Finger-pointing MPs jab themselves in the eye

ABOUT THE HOUSE - JANE CLIFTON
Last updated 05:00 01/03/2012

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OPINION: As Speaker Lockwood Smith reminded Parliament yesterday, it's against the rules for MPs to accuse one another of hypocrisy – and no wonder.

As MPs on both sides found yesterday, even seemingly clear-cut cases of the H-word can flip over and cause the gloating accuser an ungainly fall from the moral high ground – or at least a nasty bite on the bum.

For instance, Hone Harawira began by accusing Social Development Minister Paula Bennett of a double standard for presiding over cuts to teenage solo mothers' entitlement – and ended up inadvertently endorsing Ruth Richardson's infamous Mother-of-all-Budgets by implication.

Equally, Labour's Phil Goff was sawing a violin for the pending heavy job losses among Foreign Affairs officials while at the same time deploring the extravagant spending plans those same officials had dreamed up to optimise their personal comforts while abroad.

In the latter case, both he and Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully ended up on a sticky wicket together, because one of the proposals was to tart up the London high commissioner's home to the tune of $1.5 million.

It's an open secret that the next high commissioner to London will be Dr Smith. There was an awkward, giggly pause as MPs contemplated the consequences of offending the Speaker – who still has the power to sling people in jail – by seeming to gang up against his right to have swanky new upholstery and carpet.

Mr McCully, grumpily back in Parliament after several days of appearing to duck a series of tricky foreign affairs issues, even asked the Speaker if he really wanted him to answer the question.

Not that the answer entirely cleared the matter up, as Mr McCully was determined to preserve the illusion that it was always the chief executive who made such operational decisions, not the minister.

So in respect of each extravagant project – including the $900,000 swimming pool upgrade at the Tokyo embassy, and the $1.3m upgrade for the high commissioner's residence on Niue (population 1100) – Mr McCully recited an elaborate formulation of words: he had issued advice to his chief executive that only absolutely essential capital spending would proceed, now the department was cutting staff, and had received assurances this advice would be followed.

There were "no current plans" for such things, he further waffled, but the proposals endured in the form of the massive amount of paperwork that documented the ministry's various proposals for the upgrade of its various habitats around the world.

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Were Parliament to offer a subtext translation service, the subtitles for Mr McCully might have read: "I have been ripping officials' heads from their bodies daily as these projects have come to light and embarrassed the daylights out of me."

But Mr Goff was able to have further fun, especially with the pool, for which there exists a recent engineer's report. If there were "no current plans", for what reason was an engineer's report sought, he asked.

Mr Harawira's self-ambush came as he held up Ms Bennett as an example of how a solo mother could improve her lot with the right state support, saying she was now taking away that same support from other teen mums.

While he had a fair point, the weak spot with his argument was that Ms Bennett did her state-assisted training during the 1990s, which is generally regarded as being the absolute low tide-mark in beneficiary welfare following the first couple of Richardson budgets, which reduced entitlements across the board.

Ms Bennett was able to argue that the quantum of state support for solo mothers was much smaller in those days – but to cheekily hail Mr Harawira's originality in harking back to the 1990s as the good old days for solo mums on welfare, not a sentiment she had often heard expressed before.

Heroically, the highly combustible Mr Harawira visibly steeled himself to ignore this semantical hijack of his intentions.

And if Dr Smith rued the prospect of shabby-chic digs in London, he too kept his thoughts to himself.

- The Dominion Post

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