The politics of 'sleaze'

Last updated 11:40 10/05/2014
Maurice Williamson
KARL DRURY
MIXED FORTUNES: Maurice Williamson quit as a minister amid furore over him contacting police about the prosecution of a wealthy National Party donor.

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Sleaze and corruption are rife in politics, at least if you believe the politicians. MPs use the c-word everywhere.

And scandals lead to political sackings more often now than ever before. Government minister Maurice Williamson fell and asked: "How much blood on the floor do you want?"

There was plenty of blood already, Labour's as well as National's. It was a Labour MP, Taito Phillip Field, who went to jail for corruption - the only MP to do so.

Taking bribes, for this is what Field did, is rare.

But non-criminal sleaze - what former Labour prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer calls "dubious goings-on" - is not, and sleaze comes in a wide range of colours.

Williamson's mistake was at the lurid end of the spectrum. He questioned police about their prosecution of a rich Chinese immigrant and National Party donor facing charges of domestic violence.

As Prime Minister John Key put it, "The moment he made the phone call he crossed the line."

But Justice Minister Judith Collins' case is harder to put into an electrifying soundbite. The case is complex, the details are endless, and the explanations many.

The result is that she has apparently escaped with her job.

So the question is: what is corrupt and what is not? And in political terms, what is a hanging offence and what isn't?

This is not an easy question to answer, say Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis.

In Collins' case, "it's not a hanging offence because she hasn't been hung", he says.

"John Key does not believe it's a hanging offence and the question is then, is John Key's judgment on that correct?"

The voters decide for themselves. They are free to think "something stinks" even if they are not quite sure why.

This is the political smell-test - a sense of rottenness even when the dead fish cannot be seen.

The traditional standard for political scandal is: "How would it look if it came out on the front page of The Dominion Post?"

The answer depends on what the voters think about the politician's level of arrogance, hypocrisy, dishonesty, and immorality.

So there is room for argument.

DRAWING A BRIGHT BLUE LINE

Williamson accepted Key's charge that he had crossed the line but also seemed uncertain about where the line was.

He says he often rang the police as a constituency MP.

Palmer, a former prime minister and law professor, perhaps surprisingly, says he can understand why Williamson "got into difficulty".

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Constituency MPs are constantly talking to police, he says, and as Labour's Christchurch Central MP Palmer did too. He would often visit the Christchurch police headquarters, which was in his electorate, to talk about the concerns of his constituents.

They might be worried about "gangs who used to make noise and make trouble. I used to go around saying, 'Please put a community constable into Linwood'."

Williamson has said he was simply seeking information about the case, and Palmer says he didn't think Williamson was acting with malice or with dubious motives.

"He wouldn't be the first minister to exercise bad judgment," Palmer said.

Where Williamson went wrong was in asking about a prosecution.

"Ministers cannot have anything to do with a prosecution. If they did, we would live in a police state."

Even a constituency MP who is not a minister should not discuss prosecutions with police. An MP is a public official of some importance and with access to the media and could unsettle police with such an inquiry.

Former Wellington district police commander Gerry Cunneen says he often talked to local MPs making inquiries on behalf of constituents who had been victims of a crime.

The constituent might not speak English, for instance, and was simply seeking information.

However, he had never been telephoned by an MP on behalf of someone facing a prosecution. That would be quite wrong and he would be very concerned if an MP did it, Cunneen says.

"I wouldn't discuss the merits of the prosecution with him [the MP]." That is the job of the lawyer representing the person charged - not a politician.

GIVING A DOG A BAD NAME

Judith Collins' case is less straightforward than Williamson's because the wrong-doing is harder to sheet home.

"The first question is, 'Did she actually do anything to actually benefit anyone?' ", says Geddis. "She is quite clear - 'No I didn't'."

She claimed she was merely promoting New Zealand exports.

Key has invested a lot in defending her, Geddis says, and to force her sacking, "the Opposition would have to catch her in a direct lie in her account".

Much doubt had been raised about her early claim that her meeting with Oravida had simply been a last-minute visit on the way to the airport. But even here she could argue that her claim was just "loose language".

However, the perception of a conflict of interest remains and it would have been wiser of her not to visit Oravida, Geddis says.

"There are a lot of exporters to China that you can [visit] and support New Zealand business. You don't need to support the one that your husband happens to be on the board of."

The political danger for National clearly lies in voter perceptions.

Otago University political scientist Bryce Edwards says the impression left by the Williamson and Collins affairs is that National is just "a millionaires' party" which favours the rich.

"National don't want to be seen as plutocrats and till now for the most part have done very well to avoid looking like the party of the traditional rich white male."

Certainly the two latest affairs seem to have damaged National's reputation. A Roy Morgan poll this week found the party had slipped six points to 42.5 per cent, leaving it behind the combined vote of Labour and the Greens of 45.5.

The scandal over new National MP Aaron Gilmore had tended to reinforce damaging stereotypes of National as arrogant people with a great sense of entitlement.

