Editorial: Time, gentlemen, please ...

Last updated 05:00 25/02/2014

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OPINION: Could you smell the port and stale cigar smoke on Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull's breath as he defended the "gentleman's agreement" under which his council paid former MP Pete Hodgson for lobbying?

Mr Hodgson was paid $3400 for his work helping the council advocate that Invermay retain its core Ag Research functions. He was plausibly the best person for the job. But it was done on a handshake with nary a contract - and all that tedious accountability that goes with it - in sight.

Much as Mr Cull may apply a rosily nostalgic gloss to this as a gentleman's way of doing business in the south, it isn't.

Hasn't been, we would like to think, for ages. Not since the days when distinctions were drawn between gentlemen and the rank and file.

A gentleman's agreement, says Oxford, is binding in honour but not legally enforceable.

It may come as disappointing news to the council, but in these unmannerly times legal enforceability is not regarded as a tiresome detail, let alone a damned impertinence.

Particularly where the expenditure of public money is concerned.

Mr Cull would have us understand that he isn't, for one moment, saying he would be comfortable if the council always negotiated contracts verbally.

After all, not everyone's a gentleman.

But when the agreement is with a sound chap like Hodgson, the mayor apparently cannot see the difficulty in the absence of either a contract specifying what would be required, nor any follow up report about what, exactly, was delivered.

Things are so vague that though his council says Mr Cull was the main point of contact with Hodgson, the mayor says he wasn't.

Almost a shame, then, that somebody didn't think to keep notes on a file, or something.

And will all due modesty Mr Hodgson says that as a former minister of research, science and technology he was better placed than anyone to lobby on behalf of the council.

Quite so. But as all those court reports keep reminding us, Lombard directors Doug Graham and Bill Jeffries were former justice ministers. Yet, disappointingly for all concerned, this somehow didn't ensure that everything they touched was tickety-boo.

Mr Hodgson says the fact that nothing was written up "would probably reflect their trust in me".

As far as the public is concerned, what this should reflect is the untrustworthiness of all involved.

A council, a mayor and a former minister of the Crown should collectively and individually know full well that this was dodgy and then some.

The Taxpayers' Union, while acknowledging that it isn't an eye-watering amount, detects that the council isn't applying the most basic internal controls.

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Exactly. On this evidence, alone, the Auditor General should get involved.

The very real public concern has to be wider than this single, inglorious, incident.

Because Dunedin doesn't lack for gentlemen.

What else has been happening down there in that stale old club of theirs?

- The Southland Times

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