Parata's rocky relationship prompts circular questioning

JANE CLIFTON
Last updated 13:32 31/01/2013

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OPINION: She might be a "smooth communicator", according to Prime Minister John Key, but it's easy to look smooth when you're protected from having to communicate on anything tricky - which seems to be the Government's new strategy with embattled Education Minister Hekia Parata.

Ms Parata has said nothing direct about the evident breakdown of her relationship with education secretary Lesley Longstone, who resigned late last year. And boy, was the Government determined to keep it that way in Parliament yesterday, when the Opposition tried to ask her about it.

The Government transferred a question by Labour to Ms Parata about her relationship with Ms Longstone to State Services Minister Jonathan Coleman. It is allowed to transfer questions if it deems another minister is better placed to answer them - though in reality, transfers are usually made to spare the blushes of embarrassable ministers.

While Ms Parata looked on with mute Mona Lisa insouciance, Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee said with a perfectly straight face that the question had been transferred away from her because the State Services Commission was the body that handled relations between ministers and departmental secretaries.

Labour's Chris Hipkins argued that Parliament's rules forbade a government to transfer a question if the minister concerned was the only person who could possibly know the answer to it. Surely only Ms Parata could know the state of her relationship with Ms Longstone?

But Speaker Lockwood Smith said it had been established that the SSC did have knowledge of the state of the relationship, as well as Ms Parata, so the transfer was quite proper.

Mr Hipkins countered that Ms Parata might have a different perception of the nature of the relationship from that of the SSC. Dr Smith said, in that case, Mr Hipkins could ask about that later - at which point the argument threatened to develop a dangerous circularity.

Cue Winston Peters to the rescue. "The expert on this matter is here," he said, indicating Ms Parata. "I seek leave for the minister to answer the question."

Ms Parata's brows quirked a little uneasily, as Mr Brownlee grumped defensively about the leave request being a breach of normal procedures. However, Labour's Trevor Mallard cited the convention that "the House is the master of its own destiny", saying it could decide to depart from normal practice if it liked.

Dr Smith then decided that Mr Peters could seek leave for the question to be transferred back to Ms Parata.

Mr Brownlee, by now in a serious strop, said this would amount to an arbitrary rule change, depriving the Government of its right to judge who could best answer parliamentary questions.

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Dr Smith said not to worry, as the practice was unlikely to become common, given that it took only one dissenting voice to veto a request for leave.

This was like giving someone permission to go fishing, only after reassuring oneself that they would never actually catch anything. Naturally, as soon as Mr Peters sought leave, Mr Brownlee barked "No!" and Ms Parata's brow was again smooth.

As to what the SSC understood had happened between her and her top official, Mr Coleman said: "The reasons for Ms Longstone's resignation are a matter between herself and the State Services Commissioner."

Mr Hipkins' restraint in not banging his head repeatedly on his bench was quite heroic.

- The Dominion Post

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