Handbagging has just begun

DAVE ARMSTRONG
Last updated 05:00 24/03/2014

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Dave Armstrong

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OPINION: Kia ora. I'm no expert on Olympic diving but I'm sure there must be a move involving a triple somersault double back-flip with an aggressive twist at the end that is called a Hekia Parata.

With their polling down to the high twenties, Labour looked a crestfallen bunch last week. But even they know that with this Government there is always a chance of a major snafu just around the corner. And last week it was delivered by the education minister.

After allegations of misspending by Te Pataka Ohanga (TPO), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Te Kohanga Reo National Trust, Ms Parata, a wholly owned ideological subsidiary of the New Right, ordered a report.

Costing $90,000 of our money, the 21-page Ernst & Young report – that's more than $4000 a page – cleared Te Kohanga Reo National Trust of wrongdoing.

Apparently our public money was safe with them. As someone who in the past has been paid to edit overly long and bureaucratic reports, I must howl with outrage at this trend towards brevity and clarity.

For all the criticism of Te Kohanga Reo National Trust that the report contained, it may as well have been a two-pager with the words "sweet as," emblazoned across the top.

According to Ms Parata, any misspending by TPO was definitely not a misuse of taxpayers' funds.

"In the same way as someone who gets paid by the Government buys a cup of coffee, it's not the Government's job to find out if it's a good coffee," said Ms Parata, as she won the gold medal for tortuous analogies.

Kohanga Reo spokesman Derek Fox agreed. It is only public money when it goes to the Kohanga Reo Trust. After that it ceases to be public.

I would suggest that if public money meant to pay for young children to learn Te Reo Maori is apparently spent by a TPO staff member on sauvignon blanc, Kardashian handbags and Trelise Cooper dresses, then it is the Government's job to find out what is going on. And a report is a good way to start, though it would have helped had Ms Parata told Ernst & Young to look at the very allegations, brilliantly drawn to our attention by Maori TV's Native Affairs, which caused the report to be commissioned in the first place.

Ironically, the same Government which pilloried David Cunliffe for legally funnelling chicken feed into his leadership trust seemed relaxed with millions of dollars a year being funnelled into a charity's subsidiary where misspending seems to have occurred.

Ms Parata then performed the type of about-face for which she has become famous and said that new allegations of misspending by TPO had just come to light, so she called in the Serious Fraud Office. Yet it seems that these new allegations, according to Derek Fox, are not new. Surely they can't both be right.

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Adding to the kohanga of vipers is the tax-deductable koha of $50,000 paid to an undisclosed Kohanga Reo board member who had worked "beyond the call of duty" on a Treaty claim.

I have no problem with Maori organisations giving small koha at tangi and other events, but for that much work? In the building trade, such a koha is known as a "cash job".

So is this the last scandal we'll hear about involving Ms Parata? No way – it's election year. Though Ms Parata is hardly employee of the month, Mr Key has shown the same milk of human kindness to her as he poured over Judith Collins, and seems determined to keep the education minister on.

Last week we learned that a religious group will run state-funded problem gambling services, and a private childcare centre, Kidicorp, received $1.3 million to establish child-care centres in "high-priority" areas.

I suspect that in the current environment – where private charities and organisations like charter schools get government money to operate, few questions asked – even more scandals like the one involving the kohanga reo movement will occur.

In the meantime, while the Serious Fraud Office investigates and Te Kohanga Reo National Trust and the education minister continue to bicker, let's hope the Maori language doesn't die out. It's a beautiful taonga well worth preserving.

- The Dominion Post

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