Shearer's own 'brain fade'

01:28, Mar 19 2013

I don't know about you, but I'm forever forgetting about my offshore bank accounts with large amounts of cash in them. It's a job to remember to tell the IRD about it, let alone to declare them where I might have a conflict of interest. 

But then, I'm not an MP. More particularly, I'm not the leader of the opposition, nor the head of a party that has made something of a habit of calling for the heads of other MPs whose memory has been somewhat imperfect. 

David Shearer claims he "forgot'' about his account with Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City when he came to declare his financial interests to Parliament, as is required under the MPs' Register of Pecuniary Interests.

Well, we all make mistakes, and none of us are getting any younger except policemen. But Shearer didn't just forget the one time. He forgot four times in a row - 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.

To compound matters, though he forgot to disclose the account to Parliament and therefore to the public, he did remember to tell the IRD about it. He also remembered to tell Parliament about his other bank account with Westpac.

Given that only accounts with more than $50,000 in them must be publicly disclosed, it's highly surprising that this slipped Shearer's mind. Either the Labour leader is extremely forgetful, or he has a lot more money stashed away than any of us thought.

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We don't know the actual amount, since Shearer hasn't disclosed that, because he doesn't have to, but it could be considerably more than $50,000.

Does it really matter that Shearer didn't tell Parliament about his offshore bank account? Well, yes, actually, it does. Here's why:

* It makes the Labour leader look like a hypocrite. Much fun was had by all taunting Prime Minister John Key about his faulty memory over the Kim Dotcom fiasco last year. Indeed, Shearer himself laughed that Key had "the year of the brain fade'' and that "the PM's memory went Dotgone''. He also accused Key of "not telling the truth''. And Labour mercilessly pilloried ACT leader John Banks over his memory about receiving donations from Dotcom, claiming he had "lied to New Zealanders".

* It undermines the picture Labour has painstakingly assembled of National as the party of easy money and loose financial morals. In 2010, Labour's attack dog Trevor Mallard was calling for Attorney-General Chris Finlayson to step down over a non-disclosure in his own pecuniary interests. And who can forget the mud slung at Key by Labour over his ownership of shares in TranzRail, which he did not declare before rising in Parliament to ask questions of the company while leader of the opposition?

* It knocks Shearer off his pedestal as Parliament's "anti-politician'', a position he and Labour's PR flaks have been keen to occupy since his election in 2009. Shearer, and Labour, have played up his credentials as the former aid boss and humanitarian worker who has no time for politicians' lies and silly games. And yet he appears to have been doing precisely the same thing as everyone else. 

Before anyone reaches for their lawyer, I'm not accusing Shearer of lying to Parliament. That would amount to contempt. But I am saying it's astonishing that the leader of a party so quick to judge others on both their wealth and their memory should omit to mention he had more than many Kiwis earn in a year stashed in an overseas bank account. 

I think Key has been remarkably gracious in response. He's said only that it's "unfortunate'' that Shearer forgot about his account and added, with more than a trace of irony, that mistakes can be made. Given what's been dished out to him over the years, he could have said a lot more.

In the immediate term I doubt much will come of this. Labour will be a little chastened and there will be mutterings of "I told you so'' from those in caucus who don't believe Shearer should be in the top job.

Fortunately for Shearer he fessed up, and did so outside of an election year, where such things would have taken on greater magnitude. 

But Shearer has blotted his copybook. And possibly reminded voters that he's no better, nor any worse, than anyone else in Parliament. 

Which may or may not be a blessing. 

Disclosure: The writer has an offshore bank account, in Australia. It has a current balance of $7.50.

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