The perils of just askin'

Last updated 05:00 02/05/2014

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OPINION: Editorial: Maurice Williamson probably did regard his phone call to the police about their domestic violence investigation into a rich Chinese businessman as a chore rather than anything unseemly, let alone corrupt.

But the call has quite rightly cost him his Ministerial position.

The fact that alarm bells didn't ring inside the head of the meddlesome minister meant that they needed to sound good and loud out there in the community. Williamson, it turns out, has made such calls on behalf of all sorts of individuals before, to the ACC, health boards - and the police.

However the Cabinet manual says it plainly that ministers do not involve themselves in deciding whether a person should be prosecuted, or on what charge.

The most charitable conclusion is also the most plausible one; that for all his political experience, Williamson hadn't troubled himself to find out the boundaries of his job. He was content to let his own conscience be his guide.

In this case it was a poor one indeed.

There are a couple of big problems with his explanation that he was seeking to influence nothing, merely to clarify, on behalf of a confused businessman, whether police were planning to prosecute him.

One is that he had felt the need to draw police attention to the significance of Donghua Liu's financial presence in New Zealand. This, he says, was as "background" for them. He wanted to ensure police were on "solid ground" because Liu had invested a lot of money in New Zealand.

That's dreadful. The only possible relevance a man's wealth or business dealings could have to a domestic assault investigation is to bring it into the spurious realm of some people having acquired more rights, than others when it comes to their potential accountability, or at least to the scrupulous diligence their case receives.

This Government is already particularly vulnerable to the impression of favouritism. Its actions have made it so.

In this case, whatever Williamson's real intentions, his methods were such that it's not in the least surprising that the realisation a Government higher-up was monitoring their every move did lead to the police quietly conducting an internal review of the case to that point, albeit that a prosecution has gone ahead.

The scenario that Williamson's actions were more dumb than shadowy is strengthened by the way he went about it. He was hardly stealthy. And it seems almost drearily inevitable that that the matter became public: It's scarcely news to politicians, surely, that police have a record of leaking like anyone else when it suits them.

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Williamson's fall has done some damage to wider Government credibility, feeding the spectre of money buying political favours. Liu, after all, was a party donor. The Opposition will now be encouraging the public to link this to other cases of impropriety on behalf of financial supporters.

Here's where we do need to be careful. It's one thing to be vigilant against signs that someone's support for a political party has gained them favours in high places but we should also be wary of an environment in which those people may find their support has in fact cost them some of the representational support that any person should be able to expect. Donations mustn't buy you favours from politicians, but they shouldn't cost due diligence either.

Clearly Williamson was, emphatically, the wrong side of the line. But he does rather appear to have blundered there in circumstances that suggest the rules aren't as well understood, nor arguably as tidily delineated, as they are made out to be after the event.

 

- The Southland Times

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