You don't have to be a rocket surgeon, or even a brain scientist, to understand the People Republic of China's role in that Maoist Johnny Howard's strong economic management of Australia. And you might even be aware of the Chinese government's new-found interest in foreign corporate investment. However, the New South Wales Government's leading parliamentary economist, treasurer Michael Costa, is none of the above.
It seemed reasonable enough in Question Time in the Legislative Council on Tuesday, when John Kaye of the Greens put the following to Costa the Coster:
"Is the Treasurer aware of any interest in the purchase or long-term lease of components of the electricity industry in New South Wales by a company owned or partly owned by the People's Republic of China? Has the Treasurer or any official agent of his department had any communication in respect of the sale or long-term lease of components of the electricity industry in New South Wales with agents, employees or representatives of any company owned or partly owned by the Government of the People's Republic of China?"
"Is this for real?"
But the efforts to extract a Yes/No answer from the treasurer continued:
KAYE: Treasurer, it is up to you to tell us whether it is for real or not.
COSTA: I do not know how to respond to this question.
KAYE: Try telling the truth.
COSTA: I always tell the truth. In my office I have a satellite photograph of North Korea and South Korea. I think a number of members have seen it.
[Shadow Treasurer] GREG PEARCE: Does anyone come back out of your office?
COSTA: No, when they ask for money they don't! But this is serious. The satellite photograph of both North Korea and South Korea was taken at night, and if you look at that part relating to South Korea, you will see are all these dots, as you would normally see in a satellite photograph. The dotes are lights ...
KAYE: Point of order. I asked about a company owned or partly owned by the People's Republic of China. We are now talking about North Korea and South Korea. It is totally irrelevant to the question.
[President of the Legislative Council] PETER PRIMROSE: Order! I would ask the Treasurer to be generally relevant.
COSTA: I have to say that I have had some really weird questions in this place, but this is probably the weirdest I have ever had. What agents of a Stalinist regime of the Communist Party of China have been to see whom? This is out of some crazy movie the member has seen. It is absurd.
KAYE: All you need to do is say "No" and sit down.
COSTA: What is the point? Are you saying they should not come to see us?
KAYE: No, I am just asking you whether you have had any approaches?
COSTA: Anyway, let me finish my story, North Korea ...
PRIMROSE: Order! Members should cease interjecting; I am sure the Treasurer is quite capable of being generally relevant on his own.
COSTA: I am not refusing to answer the question; I just do not understand it. Next I will be asked whether have I had Castro's agents come to see me, or am I being followed by a big white elephant or a big white rabbit? I do not understand what this question is purporting to ask.
KAYE: Then just say "no".
COSTA: No, I am not going to say "no" or "yes" because we are not talking about that process. We are talking about whether Chairman Mao has been down to see me about buying a power station or two. How are they going to get the power station back to China, by the way? I know they need power in China, but can the member explain that before he comes up with such a loony scheme? This has to be the most absurd proposition I have ever heard. I suppose I should ask the Hon. Henry Tsang whether he was had any agents of the Chinese Communist Party come to see him to discuss ...
KAYE: Point of order: The question asked of the Treasurer was straightforward. I asked whether or not he has met with agents of a company owned by the People's Republic of China who are interested in purchasing part or all of the electricity industry in New South Wales? It was a very simple question requiring a very simple "yes" or "no" answer.
PRIMROSE: Order! That was a restatement of an earlier point taken by the member rather than a new point of order.
COSTA: I have met with many people, but I do not know if they are agents. By the way, is Harold Holt not over in China? From memory, is that not what is supposed to have happened to Harold Holt? Was he not picked up by a Chinese submarine?
KAYE: So we take it you have?
COSTA: You can take nothing at all. The question is absurd. I do not want to dignify the question with an answer that really has no relevance to the process that we are following.
[Deputy Leader of the Opposition] DUNCAN GAY: So the answer is "yes", is it? Is the answer "yes"?
COSTA: This is just an absurdity. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition should relax. I do not think we will be selling generators to the People's Republic of China. As I said, I cannot see how they would get them back to China anyway. I find the whole proposition absurd. It is reminiscent of some cheap B-grade spy movie.
I, er, think that's a No.