Gilmore's alleged remark to a waiter - "Don't you know who I am?" - said it all. His threat to have the waiter sacked by the prime minister infuriated people.

"We do have this strong value of equality in New Zealand and that has forced politicians to at least pay lip service to it and sound like they're in favour of everyone being treated the same," Edwards says. Faced with widespread uproar, Gilmore took a week to apologise - "if there was a dickhead it was me" - and then soon resigned.

Finance Minister Bill English's spot of bother over perks in 2009 also left a damaging impression. He claimed a $900 a week allowance for living in Wellington on the basis that his "principal residence" was in Southland. He argued that he was eligible even though he and his family had lived in Wellington for 10 years.

But then he admitted it was "not a good look" and paid the money back. A poll found 62 per cent thought his reputation had been damaged.

National MP Pansy Wong's expenses scandal ended not only her ministerial career, but her parliamentary one entirely. In 2008 she used her MP's travel perks to pay for some of her husband's trip to China. This broke the rule forbidding the use of the perk for business.

Key said he would have sacked her as a minister if she had not resigned.

But individual allegations of sleaze over five years did not harm National's standing in the polls. Is the latest dip in the polls merely temporary?

THE REAL COST OF SLEAZE

All these cases suggest that sleaze can be lethal for a politician - but not necessarily for a party. If the leader stamps on it quickly, the damage can usually be limited.

It doesn't even have to cause lasting harm to the MP. Nick Smith lost his ACC post in 2012 after writing two letters supporting Bronwyn Pullar, a National Party activist, in her fight against ACC. He was back in Cabinet within a year.

Shane Jones' 2010 resignation for using his ministerial credit card to pay for blue movies was deeply embarrassing, but later he returned to favour. By the time of his shock resignation announcement last month he was seen as one of Labour's stars again.

Sex scandals, however, can end a career.

National Cabinet minister Richard Worth resigned in June 2009 after falling out with Key for unspecified reasons but apparently relating to his behaviour towards women. "If he hadn't resigned I would have sacked him," Key said.

"His conduct does not befit a minister. I will not have him in my Cabinet."

Labour MP Darren Hughes resigned from Parliament after a strange incident when an 18-year- old man made a complaint to police, reportedly "of a sexual nature". Hughes said bitterly that the principle of "innocent till proven guilty" did not apply to him. Police never laid charges.

Edwards says he remains troubled by the Hughes affair. The details of the incident remain vague and it is not clear that the MP should have had to quit, he says.

Sleaze involving hypocrisy can be poison for a politician. ACT MP Rodney Hide made his reputation as the nation's parliamentary perkbuster, but in 2009 took his partner on a taxpayer-funded trip overseas.

At one point he said the fact that he disapproved of the system of perks should not stop him from using the perks himself - but later withdrew this claim. His reputation never really recovered.

He was ousted as leader by Don Brash in April 2011 and quit at the general election later that year.

SOLVING THE PROBLEM

Accusations of political corruption have skyrocketed in the last 20 years, says Edwards. It doesn't necessarily follow, he says, that the problem is getting worse. It may just be more visible.

MMP shattered the cosy two-party duopoly.

"You had parties like ACT and the Alliance posting allegations of corruption, especially against the major parties. And ever since then it has just escalated."

Palmer says MMP has also brought greater sanctions for sleaze or misbehaviour. Under first past the post, ministers hardly ever resigned.

"We have had many more ministerial resignations, either forced or voluntary, since MMP took place," he says.

Big parties must find coalition partners, he says, and this forces greater accountability from ministers.

And scandals of sleaze and corruption have led to reforms requiring much greater openness. The 2005 election exposed scandals on both sides: National's secretive dealings with the Exclusive Brethren, and Labour's use of taxpayer money to fund electioneering gimmicks such as its pledge card.

Then National leader Don Brash accused Labour of being "the most corrupt government in New Zealand history". Labour leader Helen Clark accused Brash of being "corrosive" and "cancerous".

New rules have forced much greater openness about donations to parties, one of the biggest sources of political scandal.

There have also been reforms requiring greater openness about parliamentary perks, the other major source of sleaze allegations.

However, says Palmer, big reforms are still needed. Public funding of political parties would help end scandals over private donations.

And if the Official Information Act applied to Parliament, the public would be able to find out exactly what MPs spent their allowances on.

But the Key Government shows no interest in doing either, and nor did the Clark government.

Cases of outright criminality can land MPs in jail, as happened to Field and to former ACT MP Donna Awatere Huata.

Less spectacular cases can end a politician's career permanently or for a time. Winston Peters was censured by Parliament after the privileges committee found he had accepted a $100,000 donation from tycoon Owen Glenn, even though Peters denied knowledge of it.

This was part of the reason he lost the 2008 election and his party disappeared from Parliament.

But he was back again in 2011.

In the end, says Geddis, "people get the government they deserve. Insofar as the public are prepared to allow politicians to behave in certain ways without paying a political price, we ought not to be surprised when politicians behave that way."

Voters who want to punish sleaze and corruption have a powerful weapon at hand.

- The Dominion Post

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