Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Inquiry-itis doing the rounds (updated)

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the bride-to-be's father Gus Portokalos' cure-all for the injuries, rashes and afflictions that befall his family is a squirt of Windolene glass cleaner.

Sore back? Pimple? Broken marriage? Windex.

The Green Party's version of Windex is, as Prime Minister John Key took some delight in pointing out earlier this week, the call for an inquiry.

Key's comment that nary a week went by without the Greens calling for an inquiry came after Green MP Dave Clendon decided an Independent Police Conduct Authority inquiry was warranted into the police management of the Dotcom case after the High Court found the search warrants used were invalid.

Listener journalist Toby Manhire tallied up at least 19 such calls over the past 18 months, ranging from the involvement of Chinese company Huawei in the broadband rollout to the Rugby World Cup opening night and the price of milk as well as many with an environmental bent.

The list did not include other less independent "inquiries" the Greens have pushed for - such as a joint Labour/Green Party inquiry into aged care last term and the Maori Affairs select committee inquiry into the wellbeing of Maori children.

It is true the Greens have had some hits in their game of Inquiry Battleships. The Auditor-General agreed to look into the tendering process for a national convention centre and there is an inquiry into fracking by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. The Greens won't like the analogy but they also hit the motherlode on ACC which has prompted no fewer than three inquiries by the Privacy Commission, the Auditor-General and the recently completed police investigation, which found no evidence of ACC managers' claims that Bronwyn Pullar tried to blackmail them.

Labour on the other hand has been a bit more restrained in its calls for inquiries.

It helped back the ACC inquiries and Labour MP Trevor Mallard managed to get Act leader John Banks' alleged game of hide and seek with his 2010 mayoral donations referred to the police. However, the only other inquiry it has called for and successfully got was into one of its own MPs - Shane Jones - over his decision to grant citizenship to Bill Liu.

The Greens are now sitting over in their offices high up in Bowen House, rolling around in all those inquiries in a manner akin to Scrooge McDuck in his vault, and waiting to cash in on the findings. At that point, they will be able to either use those findings to bludgeon the Government, or - if an inquiry finds nothing awry - call for a subsequent inquiry into why the first inquiry was a whitewash.

Of course the inquiry approach can have its pitfalls. Calling in authorities such as the Auditor-General tends to have the effect of removing question marks once and for all so the Greens may have deprived themselves and other Opposition parties of a potent political weapon: that of casting aspersions. If the Auditor-General finds nothing untoward in the convention centre process, it helps to neuter an issue over which suspicion would otherwise have bedevilled National for years to come.

Key's mockery of the Greens' severe case of inquiry-itis has had the desired effect of reducing the potency of any calls the Greens might make in future by consigning them to the status of a punchline.

On Wednesday night after the earthquake struck near New Plymouth, most Twitter users tweeted about trying to find pants before running outside or condiment jars falling over.

Green MP Holly Walker had bigger issues on her mind: "Anyone else concerned about the offshore oil rigs in Taranaki?"

Sure enough, in response the jokes started rolling in about how long it would take for the Greens to call for an inquiry into whether the earthquake was caused by either a) fracking, or b) John Key or c) the tremors from all those other inquiry reports landing all at once.

Even the Greens have started to laugh at themselves, just quietly, but have justified it on the basis that there are few other weapons in the Opposition arsenal, other than calling for a minister to be sacked, which should be reserved for special occasions.

National itself is not innocent of overplaying its hand on occasion. For every inquiry that the Greens call for, National matches it by reannouncing an already announced policy.

This week, the media turned up to hear the Prime Minister and Justice Minister Judith Collins unveil the "action plan" to reduce crime by 15 per cent only to discover it consisted of work that was already under way, most of it put in place by Collins' predecessor Simon Power.

But the Green Party's inquiry habit is unrelenting. It has even taken to mounting unilateral investigations when it considers the might of the appropriate authority is not up to the task. The most critical of these was Steffan Browning's visit to Mt Roskill in May after news of the "infestation" of one Queensland fruit fly. His mission, set out in a press statement, was "to investigate the fruit fly's pathway into New Zealand".

In that matter, at least, Mr Portokalos' cure-all of a squirt of Windex might have been a better insecticide than a Green Party MP traipsing through Auckland's backyards looking for a fruit fly jet trail.

5.20pm UPDATE: The Green Party have responded with this (tongue-in-cheek) statement:

The Green Party has called for an independent inquiry into why the Green Party calls for so many inquiries.

The Greens have been criticised by Prime Minister John Key, who said, 'The Greens call for an inquiry on virtually anything.'

The remark prompted immediate calls from the Green Party for an inquiry, which would focus on why the Greens call for so many inquiries.

According to a spokesperson for the Green Party it would focus on why the Greens insisted on holding the government to account and whether it was appropriate behaviour for an opposition party to oppose the government and inquire into its activities.

The Green Party announced it would convene a working group to determine the make-up of the inquiry committee, which would then report to the national executive before December. Once the gender-balanced committee was selected its first task would be to draft its terms of reference. Those would be ready sometime in the new year and the committee would report its draft by July.

The committee will not be headed by Paula Rebstock or Dame Margaret Bazley.

Sources within the Green Party predicted that the inquiry would probably be a whitewash, with its recommendations ignored. A subsequent inquiry into why the inquiry was ignored was likely. The Green Party would not approach Margaret Bazley or Paula Rebstock to lead the subsequent inquiry.

The statement by John Key prompting the inquiry was in response to the call for an inquiry into the police raid on Kim Dotcom's mansion, which the High Court ruled illegal.

"It's sort of the boy who cried wolf a few too many times I think," Mr Key said, rejecting the request.

The Green Party has previously obtained inquiries into such matters as the ACC privacy breach, fracking, the Sky City Convention Centre deal, the wrongful release of striking workers' details, SAS prison transfers, and the price of milk.

They were also considering an inquiry into whether the Prime Minister or any of his senior Cabinet Ministers were wolves, explaining, "every time the Green Party cries wolf it turns out there is one."

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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