Gordon Campbell | Parliament TV | Parliament Today | Video | Questions Of the Day | Search - 27 October 2006 - 27 October 2006

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

Major Plot Loss at Parliament

There has been a distracted air around Parliament this week. It’s not just been the coming one-week recess, or the proximity of the end of the year parties and the Christmas break. The machinery of Parliament and all its bureaucratic entrails have been consumed by the really big issue of our time: whether MPs can send out Christmas cards in the wake of the Auditor-General’s recent damning review.

Stung by the A-G’s criticism, and even more aroused by the requirement to write some personal cheques, Government MPs are in an ugly frame of mind. For most, fallout from the A-G’s report is minimised. Ministers have their services and staffing provided by Ministerial Services - a part of the Department of Internal Affairs. And despite the fact that the A-G wants Ministers to operate from the same rule-book as MPs and party leaders, that was not the point of his recent report. So, insulated from any implications for themselves, (apart from the modest cheque they have been asked to write) Labour Ministers are pretending that the A-G’s report has such far reaching implications that individual MPs engaged in purchasing a postage stamp or a new pen are at dire risk of a new A-G onslaught.

Amongst a series of other recommendations, the A-G proposes a proper approval regime for advertising expenditure - in order to avoid flagrant rorts like the Labour pledge card. Senior Labour figures are using this recommendation to pretend that any expenditure at all that hasn’t been through such an approval process is liable to come under the A-G’s axe. And now the finest minds in the Parliament are all focused on what sort on new bureaucracy should be created in order that MPs may gain prior authorisation of the taxi chit they will use to travel from Wellington airport into Parliament. Seriously. The entire Parliamentary complex is now to be mired in endless officials’ reports and legal opinions until this crucial matter is resolved.

The purpose, of course, is not just the "utu" promised by Labour Members as they jackbooted special legislation through Parliament last week. If MPs can be required to navigate the obstacle course of a whole new series of bureaucratic rules in order to get their bills paid, it will help take their attention off the pledge card issue.

But sooner or later the game will be up. MPs will pause long enough to figure out that this is Parliament we are talking about. The Legislature. The place where we make the laws (as Labour did last week to retrospectively validate their unlawful expenditure, of course). And Parliament can sit down any day it wants and set out some simple rules about how it should run itself. Rules that won’t require the Auditor-General to go breathing down MPs’ necks, because there won’t be any doubt that funding centre-pieces of your election campaign, like Labour’s pledge card, out of Parliamentary cash is just not on. So just how long do you think it will take the nation’s sharp-witted law makers to figure that out?

The Big Charade

The Auditor-General’s report was tabled in Parliament on Thursday October 12th. The National Party had registered concerns that the Speaker had received a copy well in advance. Assurances were sought that all political parties were being treated equally. And that Labour Ministers would not be in a position to manipulate the process to their political advantage.

This week, in answers to Parliamentary written questions, it became clear just how much scope existed for Labour manipulation of the exercise. Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen was asked to list the briefings, memoranda, and reports he had received from Treasury in relation to the Auditor-General’s report.

Cullen’s first oral briefing on the A-G’s report (then in draft) was on 19 July - two weeks before even the draft report was made available to other parties. He had further oral briefings on 2 August, 14 August, 23 August, 9 October - all prior to the release of the report.

Cullen received a Treasury report entitled "Unappropriated Expenditure in Vote Parliamentary Service" on 4 August followed by another entitled "Parliamentary Services Expenditure Validation Cabinet Paper Submission" on 11 August. So, weeks before the report was in the hands of the other parties, Cullen and the Cabinet were using the Treasury back-door to run the Labour Party’s political strategy for validation under urgency. Pretending, all along that they needed to wait until the report was tabled in mid-October before they could address the issues, along with other political parties. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the type of candour and honesty you can expect of your Clark/Cullen government.

Great Irony

The great irony of the current focus on Parliamentary Service funding is that Ministerial Services’ activities proceed without restriction. Yet it was concern about abuse of Ministerial Services’ cash that first got the A-G onto the case back in 2004.

