Wednesday, May 03, 2006

John Armstrong: Opposition MPs wear expletive as badge of honour

There is only one thing worse than being called a "bastard" by the former chairman of Television New Zealand. That is not being called a "bastard".

For all the huffing and puffing around Parliament over Craig Boyce’s unfortunate choice of expletives, TVNZ’s stocks are so low that being described as a bastard by the state broadcaster’s top brass is credibility enhancing, rather than politically damaging for an Opposition MP.

Act’s Rodney Hide went as far as declaring he would have been more worried had Mr Boyce thought he was not a bastard given it was his job to ensure accountability from state enterprises like TVNZ.

This tendency to wear the "bastard" label as a badge of honour undermined Don Brash’s attempt to maintain a high "outrage" quotient in Parliament yesterday. He demanded to know why Mr Boyce was still serving on New Zealand Trade and Enterprise’s board, given that his "contemptuous" attitude to Parliament made him unfit to do so.

The Prime Minister agreed Mr Boyce’s language had been "inappropriate". But Helen Clark did not buy Dr Brash’s proposition he should be dumped from the board of another state entity.

Since the contents of his embarrassing emails had been exposed, she said Mr Boyce had "clarified" things by insisting he was not contemptuous of Parliament - just Opposition figures like Murray McCully, the MP who got the emails under the Official Information Act.

Mr McCully’s response was the beaming smile of someone, who, having landed a king-hit, could not care less what he was called.

Dr Brash then questioned Helen Clark on the email in which Mr Boyce cautioned TVNZ’s former chief executive Ian Fraser not to discuss undisclosed matters that occurred midway though last year between Mr Fraser and former board member Dame Ann Hercus, saying "that would be a disaster for everyone".

Was it acceptable for directors of state enterprises to suppress politically damaging information? Would the Prime Minister reveal the nature of that information?

Unfortunately, she could not. To National’s disbelief, she insisted Dame Ann, a former Labour Cabinet minister, had not kept her appraised of what went on at the TVNZ board.

That brought Mr Hide to his feet - immediately realising the worst fears of Act supporters that his appearing on Dancing with the Stars gives Act’s opponents every excuse not to take him seriously. Worse, it seems to have given those opponents licence to drag out every dance-related joke possible.

Stand-up comedy is not Helen Clark’s forte. But she had rehearsed a line in readiness for Mr Hide nevertheless.

He suggested no one should be surprised by TVNZ withholding sensitive information given the Labour Government had been doing that ever since it had been elected.

The Prime Minister noted Mr Hide’s dancing lessons. "But dancing on the point of that particular pin will only prick his balloon."

Labour MPs dutifully broke into laughter as if this was the funniest thing they had ever heard.

"That wasn’t even witty," Mr Hide grumbled, before arguing with the Speaker, accusing Margaret Wilson of failing to uphold Parliament’s standing orders by requiring the Prime Minister to address his question properly.

Margaret Wilson could have taken justifiable umbrage at this serious challenge to her authority.

She let it pass - maybe because it was Parliament’s first day back after a three-week recess; maybe out of sympathy for Mr Hide facing his own date with performance-related accountability next Sunday night courtesy of none other than TVNZ.

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