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  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan - New Zealand Herald - Column

We're heading towards the status of republic

The political fallout from the ongoing armed presence of coalition forces in Iraq demonstrates the strength of the Westminster-style of government over the separate executive style of government of the United States.

Scrutiny of the executives in Britain and the US over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction has exposed the inability in America to hold presidents to account for their actions.

President George W. Bush does not receive face-to-face grillings by opposition members of Congress. His spin doctors front up for regular press conferences on his behalf. He can delegate appearances before congressional committees to members of his unelected executive.

The public are not well-served by the inability of politicians and media to cross-examine their President on issues that concern them. What the public gets instead is a country run by photo opportunity and press release. As the President lives in a highly insulated environment, he will always be perceived and portrayed as a level above his opponents.

Bill Clinton managed to maintain a protective bubble during his impeachment trial in the 1990s. His evidence was given in secret away from his opponents, his speech to the nation was pre-recorded, and he was never seen within telescopic lens of the special prosecutor.

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and his advisers have been unable to insulate themselves from the media or their political opponents. Mr Blair faces a weekly barrage of questions from MPs, has appeared before select committees, and now the inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly.

Prime Minister's question-time in the House of Commons recognises that the Prime Minister is responsible for not only his personal activities but also his executive, government and country. He can rarely delegate answers to other ministers and his answers are scrutinised closely by opposing politicians and journalists.

In short, he has to answer the question, or other politicians and journalists will seek to answer it for him.

Mr Blair has unsuccessfully tried to run 10 Downing St in a similar style to the White House. His director of communications, Alistair Campbell, found himself becoming the story when his spin became unwound in a select committee inquiry. Mr Blair has now admitted he needs to run a more transparent government to prevent opponents capitalising through conspiracy theories.

New Zealand is headed by a presidential-style leader who prefers to be seen shaking hands with international leaders and opening facilities rather than defending her Government's actions in the presence of opposing politicians, media or protesters.

The Prime Minister rarely appears in the House of Representatives and delegates questions to her ministers, who avoid answering questions in any detail. Helen Clark prefers to hold press conferences in a controlled environment and avoids live interviews.

The result is a Prime Minister who shirks responsibility for her actions in the House but is willing to argue her case in a press release. Because she accepts responsibility only under her terms, New Zealand's long-established constitutional conventions are being whittled away by story leaks to a select group of journalists.

The ninth floor of the Beehive now wants the Prime Minister to take on more ceremonial roles normally reserved for the Governor General as head of state, such as farewelling troops and welcoming heads of states.

Before long we will have a republic except in name only.

Helen Clark knows that under an MMP environment people use their party vote to choose the party to lead a government. If her leadership is perceived to be separate from the activities of constituency MPs in her party, she can isolate herself from controversy.

If she faced a weekly grilling from Opposition MPs in the same way as Tony Blair, the public would be better served by a leader brought down to Earth - and away from the protective bubble of the ninth floor.

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