Truth, lies, and democracy

Todd Barclay, National's youngest MP, allegedly secretly taped one of the party's long serving electoral agents who ...
STACEY KIRK/STUFF

Todd Barclay, National's youngest MP, allegedly secretly taped one of the party's long serving electoral agents who apparently criticised him.

OPINION: This week raises questions about the prevailing culture within our politics, and especially the National party.

Lying, dissembling, concealing the truth, spinning, call it what you like, these are powerful tools of dictators, autocrats, and populists but they also techniques that can undermine democracies.

New Zealand is rightly proud of its reputation as a small, transparent and accountable nation.

It appears that Prime Minister Bill English (pictured) and former Prime Minister John Key also knew about the incident ...

It appears that Prime Minister Bill English (pictured) and former Prime Minister John Key also knew about the incident over a year ago, and a public fund was used to pay out a confidentiality settlement to the employee.

A healthy, open democracy is precious because it fosters peace, political stability and the foundations for effective business and economic development.

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The controversy surrounding MP Todd Barclay, the Prime Minister, Bill English, and the Clutha–Southland electorate illustrates this problem.

Former Minister of Trade Tim Groser used New Zealand's GCSB to spy on competitors in his bid for the top job in the ...
KENT BLECHYNDEN/FAIRFAX NZ

Former Minister of Trade Tim Groser used New Zealand's GCSB to spy on competitors in his bid for the top job in the World Trade Organisation.

At first glance the incident seems petty and confusing but it would be a mistake to shrug this incident off.

The recent Deloitte's Bribery and Corruption survey reminds us that a reputation for democratic transparency and accountability is hard to establish and can be easily eroded by mundane failures and small scale incidents left unchecked.

The initial problem was minor.

National's youngest MP allegedly secretly taped one of the party's long serving electoral agents who apparently criticised him.

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The problem should have begun and ended there.

Party advisers should have counselled the MP to cooperate with the police when the staff member laid a complaint.

Criminal investigations into politicians' actions are relatively rare but secretly recording a person is a serious charge.

With hindsight the issue, if properly addressed, would most likely have been quickly forgotten by a New Zealand electorate who, while valuing honesty, can also be forgiving.

The problem is that that issue didn't start and stop with an inexperienced politician doing something stupid, or possibly illegal.

It appears that Prime Minister Bill English and former Prime Minister John Key also knew about the incident over a year ago, and a public fund was used to pay out a confidentiality settlement to the employee.

When confronted with this week, Bill English initially claimed he could not remember the details of the case.

It is fair to say that most New Zealanders would remember if they had to give a statement to the police so the response of New Zealand's most senior leader was disingenuous and startling, particularly given English's sincere leadership style.

But there are three wider lessons we need to learn from this case for the sake of a healthy democracy.

First, the incident raises questions about the prevailing culture within our political parties and especially in this case the National party.

Over recent years a series of Dirty Politics incidents have dogged that party.

The Barclay fiasco emerged in the same week as it was confirmed that the former Minister of Trade Tim Groser used New Zealand's GCSB to spy on competitors in his bid for the top job in the World Trade Organisation.

While this was within the law, it's certainly a questionable approach to world leadership by a senior politician.

Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics book published in 2014 shone a light on other questionable public relations practices under former Prime Minister John Key.

Todd Barclay's own background in public relations for the tobacco industry, was an unlikely training ground for ethical leadership.

The party should have been proactive in advising him and all senior leaders need to ensure that they are modelling integrity for members of youth parties.

Secondly, criminal charges can be used to try to discredit political opponents and the police are right to be cautious when asked to investigate political disputes, but many have begun to ask why this case did not appear to be pursued as proactively by the National Party as a similar case involving a cameraman Bradley Ambrose, who left a tape running during a media event in 2014.

Finally the case reminds us that the "he said-she said" 24-hour news cycle of reporting and use of vox pops and online polls does not serve democracy well.

Confusion, counter accusation and uninformed speculation switches voters off and creates environments in which leaders can deflect serious accusations as "fake news".

In this case it took careful investigation by Melanie Reid and the Newsroom team before the case rose to prominence.

By contrast "gotcha" journalism, which aims to trip up politicians with cheap and fast sound bites, is counter-productive if it encourages politicians to lie and switches voters off.

But the truth is not all bad.

The unlikely rise of Jeremy Corbyn in this month's British election is a reminder that voters are looking for a new style of politics, and want authenticity.

New Zealand has had some remarkable political leaders and our own reputation for honesty and transparency is precious. It's in all our interests to protect that.

Bronwyn Hayward is Associate Professor at Canterbury University's Department of Political Science and International Relations

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