Shane Jones case tests leader's morals

ON THE TEAM: Shane Jones returns to Labour's front bench.
ON THE TEAM: Shane Jones returns to Labour's front bench.

Here's a question for Labour. When confronted with evidence raising serious questions about the judgment of a senior caucus member, what should the leader do?

Should he measure the member's actions against his own beliefs about what constitutes right and proper conduct in someone holding a ministerial warrant? Examining the facts of the case, should he ask himself how he would have acted differently? Should he take moral stock of the environment in which the member's actions occurred? Paying special attention to the actions of the member's staff, should he ask himself whether he would have felt comfortable working alongside them? Would he have trusted their advice?

Or, should he simply outsource the whole job to the auditor-general?

On Tuesday Auditor-General Lyn Provost announced that her office had found "no evidence there was any improper motive, collusion, or political interference" in the decision of Shane Jones to authorise New Zealand citizenship for the mysterious Chinese businessman Yang ("Bill") Liu.

Ms Provost did admit to there being a "combination of unusual circumstances and decisions" associated with the case, and that it was "not surprising" that people had started asking questions.

"We found reason to criticise most of those involved in different aspects of the decision-making process," she reported. "In the public sector, decisions not only have to be right, they have to be seen to be right."

No sooner had the auditor-general's report been released than the Labour leader, David Shearer, announced that Mr Jones would be returning to the Opposition front bench.

Disregarding the chain of "unusual circumstances and decisions" and the auditor-general's criticism of "most of those involved", Mr Shearer decided that the absence of any conclusive evidence of serious impropriety was the sole criterion Mr Jones needed to satisfy to ensure his complete rehabilitation.

And this, lest we forget, was after Mr Jones, as associate minister of immigration, had refused to accept the advice of Immigration Service officials that Mr Liu, a man under investigation in New Zealand, on suspicion of organising multiple identities, and wanted for questioning by the Chinese authorities concerning allegations of fraud, be denied New Zealand citizenship.

In spite of his officials' doubts, and aware that the only reason he was handling the case was because the then immigration minister Rick Barker had recused himself on the grounds that he was personally acquainted with Mr Liu (as was at least one other member of the Labour caucus), Mr Jones approved Mr Liu's application for citizenship.

We are told that Mr Jones was warned by one of his staff that if Mr Liu were repatriated to China he would probably face execution by the Chinese authorities – who would then harvest his internal organs for use in transplants. This information apparently weighed heavily in Mr Jones' decision to reject his officials' advice.

Mr Liu's relationship with at least one Labour Cabinet minister and one Labour MP does not, however, appear to have ever placed his application at serious risk of failing the political "sniff test".

Mr Shearer, alone, knows why the decision-making surrounding Mr Liu's application for citizenship offers no impediment to Mr Jones playing a key role in a future Labour-led government.

The New Zealand public, on the other hand, can easily be forgiven for wondering how the auditor-general's finding that Mr Jones did not act improperly has somehow been construed to mean that Mr Jones did not act unwisely. Is he truly innocent of any failures of judgment that a Labour leader keen to run a tight ethical ship might see as good reasons for keeping him away from ministerial decision-making in the future?

The Liu report was always going to be as much a test of Mr Shearer's ethical standards as it was of Mr Jones'handling of Mr Liu's citizenship application. The auditor-general has given Mr Jones a pass.

Can we say the same for the efficacy of Mr Shearer's moral compass.

The Dominion Post