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Cheap shots from Rich at swearing minister

The story goes thus: one day, the minister of education, under a barge of accusations from the opposition, let his mouth slip.  The next day, he is absent from the House.  The two words which escaped the minister’s mouth and his better conscience led to what could well be among the most exciting things to come out of question time.

You see, Minister Steve Maharey, who also holds the broadcasting portfolio, was facing criticism for his complaint to Morning Report show host Sean Plunket, after Plunket said that Maharey’s comments about the Cambridge examinations were “full of implied racism”.  In the second supplementary question in a questioning of the process by which he made the complaint, Jonathan Coleman asked, “Does the Minister think it is appropriate for the Minister responsible for Radio New Zealand to abuse that position by complaining about operational matters to the board that he himself appointed; if not, why not?”  It is, indeed, a rather harsh question, and one that got the better of our minister, who after replying that “I think it is entirely reasonable for the Minister of Education to take exception to being called a racist, and I would do it again now,” he took his seat, and has he did so, the words, “fuck you!” left his mouth, followed by, “I’m fed up with you, Jonathan”.

That was Wednesday.  I would begin an argument that, as the minister of education, he had every right to make such a complaint, but that is not what I am writing about today.  This blog is about Thursday: the day where opposition education spokeswoman Katherine Rich—overexcited by Maharey’s slip, perhaps—took the opportunity to make what she hoped would be the most of it.

Rich began: “The Minister of Education is obviously on the naughty step for swearing”, and was quickly slammed by the speaker and made to withdraw the comment.  Apparently, she was seeking leave to defer until the minister was present—a move that, for itself, would have swung things in her favour.  There was objection, leave was not granted, and Rich proceeded to ask about the minister’s visit to Botswana.

Of course, it wasn’t really about Maharey’s visit to Botswana (if it was, it would be a rather boring question).  In the exchange that followed between Rich and Leader of the House Michael Cullen, who was answering on Maharey’s behalf, Rich attacked first Maharey’s comments on Botswana, and then Maharey’s language.

I have written before about how Rich, in her capacity as education spokeswoman, is picking on the small stuff.  While Maharey’s use of the “F” word is rather amusing (I mean, inappropriate), it is a rather sore excuse to use five minutes of question time for.  It was rather pointless: Maharey was not in denial and had already apologised, and most people have better things to care about.

In Rich’s and Cullen’s exchange, Rich issued a variety of references to Maharey’s comments and expletives, and was thoroughly burned by Cullen’s retorts.  Will the Minister refund the people of Botswana his hotel costs?  It was the people of New Zealand who paid for him anyway.  Is the Minister embarassed about Botswana’s higher literacy gains?  Well, coming off a lower base, they had more to gain to start with, so no surprises.  Can the Minister explain what should happen in a school today if a student swears at a teacher and then cites the Minister’s language?  Well, the guy did apologise for the inappropriateness, and if she really thinks no student has ever used the word before, then “she lives in a very rarefied ivory tower indeed.”

I don’t think she won that battle, even if she did have the advantage of the minister’s absence temporarily tarnishing his reputation.  In her attempt to discredit Maharey for his rare embarassment, she did nothing useful accept discover that the minister did indeed regret his words.

It was really just another demonstration of Rich struggling to find ways to discredit the education ministry.  It was a job that her predecessor Bill English excelled at, understanding where flaws did lie, but Rich is being forced, it seems, to take even the cheapest shots on all of the few opportunities she can find.  Perhaps one day she’ll find something decent to make a big deal about.

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