John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Amnesia MPs' occupational disease

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

Amnesia, yelled Trevor Mallard in Parliament yesterday after the Prime Minister had (not surprisingly) been unwilling to confirm an Opposition claim that a record 1000 New Zealanders were now upping sticks each week and moving permanently to Australia.

It is certainly the buzzword. Kim Dotcom's John Banks-inspired rap, Amnesia, would have been the perfect soundtrack in the House for a number of ministerial replies to questions. In the words of the song, that politician had got amnesia again. And then that one. And so on.

John Key could claim he had not been briefed on the latest transtasman migration figures. Winston Peters had no such excuse in predicting the imminent collapse of the Key Government. His evidence for this assertion was Tariana Turia's outright dismissal of National's plan to offer free contraception to female beneficiaries and their teenage daughters.

Peters wanted to know how Key could have confidence in Turia as Associate Social Development Minister when she had publicly embarrassed Paula Bennett, the senior minister in the portfolio.

Key was perplexed. He suggested Peters take a close look at the confidence and supply agreement between National and the Maori Party. The latter party's ministers were required to conform to Government policy in areas where they had a ministerial delegation. Turia's Social Development responsibilities fell outside the area of welfare reform. She was therefore quite free to speak out.

Key added that "from memory," those had pretty much been the same rules that had applied when Peters had a very similar relationship with Labour between 2005 and 2008.

The Prime Minister could have added that NZ First had been opposed to Labour's negotiation of a free trade agreement with China, but that had not resulted in Peters losing his job as Foreign Minister.

Phil Heatley, on the other hand, might have been happier yesterday had he suffered a bout of amnesia.

The Housing Minister was asked by Labour MP Annette King if he still stood by his month-old statement that Housing New Zealand "clients" were now getting a much better service since the corporation closed branch offices and replaced them with an 0800 number.

This prompted a sheepish admission from Heatley that the transition had "not been without its challenges" and extra staff were being employed to sort things out.

And then there was the strange case of National's Gerry Brownleee, now Transport Minister, and the Greens' Julie Anne Genter, a fresh-faced newcomer with responsibilities for transport policy.

Genter's questions - delivered with the earnestness and gesticulations of a university debater - focus heavily on the supposedly pending apocalypse of oil shortages and spiralling petrol prices which, according to the Greens, make National's expensive road-building programme redundant and wasteful.

Brownlee, who exhibits the demeanour of a Gulliver having his heel pricked by some Lilliputian in the faraway backbenches, promptly develops an instant amnesia for what might happen in the future and waves Genter's dire warnings aside like a doctor saying there is nothing to worry about.

She in turn suffers a similarly fast-acting amnesia to the contents of his reply and presses on with another pre-prepared Armageddon-beckoning question. This talking past each other continues until Gentner mercifully runs out of questions.

Amnesia, however, may well be an unavoidable affliction in politicians. If they were to remember everything they might have believed, said or done in the past, they would be paralysed by indecision in the present.

Amnesia may just be another word for flexibility.

- 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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