OPINION: Pokie machines? Who said anything about pokie machines?
Prime Minister John Key's flippancy can be maddening for the Opposition, but even it was unprepared for his latest defence of the Government's deal with SkyCity: That there was no such deal.
"There's nothing to see here . . . no deal on the table!" he shrugged blithely, in the teeth of months of fuss about the Government's undertaking to allow the casino more gambling machines, in exchange for its building a new Auckland convention centre.
Despite the highly critical Audit Office report into the deal's negotiation, "we do not have a deal with it [SkyCity]", he said.
An offer to change the gambling law to let the casino have more pokies was also, apparently, a figment of the Opposition's imagination.
"It may well be that we have a range of proposals," he said airily.
Reassuringly, Steven Joyce later answered questions in such a way as to confirm that the deal was not some mass-delusion, but would result in a new SkyCity convention centre.
But Mr Key was determined to cling to the liferaft known as a technicality: as the negotiations were only "at stage three", there was as yet no deal, and no agreement for more pokies.
Adding to the Opposition's frustration was that when Mr Key gave his more elliptical answers, new Speaker David Carter, in a misguided attempt to keep the peace, tried to interpret them.
His interpretations led even the mild-tempered Labour leader David Shearer to say tersely that he was entitled to a clear answer from the prime minister, not a disputable interpretation from the Speaker of what he might have meant.
Increasingly flustered, to the point of referring to Winston Peters as "prime minister", Mr Carter tried to enforce peace from on high by making two new rulings.
One was made after a row with Greens co-leader Metiria Turei, in which he forbade her to table a transcript of a radio interview with Mr Key.
The rules disallow tabling of news items and other freely available material. When their exchange became dangerously fractious, Mr Carter ruled that MPs were henceforth only to table "documents that I feel will be of benefit to the debate".
Opposition MPs' eyebrows rose as fast as their jaws dropped. This was unbridled Speakerly power.
Mr Carter tried to shut down further unpleasantness by reminding MPs that Standing Orders made him the arbiter of the quality of questions and answers.
On that basis he ruled that the prime minister had every right to respond in a political vein to Ms Turei's questions.
"Point of order! Which Standing Order says that?" the Greens' Russel Norman asked with some belligerence.
"Oh, we're not getting into quoting Standing Orders," Mr Carter said grumpily - forgetting that he just had.
He unwittingly caused a further dust-up when he tried to enjoy an oasis of light relief. Mr Key was taunting Mr Peters with one of his old controversies, the "scampi" scandal, and Mr Carter was unwise enough to share the Government benches' amusement.
"You might well smile there, Mr Speaker," Mr Peters barked at him, "but you were sued on that issue yourself so I would not get too happy about that!"
Mr Carter's one consolation was that even if the Speaker is not always right, the office confers a degree of immunity, enshrined in the final Standing Order he managed to quote - and with great severity: "The member must not bring the Speaker into the debate!"
- The Dominion Post
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