Wednesday, April 05, 2006

John Armstrong: Brownlee the loser as Labour rebuke backfires

Is the unconventional arrangement which allows the Greens to speak on behalf of the Government while claiming they are not part of the Government both politically farcical and constitutionally dangerous?

National's Gerry Brownlee has been arguing that for months. He claims the post-election agreement between Labour and the Greens, which designates Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Bradford as "Government spokespersons" in two policy areas, weakens the convention of ministerial responsibility.

Mr Brownlee can claim some vindication from yesterday's report from the Auditor-General, Kevin Brady, into the hiring of three advisers who have been helping the two Green MPs write Government policy on energy efficiency and develop a "Buy Kiwi Made" campaign respectively.

However, while Mr Brady is highly critical of the advisers for being far too cosy with the Greens - criticisms which have been addressed by Government officials - his report is also a big setback for Mr Brownlee.

National's deputy leader claims the fundamental principle which requires Cabinet ministers to be accountable to Parliament for the public money they spend has been seriously undermined by the Opposition being unable to put questions to the Green MPs who are effectively functioning as de facto ministers.

Such constitutional niceties were not part of Mr Brady's brief. That was confined to whether the funding of the advisers was lawful.

He has deemed it was. However, Labour will interpret that as giving the constitutional blessing to its post-election deal with the Greens.

That co-operation agreement has the Greens abstaining on confidence motions in exchange for Labour consulting them on some policy matters dear to Green hearts.

The highest level of co-operation sees the Greens effectively in charge of energy efficiency and the "Buy Kiwi Made" campaign, a passion of the late Rod Donald.

While a Labour minister has overall control, Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Bradford have access to official advice and may be invited to Cabinet committee meetings.

According to Mr Brownlee, it is now unclear where ministerial responsibility begins and ends.

It was Mr Brownlee's concerns about the Department of Internal Affairs' funding of the three advisers which prompted the Auditor-General to investigate.

Mr Brady's report is critical that the advisers' job descriptions had gone beyond writing policy to providing wider assistance to the Greens to smooth relations with Labour - political activity which should have been funded out of Parliament's budget, not Internal Affairs'.

The risk of a "blurring" of the lines had been heightened by one of the advisers working part-time for the Greens in another capacity.

Mr Brady also questioned why the advisers were based in the Greens' parliamentary offices when they were supposedly attached to the Prime Minister's office.

However - much to Mr Brownlee's disappointment - Mr Brady has effectively ruled that it is acceptable to use Government money to hire advisers to assist the Green MPs to write policy as long as such advisers fall within the category of support staff for the minister and are employed by Internal Affairs.

National still sees them as nothing more than political flunkeys - and a taxpayer-funded donation to the Greens to compensate for that party's loss of support staff resulting from the cut in its parliamentary funding after last year's election.

However, the upshot of Mr Brownlee's complaints is the Auditor-General may have given carte blanche for Labour and the Greens to hire even more of them.

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