Wednesday, March 29, 2006

John Armstrong: Dog of a day for Anderton

If there is going to be one law for all dogs - as Labour keeps insisting - then there must surely be one law for all Cabinet ministers.

So Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton had no option but to front up in Parliament yesterday to be mauled by an Opposition revelling in his failure to get the Cabinet to change its mind and exempt farm dogs from microchipping.

With outraged farmers yapping in one ear and National MPs yelping in the other, Mr Anderton looked like someone about to be microchipped such was his grimace.

His squirming was understandable. The convention of collective Cabinet responsibility obliged him to defend the Cabinet's decision even though he had fought behind the scenes to have it reversed.

The Opposition drew the obvious conclusion: Mr Anderton no longer wielded much influence as the sole Progressive MP in the Cabinet.

He did his best to argue otherwise even though these days he is more pooch than pit-bull. He told the House the matter had been given "full" and "careful" consideration, but the Cabinet had decided "on balance" that successful enforcement of the policy required a "consistent approach" across the country.

In other words, he had been rolled.

But Mr Anderton persisted in trying to extract minor victory from total defeat.

As Opposition MPs howled with laughter, he declared that Federated Farmers knew they had a minister who did not duck the issues. He had managed to get the Cabinet to review the original decision even though it had not been required to do so.

National then pulled out some newspaper clippings which had Mr Anderton boasting about his influence as a senior minister. How then did he explain to National being rolled by one of the most junior - Associate Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta, the author of the clever "one law for all dogs"?

Mr Anderton replied that there were some members of Cabinet that "one accepts being rolled by" - a statement which immediately had ministers around him wondering who was not in that category.

By now, Mr Anderton was trying to make a constitutional virtue of his predicament.

As the minority coalition partner, Mr Anderton could have invoked the "agree to disagree" clause in the Cabinet manual and distanced himself from the Cabinet's decision.

That would have been the easy option. But the Government currently needs solidarity. Mr Anderton accordingly stressed he was bound by Cabinet collective responsibility. He accepted the Cabinet's view "unreservedly".

But he was flummoxed by the next question from Rural Affairs Minister, Damien O'Connor.

Could Mr Anderton confirm that every single apple exported from New Zealand had to be identified by a sticker?

Fortunately Mr Anderton did not have to find an answer to this riddle as the Speaker Margaret Wilson ruled the question out of order.

However, the mention of apples had Winston Peters asking an even more convoluted question about the pip-fruit industry, prompting the Speaker to remind him the House was currently "on dogs and microchipping".

Quick as a flash, National's resident St Bernard, Gerry Brownlee, was on his feet suggesting, as the House was dealing with dogs, it should hear a question from the "poodle" - a reference to Mr Peters' propping-up of the Labour-led Government.

Even Mr Peters could see the funny side. Briefly. He was soon snarling dobermann-like about repaying the compliment with interest. In the dog-eat-dog world of Parliament, there are some canines you would not even dare to try to microchip.

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