The one about George Bush and the Kiwi swimming pool

Last updated 05:00 06/03/2012
George Bush
There was a time, in Beijing, George Bush, then head of the US Liaison Office, would swim and play tennis at the New Zealand embassy, along with his sons George (Dubya), and Jeb.

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Richard Long

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OPINION: There's nothing like a Government economy drive to excite the journalistic taste buds. They bring on a reverie about times past, where reality gets mixed up with episodes of the BBC television series Yes Minister, the great comedy which many took to be a documentary.

Former Labour deputy leader Sir Geoffrey Palmer once launched a great quango hunt, which was much more entertaining than anything on Yes, Minister. The idea was to curtail these costly beasts (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations), set up for the best of reasons, which then tended to be forgotten and go on absorbing taxpayer money well beyond their use-by date.

Sir Geoffrey had some success as a great white hunter, notching up 70-odd kills in his 1985 safari. Of course the spending then broke out in different directions, as the buggers reinvented themselves.

By the time Michael Cullen was finance minister in 2003 he identified 3000 people on 400 quangos, some on salaries of $100,000, all funded by the taxpayer. But there was no further hunt, possibly because most of the appointees were Labour cronies.

The bureaucracy in earlier years had more subtlety in finessing political cost-cutting directions. In one of Rob Muldoon's drives the Prime Minister's Department, in the best of Gliding On traditions, axed the poor old tea lady as their contribution.

The police were clever. They offered to scrap the Lady Elizabeth police launch, icon of hundreds of Wellington harbour and coastal rescues of disabled boaties, knowing full well this would not be politically acceptable. The government rapidly back-tracked.

Foreign Affairs at the time were such guileless souls that they tried to be clever by offering to close the New Delhi post, never imagining that closing the door on the world's largest democracy would be acceptable. Muldoon seized that with alacrity. He'd been in a spat with India's prime minister, Indira Gandhi, over sporting ties with South Africa and that was the perfect snub.

He got finessed himself on the real prize, however. He planned to sell off the great multimillion-dollar plot of land in the diplomatic enclave which the Indians had bequeathed to New Zealand, for a peppercorn rental, as the site for a new embassy. Wily New Delhi bureaucrats quickly put the kibosh on that.

Much fuss is being made about upgrading the swimming pool at the Tokyo embassy compound, home to diplomatic staff, without regard to the health benefits this provides to diplomats and their families in a country where it costs about $500 for a round of golf.

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In earlier times, in Beijing, George Bush, then head of the US Liaison Office, would swim and play tennis at the New Zealand embassy, along with his sons George (Dubya), and Jeb. That gave Kiwi ambassador Bryce Harland and New Zealand extraordinary access to an American family that went on to provide two presidents and the governor of Florida.

One of the great unpublished stories involved our Tokyo ambassador's local driver devising an extraordinary rort to flog off the embassy. He had a relationship with an embassy maid, which gave him access to the ambassador's private rooms and the embassy seal (for contracts). He had access to the ambassador's car and he hired an Australian con-man who looked uncannily like the ambassador at the time, Hunter Wade.

During the ambassador's absence the driver managed to sell the embassy three times to unsuspecting buyers before the ambassador returned and all hell broke loose. Again, better than anything on Yes Minister.

Locally employed embassy drivers are to be sacked as part of MFAT cost-cuts. That may help prevent further Tokyo-style con-tricks but imagine negotiating snarled traffic in cities like Jakarta, Delhi and Paris, missing appointments while trying to find car parks. And in the Yes Minister episode Economy Drive the minister emerged after a night on the turps at the French embassy, dropped his keys down a kerbside grating and was photographed scrabbling to retrieve them.

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