Julie Anne Genter wearing some hats. Photo illustration: Tina Tiller / Getty Images
Julie Anne Genter wearing some hats. Photo illustration: Tina Tiller / Getty Images

PoliticsAugust 7, 2019

Julie Anne Genter and the game of hats

Julie Anne Genter wearing some hats. Photo illustration: Tina Tiller / Getty Images
Julie Anne Genter wearing some hats. Photo illustration: Tina Tiller / Getty Images

This government once boasted it’d be the ‘most open and transparent’ in New Zealand history. The case of Julie Anne Genter’s letter shows just how badly they’ve failed on that front, argues Ben Thomas.

Countless hours of film nerd blood, sweat and effort have been devoted to the mysterious briefcase which hitmen John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson are ordered to recover for their mob employer in Quentin Tarantino’s classic Pulp Fiction.

The contents of the briefcase remain unknown, outside of an orange glow that transfixes Travolta’s character when he unlocks it. The original script (according to Wikipedia) specified it would be full of diamonds, but this was rejected as “low stakes”. Ever wilder fan theories over the years have suggested the case contains anything from the soul of gang boss Marcellus to God Himself.

In film terms, the briefcase is the most pure form of a “MacGuffin”, the name given to an object or a device that is necessary to provide an impetus or motivation to the characters in a story, but which of itself is irrelevant or unimportant beyond impelling the plot forward. It doesn’t matter what’s in the briefcase; what matters for the movie is that the characters want it.

The glowing briefcase that currently has New Zealand’s parliament transfixed is a mysterious letter sent by associate minister of transport and Greens transport spokesperson Julie Anne Genter to transport minister and Labour MP Phil Twyford in March.

The letter seems to be Genter’s feedback on the development of Get Wellington Moving, a package of government support for $6.4 billion of transport projects in the capital that was announced in late May.

What is in the letter? At this point, any reveal short of the glowing soul of Winston Peters itself will be a disappointment.

It’s unlikely that the wonkish Genter used intemperate or explosive language. It would hardly be a surprise or scandal to learn the Greens used whatever leverage they had with Labour to move resources away from roads and tunnels for cars towards public transport and cycle lanes. As we know from the Get Wellington Moving package that has been announced, that was the end result.

But that’s not the point. One of the features of a MacGuffin is that while it initially seems like the central plot point, it really just exists to set the characters in motion. What we’re invested in as an audience is how they then behave and what they do as a result of being impelled.

And those actions do tell us a bit about the soul of the government – one still haunted by the late, lamentable ministerial stint of Clare Curran, who promised the “most open and transparent government” in New Zealand history.

Genter refuses to release the letter, saying it was sent in her capacity as Greens transport spokesperson, not as a minister of the government. This would mean that there were stronger reasons to refuse release under the Official Information Act and would also give Genter carte blanche to reject questions in parliament, since they would relate to “party” business, not her actions as a minister.

However, in an extraordinary display in the House yesterday, she admitted that the letter was written on her ministerial letterhead – in every formal sense, it was composed by the associate transport minister, not by Julie Anne Genter, Green MP.

This government, as probably the most pure “MMP” coalition to date, has relied a great deal on the “different hats” tactic of avoiding accountability. Popularised by Helen Clark and refined by John Key, this essentially means ministers claiming that in some situations they are wearing “different hats” – as an MP or as a party leader, rather than as a minister of the crown – and so are not subject to the standard mechanisms for holding the executive accountable for its decision making.

The prime minister explicitly stated last year when defending the on-the-hoof ban of oil and gas exploration that some policy decisions in the Labour-New Zealand First-Greens government will be made by the party leaders, removing the need for proper cabinet processes and scrutiny by officials. Peters has openly scoffed at the idea of releasing his diary details, saying that in almost all his engagements and meetings he is acting as the leader of New Zealand First, not the deputy prime minister.

But Genter has taken the “different hats” doctrine to its absurd conclusion: that even when she sits down in a hat that says “associate minister of transport” and drafts a missive on ministerial letterhead about ministerial business, she may be wearing another, smaller hat underneath that says “none of your business, voters”, and we just have to take her word.

What Genter’s MacGuffin reveals about the government’s soul is that ministers no longer even feel the need to go to the effort of slickly juggling formal rules to avoid accountability or transparency. Peters himself sent out a government press release last year as deputy prime minister, and later refused to answer questions about it because he claimed he had meant to send it in his capacity as party leader.

What it has showed is that this government has not just failed to arrest, but has exacerbated the two decade long slide away from accountability, to the point where offices through incompetence or apathy seem unsure as to which hat they are wearing at any given time. It’s increasingly looking like the emperor isn’t wearing a hat at all.

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