The obfuscutory art of knowing nothing

16:00, Mar 27 2012
Gerry Brownlee

Fresh from making the foreign news for comprehensively affronting Finland last week, Gerry Brownlee came to Parliament yesterday obviously anxious – in his temporary capacity as Acting Prime Minister – to avoid further notoriety.

In a performance reminiscent of Sergeant Schultz from Hogan's Heroes, he declined to answer about half the questions he was asked.

Ministers can do this – though they hardly ever do – on two grounds, which are the equivalent of "I know nuz-ZINK!": that they genuinely do not know the answer, or that they don't have ministerial responsibility for the issue being asked about.

Mr Brownlee used up probably a year's normal incidence of both excuses in less than half an hour.

And it was easy to see why.

The Opposition was beside itself to get some sniff of confirmation for its suspicion that the infamous leaks out of the ACC last week came from somewhere quite near to ACC Minister Judith Collins.


Mr Brownlee steadfastly averred he was "unable to answer that on behalf of the prime minister". With Ms Collins wearing a specially dangerous rictus smile next to him, he could hardly be blamed.

He was even less responsive to questions about the resolution of the tea-tape scandal, saying the prime minister had no ministerial responsibility for it.

As in rabbit breeding, when Mr Brownlee's argument (that Mr Key's role in the affair was undertaken entirely in his capacity as leader of the National Party, and not as PM) met the Opposition's argument (that it had since become his business as PM) they quickly bred lots and lots of new arguments.

Soon the House was positively hopping with them, reaching a peak of bunny-logic when Labour's Trevor Mallard said: "The fact that the prime minister said there is no ministerial responsibility for any of this matter effectively is the very point that can be asked about him having made the point."

The arguments became so confusing that Speaker Lockwood Smith at one point burbled plaintively, "We've now got a slight difficulty there in that the minister [Mr Brownlee] sought a point of order that was not really a point of order, because the member [Green Kevin Hague] has asked a question and the minister has now answered the question in so far as he says he's not able to answer the question on behalf of the prime minister."

Finally, Mr Mallard brought some lucidity to the debate by pointing out that Mr Key had only the previous day issued a press statement, in his capacity as the prime minister, officially commenting on the tea-tape decision.

These comments at least, Dr Smith gratefully agreed, did bear prime ministerial responsibility and Mr Brownlee could be asked about them. Labour's David Parker accordingly asked him about them. But Mr Brownlee knew nuz-ZINK. "I haven't seen those statements," he said blandly, and sat down.

NZ First's Denis O'Rourke, clearly still smarting from Mr Key's tea-tape comments that NZ First's supporters were of a certain advanced demographic, asked in his distinctive belligerent honk, "Has the prime minister sought or received any information on how many elderly NZ First supporters died during the police investigation?"

That was one question Mr Brownlee didn't even have to decline to answer – and, as a newbie MP, Mr O'Rourke looked delighted to have lobbed a barb, raised a laugh and copped a Speakerly smack all in one go. If only Winston had been there to see it.

Mr Parker, later quizzing Attorney-General Chris Finlayson about legal aspects of the tea-tape affair, wondered whether any lessons had been learnt from the release – thus far un-prosecuted – of a taped conversation between Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, "and what was it about John Key and John Banks' conversation in Epsom that made it more sensitive than a conversation between the presidents of the United States and Russia?"

Mr Finlayson was unusually curt, saying he had no ministerial responsibility for the conversations of Mr Key, Mr Banks, Mr Obama or Mr Medvedev, and sitting down with an air of finality. The Sergeant Schultz virus is contagious.

The Dominion Post