Three-strike ministerial ping-pong

Last updated 05:00 13/03/2013

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Not for nothing does the term "Catch 22" remain current, more than 50-odd years after author Joseph Heller coined it.

OPINION: During Parliament's February sitting, the Opposition asked Education Minister Hekia Parata a question about the resignation of departmental secretary Lesley Longstone, only to be told by her that they needed to ask the minister for state services.

Accordingly, yesterday the Opposition asked the Minister of State Services, Jonathan Coleman, about the resignation terms. He said: "You'll have to ask the minister of education."

Dr Coleman, whose question time style is somewhere between that of a diligent goalkeeper and a bio-hazard officer on full alert, was absolutely determined not to get involved in the now infamous relationship failure between Ms Parata and Ms Longstone.

You could practically see him don rubber gloves and a special breathing filtration jumpsuit so none of the nasties could rub off on him.

To the intense frustration of the questioner, Labour's Chris Hipkins, when Dr Coleman wasn't redirecting the traffic back toward Ms Parata, his responses were either A. "You'll have to ask the state services commissioner because it's an employment issue," B. "How would I know, I'm not the minister of education," or C. "I . . . don't . . . know!"

"It's ministerial ping-pong!" complained Labour's Annette King, as the increasingly hard-pressed Speaker, David Carter, refereed a verbal punch-up that reached back as far as a 1893 Speaker's ruling.

Anxious to move the House on, he invoked his controversial new "three-strikes" rule, that Opposition MPs can only ask a stonewalling minister the same question three times. Mr Carter's reason for this policy seems to be that trying to get blood from a stone like Dr Coleman is a waste of the House's time. However, as the Opposition pointed out, the policy also means evasive ministers are let off the hook.

Mr Carter, by now quite tetchy, said the only way forward that he could see was to ask Dr Coleman some different questions. Finally, a goal got right past Dr Coleman.

In response to a question phrased in a more oblique way, he used the word "us" about the process of approval used to grant Ms Longstone's severance payment.

It turned out that Dr Coleman himself had been the minister to sign off the deal. That, the Opposition crowed, meant Dr Coleman did know about the details of the affair, and should therefore be made to answer.

Dr Coleman, however, remained gloved and suited against all further incursions. The questions had been answered, he said. "They just didn't get the answers they wanted."

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Labour's Clayton Cosgrove, who seems to have had a Damascean conversion about the previous Speaker with whom he fought bitterly, invited Mr Carter to study the "elegant" techniques with which Lockwood Smith had resolved such impasses.

"I thank the member for his contribution," Mr Carter said, meaning quite the opposite.

Mr Cosgrove managed to get the last word on the matter - but it was "I withdraw and apologise," after muttering aloud that Mr Carter was a "Friend of the Government!"

- The Dominion Post

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