PM lays waste to moral high ground

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 10/05/2014

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Opinion

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OPINION: Money may not buy you love or happiness, but there's not much dispute that it buys you friends in high places.

Whether that extends to special treatment for those with the deepest pockets is the question that has consumed Parliament this week. On that score, National has clearly been damaged.

The average punter has no trouble believing money talks. They will have even less trouble believing it talks loudest to their elected representatives after the amount of muck sprayed around this week, plenty of which will stick.

It is a poisonous perception that could have a corrosive effect on public confidence in both the institution of Parliament and elected government.

But that seems to be the least of MPs' worries at the moment, based on the torrent of claims and counter-claims unleashed following Maurice Williamson's resignation over the Donghua Liu affair.

Given its casualty count - one minister forced to fall on his sword and a second badly wounded - National has clearly suffered the deepest cuts. But Prime Minister John Key is hell-bent on nuking the moral high ground and leaving it an empty and windswept place.

Key has attacked Labour and the Greens over fundraisers and donations such as the $125,000 given to them by Les Mills chief executive and environmentalist Phillip Mills, to which National has linked questions in Parliament by Greens co-leader Russel Norman.

Key has also eviscerated Labour over its hypocrisy in attacking him in relation to National's fundraising vehicle, the Cabinet Club, which Opposition parties have labelled a "cash for access" scam.

As Key pointed out with relish, Labour is hardly squeamish about using access to its senior MPs as a hook for fundraisers. He dredged up cases including the last Labour Party conference where delegates paid up to $1250 for a one-on-one meeting with an MP of their choice.

But he has been equally withering about the Greens, accusing Norman of leaving his high horse saddled up at the Dotcom mansion, after the Greens attacked the Cabinet Club's ticket price of up to $10,000 a head as corrupt.

Norman's blunder was in musing aloud about blocking Dotcom's extradition on copyright charges after personally calling on the internet entrepreneur. The difference is that Dotcom has not donated money to the Green Party, though that has not held National back.

National finds Norman's piousness particularly galling because of the Green Party's almost cartoon-like view of themselves as Parliament's good guys in a relentless war against money and big business. As Key's attacks on Norman and Labour have highlighted, no-one's hands can be perceived as clean so long as politicians rely on donations from private individuals to keep the wheels of their party turning.

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But Key's attacks are only partially driven by visceral dislike. He needs to spread the muck as far and as widely as possible to avoid the perception of National Party cronyism and corruption taking root.

Since most punters adopt the plague-on-all-their-houses approach to politicians and money, he may have some success. But the controversies engulfing Williamson and Judith Collins have raised serious questions about politicians and the extent to which they are influenced by money.

There has long been a perception of deals done in smoky rooms. The Cabinet Club, with its overtones of rich men buying a word in a minister's ear, revives that image.

A flyer for a Maori Party fundraiser attended by the prime minister gave a rare insight into how the system works. For a few thousand dollars a head, those attending were promised one-on-one time with Key, who, they were assured, would change seats regularly to ensure they got what they paid for.

Key's response is that political parties right across Parliament attend events that are fundraisers. He also acknowledges that some of those people they rub shoulders with are motivated by self-interest. But he insists that is no different to the hundreds of punters they brush up against each week and who will also happily bend the ear of a politician.

Maybe. But when a senior politician picks up the phone on behalf of a wealthy party donor to inquire about the police case against them, as Williamson did for Donghua Liu, it is legitimate to question whether favours were being called in.

Labour's Shane Jones left himself vulnerable to similar questions when, as a Labour Government minister, he granted citizenship to a wealthy Labour Party donor, Bill Liu, against the stern advice of his officials.

Till now, our political system has relied to a large extent on the convention that an MP's word is their honour - a convention which, in turn, has always relied on a trusting belief in our political system as corruption-free.

But you only have to look across the Tasman, currently engulfed in a widening corruption scandal which has so far claimed five political scalps, to see where mixing money and politics could lead.

On this side of the Tasman, the problems have so far been about perception rather than something more serious.

But public confidence could be eroded all the same. Greater disclosure might be one option. Following Williamson's resignation it has emerged that Donghua Liu lobbied both the Prime Minister and Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse over a change to immigration rules.

The meeting between Woodhouse and Liu took place at a hotel. There may or may not be anything sinister about that. But requiring such meetings to be publicly disclosed would at least allow the Government's actions to be judged by following the money trail.

The alternative is state funding. Labour floated the idea briefly near the end of its time in office. But there was about as much chance of voters endorsing that proposal as pigs flying, given that Labour had only recently been embroiled in a scandal about unlawful spending on an $800,000-plus taxpayer-funded pledge card and other electioneering material.

An environment in which allegations of corruption and cronyism are flying around with abandon seems similarly unlikely to foster a groundswell of support for boosting party coffers with taxpayer largesse.

- The Dominion Post

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