Thursday, March 23, 2006

John Armstrong: Samuels' hat dance enrages Opposition

It now seems that Dover Samuels wears his ministerial hat much like his trademark Australian bush hat - when he feels like it.

The Labour MP yesterday came up with a novel way of ducking questions concerning ministerial responsibility - one that left the Opposition unimpressed and complaining the Government was deliberately weakening Parliament's role in holding ministers accountable for their actions and statements.

For Labour, however, the need to avoid further embarrassment was more pressing than constitutional probity. The last thing it needed yesterday was one minister laying into another.

But just a day after David Parker's resignation from the Cabinet, Labour awoke to Mr Samuels, who is an Associate Minister of Development, being quoted in The Independent criticising Conservation Minister Chris Carter for stalling the Whangamata marina project.

When Parliament sat in the afternoon, National MPs were rubbing their hands in expectation, but they ended the afternoon exasperated with Mr Samuels and Speaker Margaret Wilson, who was described as "a disgrace to this Parliament" by Nick Smith as she ejected him from the chamber.

During question-time, National had zeroed in on Mr Samuels, asking if he stood by his statements to the business weekly.

He replied that the statements were made "from his experience" as a former Far North District councillor and member of its planning committee.

National's Nick Smith asked Mr Samuels if he was expecting Parliament to believe the remarks had been made in his capacity as a local body councillor, rather than as a member of the Government.

"Absolutely," Mr Samuels replied.

But Act's Rodney Hide wanted to know how Mr Samuels could be quoted as a minister, but drop that responsibility when the matter came up in Parliament.

"He is a minister of the Crown 24/7, 365 days of the year.

"He cannot make a whole lot of comments he now wishes he hadn't and then turn up in the House and not be held to account for them."

As the Opposition's frustration grew, Mr Smith tried again to pin Mr Samuels down. Did Dover Samuels, the Associate Minister for Economic Development, agree with Dover Samuels, Far North District councillor?

After a succession of points of order, the Speaker ruled the comparison out of order. This was too much for Mr Smith who described the ruling as a "farce", prompting the Speaker to order him from the chamber.

National's Gerry Brownlee pressed on, complaining that the Speaker's ruling meant Mr Samuels could not be questioned as a minister because he had chosen to designate himself as being in a different role.

"That does make this process utterly farcical."

His leader, Don Brash, then opted for the weapon of last resort - sarcasm.

Did Mr Samuels - "wearing whichever hat happens to suit" - accept the "sincere and wholehearted congratulations" of every member of the Opposition on his "very perceptive" comments relating to Mr Carter's decision.

Mr Samuels replied that he wore only one hat. As to which one, no-one was the wiser.

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