Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Editorial: The fake Foreign Minister

Jokes aside, what is Winston Peters doing in the Government? His decision to take the role of Foreign Minister and move it out of the Cabinet was odd enough, but his apparent disinclination to sit even on a Cabinet committee is ridiculous.

Like any large organisation a Government makes most of its decisions one level down from its supreme body. The Cabinet mostly approves actions that have been discussed and resolved by committees of ministers and officials. For Mr Peters to absent himself from the committee that deals with foreign relations reduces his role to that of little more than a roving ambassador.

That is obviously as he wants it. He is content to represent policies and decisions he has had no part in formulating in the belief that he might thus preserve the independence of his party. That belief is likely to prove wrong. Already we have the spectacle of the New Zealand First leader leaving at home his party's well-known suspicions of Asian immigration so that at the Apec foreign ministers meeting in South Korea he can try to revive the flagging number of Asian students coming here.

The election results place Mr Peters in an invidious position. Unless he promised his party's votes on one side or the other a stable Government could not have been formed. But he did not need to accept a ministerial position. The rest of his party have to be content with the policy concessions secured from negotiations with Labour. Mr Peters could have been content with those too. He could have trumpeted his extra police and his small gain for superannuitants and thereafter distanced himself from the Government to his heart's content.

But he has been unable to resist a role of some grandeur and his position becomes more ludicrous by the week. It was understandable that he would not want to be in Labour's Cabinet, but Cabinet committees have a much lower profile and do largely practical, procedural work. Mr Peters could have chaired the committee on foreign relations and defence and nobody would have suggested the job was anything other than routine. But it seems he will not even be a permanent member of the committee. The Prime Minister says she or Defence Minister Phil Goff will convey the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's advice to the committee, which Mr Goff will chair.

If this is the way Mr Peters wants it, he is inviting more than ridicule. He invites serious questions about the value he is offering for his ministerial salary and the considerable expenses of that office. Helen Clark sees no problem in this arrangement but she is hardly an uninterested party. He has agreed to prop up her Government and that will seem to her to be well worth his price. But he must tell us why he is putting us to the expense of paying him a ministerial rate if he is not going to do the donkey work in the Cabinet committee.

The Prime Minister expects that Mr Peters will attend the committee in the event of something major, such as a regional crisis, but ordinarily, she says, ministry chief executive Simon Murdoch will attend the committee and Mr Peters will be "briefed" by ministry officials. He will be given riding instructions on what the committee has resolved and will be expected to faithfully represent those positions abroad.

But if the country was going to hire a roving ambassador to promote the likes of free trade deals, nuclear pacifism and education for non-English speakers, the leader of New Zealand First would not be the obvious candidate. If he wants to pretend he is Foreign Minister the least he could do is contribute to the decisions he must defend. Otherwise he declares his job a sinecure - all status, no responsibility.

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