Liu saga hits harder when Labour's down


Not all scandals are created equal.

But sometimes in politics a sort of wisdom of the crowds meets a schoolyard bully effect.

One side is polling so badly everything it does must be wrong.

Blunders are magnified, and policies are discounted. They are losing, so they must be losers.

So it is with Labour at the moment, magnified by last week's poll putting the party at a morale-sapping 23 per cent.

None more - so far - than with the on-going, though fading, Donghua Liu letter saga.

You can never discount a smoking gun will be uncovered at any time, but on the basis of what has emerged it is almost nothing.

It pales, lined up alongside the ministerial sackings by the Clark and Key government, as well as against more recent transgressions the public are being asked to equate it with: the mash-up of donations, political access and conflicts of interest.

At this point on Labour leader David Cunliffe's side we have an 11-year-old pro forma letter written "to whom it may concern" requesting a time frame for a decision in Liu's immigration case.

The second strand is a claim, with no supporting documentation (cheques? banks statements? witnesses?) of big donations to the party by Liu. It says there are no records of them and they have not been independently authenticated.

To be fair, though, a pinch of naivete on Cunliffe's part and a glug of poor record-keeping should be poured into the mix.

Also the scorers must give all credit to National for wringing maximum political advantage out of the issue, and inoculating itself against one of Labour's main attack themes.

Yet, what is missing is anything that proves Cunliffe has done anything wrong.

There is nothing in the letter that is embarrassing, other than its existence, and when it was written in 2003 Liu was not controversial, had not as far as anyone has shown given any money to anyone and had certainly not been in the dock for domestic violence.

It has to be said that former minister of Internal Affairs Rick Barker's links to Liu are proven. Liu was clearly generous to Barker, including a donation to a rowing club he had links to. But suggesting a lunch and a river boat trip in China was somehow worth $50,000 to him is, to put it politely, a bit of a stretch.

On the Government side there is a minister sacked for calling police about Liu's domestic violence case, another minister who has allowed the perception, if not the reality, of a conflict of interest to emerge through her links with her husband's company, and a former minister found guilty of filing a false electoral return.

In the "plague on both their houses" filing cabinet are various lunches, meetings, auctions and fundraisers.

On the narrower topic of Liu and Labour there are a swag of unanswered questions about the Government's involvement.

If openness and disclosure are so important, why won't National say if there are gifts from Liu other than the $22,000 already disclosed, given he has said he gave equally to both sides?

Sources in the Government, with no love for Labour, say ministers were "leaning all over" officials in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to ensure Cunliffe's letter was released quickly in response to TheNew Zealand Herald's modified Official Information Act request.

It took two days and came out just under a week before the three month pre-election period when "political" issues can be problematic for the public service.

As far as Liu's donations go, there was a steady stream of hints about them - fuelled by John Key during his trip to the United States who said he had known for some weeks but would not say who told him. He has deflected questions about whether any of his MPs or ministers knew. There were also regular hints that an "affidavit" from Liu was in the pipeline.

The signed Liu statement was written in early May, soon after the hurricane hit Williamson. But it was made public - and the Herald said it did not come from Liu - only the day after Liu said he would not be signing an affidavit.

It begs the question whether National was in that pipeline somewhere.

Liu only yesterday clarified the $100,000 figure, originally slated as for a bottle of wine, saying it was actually, as best he can remember, his total payments to Labour and its politicians. That included payments at wine auctions, a $2000 donation to the Hawkes Bay Rowing Club, the $50,000 plus staff function and/or Yangtze River trip for Barker and anonymous donations to MPs.

It brings a welcome sense of perspective to the whole issue. Not all "scandals" end up equal.

The Dominion Post