By EUGENE BINGHAM
For once, Matt Robson seemed to have gone limp.
As Minister of Corrections, Mr Robson has been a strong and popular personality in Parliament this year.
Yesterday afternoon, he looked like he could cry. The morning after the night before - when he had gone public with his plans to look at conjugal visits for prisoners and the possibility of inmate mums caring for their kids - had been tough.
Far more injurious than any of the quips which flowed in the House during question time were the thunderbolts from the Beehive and the signs he was out on his own.
Prime Minister Helen Clark, her deputy, Alliance leader Jim Anderton, and Labour's hardball Justice Minister, Phil Goff, spat out unequivocal statements that the proposals were not Government policy and made it clear they were simply the minister's musings.
The cabinet did not know about it. Mr Goff did not know about it. The Alliance caucus did not know about it.
In as much as this was a premeditated statement which was always going to provoke a sharp reaction, Mr Robson had committed a political misjudgment on a scale not seen before from a minister in this Government.
And so to the House where the Opposition was panting in anticipation.
Before the dogs were let loose, however, Alliance whip Grant Gillon tried vainly to halt the first question of the day, on a technicality.
"Just get it over and done with," National's Tony Ryall advised Mr Robson. So they were off, some MPs clambering for the moral high ground, others scurrying straight for the gutter.
New Zealand First's Ron Mark punched lowest.
"Will [he] take into consideration the needs of prisoners who do not have girlfriends and if so, does he envisage putting on a bus service between K Rd and Paremoremo?" Mr Mark asked before being shut down by Speaker Jonathan Hunt.
National corrections spokesman Tony Steel asked the most serious questions, but for some reason his call for the Government to concentrate on "stiffer penalties" and "harder sentences" had his colleagues in stitches.
Mr Robson dealt with the 13 questions by trying to explain why he had said what he did.
Twice he went too far and was forced to apologise - once for suggesting National "cowardly avoided" policies which were electorally unpopular and another for warning Act leader Richard Prebble that he risked sounding like a "book-burner" trying to suppress research.
In a subdued way, Mr Robson said he just wanted to look at any ideas which would reduce reoffending and thought he might be able to generate a sensible public debate about the issue.
He was bang out of luck.