There was an absorbing exchange during Question Time this afternoon. Q4 pitted Murray McCully against Foreign Affairs Minister, Winston Peters. Here's how it unfolded:
Air New Zealand—Charter Flights
4. Hon MURRAY McCULLY (National—East Coast Bays) to the Minister of Foreign Affairs: What communications, if any, were made to him or his office by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade regarding Air New Zealand’s discussion with the ministry about carrying Australian Defence Force personnel to Middle East locations?
Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS (Minister of Foreign Affairs): My office was informed yesterday morning that an article was due to appear in the next day or so about the charter flights. Today at midday I received a report from the ministry’s chief executive on the same subject.
Hon Murray McCully: Can the Minister assure the House that the answer he has just given is in accord with the best recollections of his officials; that is, do his ministry officials absolutely accept that they failed to advise him of Air New Zealand’s plans, as they should have done?
Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: To the chief executive officer’s great credit, he has accepted that he made a mistake. He, having made a mistake, which has been identified as not telling me—[Interruption]—and which is what this issue turns on, not on a whole lot of ballyhoo and bumf from the member over there, that is where the matter rests. [Interruption] That is where the matter rests; he says he made a mistake in not telling me.
Hon Murray McCully: Can I ask the Minister again whether we can be assured that the response he has given to the House this afternoon is in accord with the best recollections of his officials; that is, do they absolutely accept that they failed to advise him of Air New Zealand’s plans, as they should have done?
Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: Mr Simon Murdoch has sent a report to me, which is now in the hands of the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance, and the Minister of Defence.
Gerry Brownlee: That’s not the question.
Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: Well, I am answering the question, if that member will keep his mouth shut for 5 seconds.
Madam SPEAKER: The Minister is the process of answering the question. Interjections only create disorder. I do not want to have the answer heard in silence—I want to give members an appropriate opportunity to comment—but when there is an abuse of that opportunity, then yes, it will be heard in silence.
Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: Mr Murdoch says: “I have reviewed my actions in handling the information available to me in January. In hindsight I accept that even though the information was partial and contingent, I had the opportunity to pass it on to the Minister of Foreign Affairs by way of a heads-up and I did not do so. That was an error on my part, for which I now apologise.” That is where the matter should rest.
Keith Locke: In giving the green light to Air New Zealand, was the ministry at least in some measure acting on signals from Government Ministers, such as the opposition of the Minister of Foreign Affairs to a rapid withdrawal of American and Australian troops from Iraq, Helen Clark’s reluctance to bring up the issue of the war when she visited Washington, and the ongoing reluctance of Ministers to openly criticise the war in Iraq and the human rights violations at Abu Ghraib prison and the Guantanamo Bay detention centre?
Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: Three statements were just made, purporting to be in the form of a question. All three of those statements are demonstrably, palpably false, and they should not be presented in this Parliament by any self-respecting member of Parliament, let alone by a political party.
Hon Murray McCully: Can the Minister assure the House that at no stage did any ministry official communicate information about the planned Air New Zealand charters to him or his office?
Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: There was a group of officials, one of whom was the defence liaison in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who could be construed as being responsible for reporting to my office. But having looked at all the information, Mr Murdoch, to his great credit, and even regarding the circumstances, which might be ones of amelioration that are redeeming of him, nevertheless says: “At the end of the day, I made the mistake, and I apologise.”
Gerry Brownlee: That wasn’t the question.
Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: That being the case, if there was any material communication that would not go to the core of his apology, the question would be relevant. But, of course, it is not.
Hon Murray McCully: Can the House have an assurance that at no stage did any official from his ministry communicate in writing or in any other form with him or his office about the Air New Zealand charters?
Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: I have had a chance to review this matter with my officials and the head of foreign affairs over the last 24 hours. To the best of everyone’s recollections, there were no communications to the Minister of Foreign Affairs or to his office. Otherwise, this issue would never have arisen in the first place.
Hon Murray McCully: How does the Minister reconcile his statements in the media last night and this morning that the ministry was given little information by Air New Zealand and that the company had also failed to get back to the ministry, as it had expected, with the statement by Air New Zealand’s chairman, John Palmer, this morning that all the relevant details were provided to the ministry, including details of the flights, when they would take place, and what they comprised?
Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: That last phrase is the most apposite part of the question. What they comprised was never advised to foreign affairs—that is, who was on the plane, their designation and description, and where they were going to go when they arrived in Kuwait were never described to foreign affairs. It happens to be a fact that had foreign affairs known that, I think its reaction would have been different. However, because of circumstances, that was a matter of confidentiality in respect of the contract itself, and I can see how these circumstances have arisen. The point is that a mistake was made. A lesson has been learnt. We will not repeat that mistake in the future.
Two things stand out from the exchange. Why did McCully ask Peters THREE TIMES if he was sure that his officials had not told him about the Air New Zealand situation? Was McCully setting a trap? Was he insinuating that Peters knew more than he was owning up to, or does he have some inside information? Did he lure Peters into misleading the House? Time will tell, no doubt. But the other salient point - just what did Peters mean when he said "We will not repeat that mistake in the future."?