Winston Peters' opponents generally find it irresistible to have a crack at him - but the inevitably disproportionate turmoil that follows makes them wonder whether the short-lived pleasure was worth it.
Primary Industries Minister David Carter risked it anyway yesterday, telling Parliament in the course of an answer to one of Mr Peters' colleagues that the NZ First leader's office had phoned his office to ask how to spell "director-general".
Mr Peters' brows lowered to the dangerous cumulus position and, sure enough, he soon rose to make a personal explanation.
He said one of his staff had phoned Mr Carter's office because, in a document from his ministry, the director-general's title had been spelt "Director", no hyphen, "General".
"And the next reference has a hyphen in it. And she wanted to know which was correct, the one with the hyphen or . . . listen, listen, listen," Mr Peters grumped at National MPs who were in gleeful uproar, Mr Carter having collapsed like sack of potatoes to shake with mirth.
"This is a personal explanation. It should be heard in silence!"
But Speaker Lockwood Smith ruled that Mr Peters' statement did not constitute a personal explanation under the rules "because the member personally was not involved in the alleged activity - I think this is what's causing some concern across the House".
This was somewhat euphemistic, as the only concern across the House was the potential for busted seams as MPs delighted in Mr Peters' furious account of the dodgy hyphenation taking place under Mr Carter's stewardship.
"Personal explanations are supposed to be about things that affect a person personally," Dr Smith soothed.
But Mr Peters had obviously been deeply personally affected by Mr Carter's allegation of a spelling inquiry, "when it was a matter of punctuation!" he roared, in the manner of Perry Mason nailing the case for the defence.
"He totally misled the House! . . . And he threw into question the intelligence of a member of my staff, who I might add is immensely more qualified academically than he is."
Mr Carter was still in a helplessly giggling slump, provoking Mr Peters further: "What do we do in this House to prevent a minister from demonstrating that he is grammatically illiterate?"
But Dr Smith ruled that "grammatically illiterate" was an abusive term, and managed to bring the great hyphen hunt to a close.
However, knowing Mr Peters - from whom there is always more abuse where that came from - the hyphen is an eternal piece of punctuation.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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