Editorial: Political distance breeds suspicion

22:44, Jul 11 2012

Warning bells should ring in the Labour caucus room whenever the party's MPs find themselves defending colleagues on the basis that the only thing they are guilty of is "helping their constituents".

That, they should remember, was the explanation Helen Clark and her deputy Michael Cullen tendered when questions were first asked about former Labour MP Phillip Field's efforts to secure citizenship for Thai immigrants who just happened to be doing cut-price work on his South Auckland rental properties and Samoan retreat. That didn't turn out too well. Mr Field has only just emerged from prison after being convicted on bribery and corruption charges.

Now Labour deputy leader Grant Robertson is saying Labour list MP, and former Waimakariri MP, Clayton Cosgrove was doing only what the party expected of its MPs when he drafted legislation that would have delivered a financial windfall to a major donor to his 2008 and 2011 election campaigns. "He was motivated by finding the best outcome for his constituents."

The constituent was Mike Dormer, chief executive of Christchurch-based Independent Fisheries. The legislation was a member's bill drafted by Mr Cosgrove in 2009 to relax building restrictions on land near Christchurch Airport and in the Cranford Basin. Had the bill been passed Independent Fisheries, along with other landowners in the area, stood to benefit financially.

As it turned out Mr Cosgrove's bill never made it on to Parliament's order paper and lapsed in 2010  long before Independent Fisheries made the largest of its three donations to Mr Cosgrove.

The MP denies any wrongdoing. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise.

He is entitled to accept campaign contributions so long as he declares the identity of known donors, which he did. He is also entitled to promote law changes on behalf of his constituents.

However, it is the juxtaposition of those two actions that has cast a shadow over his reputation. Politicians must not only act with propriety, they must be seen to act with propriety.

Given his personal relationship with Mr Dormer  a "mate"  and the fact Independent Fisheries has donated a total of $20,500 to his electorate campaigns  an unusually large sum  it would have been wise for him to publicly declare his relationship with Mr Dormer and distance himself from any initiatives that could benefit the company. He did not. As late as August last year he was writing to Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee advocating on behalf of landowners in the affected areas.

His failure to remove himself from the issue means that, whatever the facts, suspicion will linger.

That is not helpful to him or the Labour Party. But it is also not helpful to Parliament or public confidence in the political system. The public is always ready to believe the worst of politicians. MPs should avoid giving them the excuse to do so.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Labour deputy leader Grant Robertson as stating that Clayton Cosgrove was trying to achieve the best outcome for ''one of his constituents'' when he drafted legislation helping some landowners near Christchurch airport. Mr Robertson actually said Mr Cosgrove was trying to help ''his constituents'' in general. 


The Dominion Post