadcast cameras will be the thin end of the wedge. Economic pressures (and no doubt a degree of bureaucratic harassment) will see networks find it harder and harder to justify maintaining their own gallery crews.

The proponents of censorship will have their task rendered simple. The fact that two of Parliament’s most senior officers, the Speaker and the Leader of the House, were so quick to focus their criticism on TV3 rather than the recalcitrant Mr Mark was truly revealing. And anyone who wants to leave them in charge of the sole broadcast feed from the Chamber should be under no illusions about the final result.

The C Word

There was something very unusual about Parliament’s general debate this Wednesday afternoon. Time after time National speakers used the C word: “corruption”. Ordinarily the use of the word at all is enough to attract a cautionary glare from the Speaker, and to have Government MPs readying themselves for a point of order. But time and time again this Wednesday, the C word was used, and aimed fair square at the heart of the Government. And nothing happened.

The serious players in the Labour Party deserted their posts this week. None were prepared to debate the Taito Phillip Field affair. And the allegations of corruption which peppered the debate were simply ignored. That is the extent to which the Field affair departs from Parliament’s norms. That is why the cover-up is not sustainable.

They Will Keep

The two-week Parliamentary recess ahead had the gallery hacks pontificating late this week. Had the National Party done its dash on the Field affair? Had they made a mistake by refusing to allow a craven whitewash in the form of a motion of censure? And surely they must be disappointed to be denied an opportunity to debate the no confidence motion in Speaker Margaret Wilson? Well, actually, no. On all these counts.

The Field affair will only go away when something closer to the truth emerges. And the longer Helen Clark drags that out, the better. That is why the prospect of disposing of the matter with a mild motion of censure holds absolutely zero appeal.

And as the no confidence motion drops off the Order Paper each sitting week, so the National Party will just go on re-submitting it week after week, until it is debated. And periodically seek leave to have it debated, just as a gentle reminder. And if the Labour Party thinks it is doing the Speaker a favour by dragging that process out for weeks, that’s just fine with the Nats.

Questions Over Security

Papers released by the Immigration Profiling Group (IPG) this week suggest New Zealand is running some serious risks in the border management department. Formed to manage post-September 11 security risks, the IPG is clearly well short of getting on top of its task.

Papers show there have been 21 high risk countries designated (although not named). Migrants applying from those countries are more carefully screened. And the statistics show a rise in the rejection rate from those countries which has risen from 9% to 24%. All of which leaves the perfectly good question as to how many dodgy applicants were approved before the procedures were tightened. And how many of them pose a current security risk.

Most revealing in the papers is the allocation of funding for the task of risk-assessing those applicants who might carry information or have a background in the area of weapons of mass destruction. IPG officials estimate a need to process 500 such individuals in the coming year. Yes, 500! A rather worrying complexion upon the attributes of some of the characters who seek to find their futures on these shores.

No Blowout?

Prize for the most ridiculous assertion of the week goes to Defence Minister Phil Goff for his absurd insistence that there is no blowout in the NH90 Defence helicopter contract. The replacement of the aging Iroquois and Sioux helicopters has been in the Defence Plan since 2002. The estimated cost: between $400 million and $500 million.

This week, after weeks of rumour of an impending blowout, Goff announced that Cabinet had confirmed a contract to buy eight NH90 helicopters for $771 million. These would replace the Iroquois. No contract had yet been confirmed to replace the trainer Sioux choppers - a move no doubt designed to avoid announcing a billion dollar total package.

But, insisted Goff, this was not a Budget blowout. For a start, he said, the package was going to include all spare parts. Suggesting perhaps that the original estimates were prepared by people who didn’t understand the need to buy spares? Anyway, said Goff, the NH90 had only just become available and you couldn’t order a chopper that didn’t exist yet. Which is rather blown out of the water by the fact that Australia placed its first NH90 order back in 2004. Which is exactly what New Zealand should have done. Sweden, Finland and Norway actually ordered NH90s in 2001.

A large part of the cost increase was due to a fall in the New Zealand dollar, said Goff. Which doesn’t actually bear too close a scrutiny. The NZ dollar was sitting at US .46 cents when the Defence estimate of $400 - $500 million was released - substantially lower than today’s US .61cents.

What is true is that the New Zealand dollar rose from that point to a high of US .72 cents. And every business person in the country was bracing themselves for the consequences of an impending fall. Exporters were licking their lips at the prospect. Importers were securing their future contracts and then hedging against the certainty of a declining dollar. Which is exactly what our Defence wallahs should have done with the helicopter contract. Either they, or their political masters dropped the ball. And New Zealand taxpayers will be picking up the tab.

Appeal Court on Monday

The humble and hardworking Member for East Coast Bays has a date at the Court of Appeal on Monday. His mission: to overturn a ruling of High Court Justice Wild that National Party MPs may not have access to the Court file of the proceedings between the Whangamata Marina Society and the Minister of Conservation.

The Marina Society appears to be completely relaxed about said humble Member gaining access to the Court file and will not be contesting the appeal. Crown Law, however, will be appearing. The Attorney-General and the Minister of Conservation are backing Justice Wild’s decision, and Crown Law will be in Court on Monday arguing that the ban should stay.

At issue is the interpretation of High Court rule 66 (9). This rule states that those with a "genuine or proper interest" should be given access to the file. Justice Wild has decided that Radio New Zealand and the Dominion Post do have a genuine or proper interest in the proceedings. The humble Member for East Coast Bays, aka the National Party Spokesman on Conservation, according to Wild J does not - unless of course he hears about it on Radio NZ or reads about it in the newspaper. Confused? So are we. Let’s hope things get a little clearer after Monday.


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