Remember the $20 million advertising package entitled "Working for Families" - all designed to tell New Zealanders what a great and generous government they have? After being politely pointed in the right direction by the humble Member for East Coast Bays, the Auditor-General had a field day. Millions of dollars were slashed off the “Working for Families” budget. And the A-G decided it was time for a general tidy up.

The resulting 2005 report from the Auditor-General - the one Helen Clark refused to meet him to discuss - had one central theme: the need a for a single set of guidelines governing use of taxpayers’ money on publicity. Neither the A-G nor anyone else had any idea that the Labour Leaders’ budget was being used to fund the pledge card. But he had, by then, had his attention drawn to such obvious rorts as the taxpayer-funded "You’re Better Off With Labour" bus shelter placards.

Now Parliament is tying itself up in knots over the sort of pre-approval regime required to validate the purchase of a Christmas card. Yet use by Labour Ministers of the vast and uncapped pool of cash in Ministerial Services that aroused the A-G’s initial interest carries on unhindered.

The Five Plus Five Mystery

On Monday 11 October, North Korea threw the world into turmoil with the announcement that they had exploded a nuclear device. Two days later, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters attempted a show of statesmanship in Parliament by revealing that Condaleezza Rice had rung him to discuss developments as a valued member of the Five Plus Five talks. Except that Mr Peters lost the plot and ended up in a brawl with junior backbenchers - appearing anything but statesmanlike. But we digress. The Minister had revealed that New Zealand was part of an important international initiative in relation to the brewing North Korea crisis. How had we all missed it?

The answer is simple: despite the Minister and officials being involved in Five Plus Five meetings back as far as July, they hadn’t actually told anyone.

It all started back on 28 July when Mr Peters was at ASEAN in Kuala Lumpur. Previous initiatives through the Six Party talks having been less than fruitful, it was agreed that the five nations involved in those discussions (ie: the Six parties minus North Korea) would meet with Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Malaysia and New Zealand, to see if they had any bright ideas. Hence the Five Plus Five talks.

A further meeting was held in late September when our Foreign Affairs Minister was at the United Nations. But Mr Peters, never noted for his shyness in talking up his book, said absolutely nothing to the media about either meeting. Asked in the Foreign Affairs select committee yesterday to explain the secrecy, senior MFAT officers were at a loss.

So just what did he tell Cabinet? And when did he tell the Prime Minister? Both these truly interesting questions were lodged last week. And the answers from Mr Peters were even more interesting:

The Five Plus Five meetings were “informal gatherings” that met “on an adhoc basis” and “on the margins” of other more important meetings. He had not told Cabinet because it was “not necessary”. And just when had he told the Prime Minister? “The Member would need to ask the Prime Minister”. Well that clears that up, then.

PM Hits Wrong Note At Music Awards

A small glimpse of the sense of entitlement of this Prime Minister was on display in recent weeks in relation to the nation’s Music Awards, according to usually reliable sources in the industry. Miffed that she had not been invited to present an award, and make a speech, the story goes, the PM dispatched her minions to sort it out. Helen Clark, you see, fancies herself as the owner and operator of the nation’s artistic endeavours. And the slight of her omission from the programme needed to be rectified forthwith.

The managers of the event were no doubt still recovering from criticism of the 2005 event, where Labour Party sycophant Oliver Driver, the MC, went out of his way to sing the praises of H Clark, while making puerile comments about Dr Brash, who had done the industry the courtesy of attending. The PM, back in 2005, had made her tedious and self-serving address before leaving the event, unlike Dr Brash who sat quietly through the lengthy evenings proceedings. The decision not to invite the PM to present this year must have seemed like the safe option.

Confronted with the PM’s demands, we are told, the organisers complied. Showing an excellent sense of humour under fire, they added an award for Gospel Album of the Year to the programme for the PM to present. The accompanying speech was reportedly no less tedious and even more self-serving this year. And like last year, her minute of glory (actually more like ten minutes) complete, she up and left. All of which sets the scene for some interesting decisions for the Music Awards organisers in 2007.


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