John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Finlayson fall guy for absent McCully

Murray McCully Photo / Sarah Ivey
Murray McCully Photo / Sarah Ivey

To the list of credibility-deficient statements like "the cheque is in the mail" and "your table will be ready in a few minutes" you can now add "Murray McCully is not a micro-manager".

In the Foreign Minister's absence - McCully was heading for China yesterday - another minister, Chris Finlayson, drew the short straw in having to answer questions in Parliament on McCully's behalf as the Opposition continued to press its attack over the botched restructuring of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Finlayson had been making a reasonable fist of deflecting that attack until he suddenly made his hard-to-swallow statement about McCully's management style.

McCully has been the power behind more thrones than Robespierre and Rasputin combined. The picture painted of McCully as some political innocent oblivious to the goings-on in his ministry had the Opposition benches in stitches of genuine laughter.

Finlayson only raised the mirth quotient when he added: "His name is McCully. Not Stalin or Helen Clark."

The Opposition would have preferred McCully to have been present. But Labour MPs, along with Winston Peters, had almost as much fun exacting revenge on Finlayson, who was obliged to defend McCully, but whose deployment of sarcasm in his answers annoys more than a few MPs.

Leading the charge, Labour's Phil Goff summed up the case against McCully. Was it fair - Goff asked - for McCully to keep blaming his ministry's chief executive, John Allen, for the mess being made of the restructuring when Allen was unable to defend himself and the minister was the person really responsible for what was going wrong?

Finlayson stuck to the straight-and-narrow of the State Sector Act, saying the chief executive had the "burden of responsibility" in carrying out the "change programme" at the ministry. Moreover, McCully was well aware of the act's boundaries which limited his discretion to act.

"It is no secret that the minister has expressed reservations about aspects of the ministry change proposals," Finlayson continued.

"The minister has conveyed those concerns to the chief executive, and in doing so has conveyed his views in a manner that is appropriate under the State Sector Act. What is so difficult to understand about that?"

Finlayson, however, then went on to accuse Goff of being "sloppy" with the facts after Labour's foreign affairs spokesman cited the hefty $200,000 bill for flying heads of mission at New Zealand's overseas posts back to Wellington for this week's crisis meeting on the restructuring. The correct figure was $154,000, Finlayson declared.

That reduction hardly makes the hurried toing-and-froing by top diplomats any more digestible.

But Goff got the last word anyway, reminding Finlayson that the $200,000 figure had been the one McCullyhad used in Parliament only last week.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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