Bryce Edwards: NZ (and Australia) needs better political scandals

Bryce Edwards: NZ (and Australia) needs better political scandals

The current trans-Tasman citizenship saga doesn’t warrant the level of hysteria coming from politicians in both countries, on both sides of the political divide, or the media coverage that has ensued. It’s a scandal without much substance – it doesn’t illuminate any political principles or ideologies, and therefore doesn’t help New Zealand voters in their decision-making for the upcoming general election.

So why does it warrant this Political Roundup column? Because the saga does elucidate what is wrong with modern politics. It helps illustrate why so much of the public is alienated from politics and voting. So-called scandals like this, involving high levels of posturing and disingenuous game playing, mostly serve to convince people that parliamentary politics is rather pathetic.

The Australian Government develops a bad case of “The Trumps”

The most pathetic reaction in the whole episode has come from the Australian Government, which has wallowed in an overblown example of victimhood, making loud statements about a conspiracy against Australia. Foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has talked ominously about the “foreign power” of New Zealand meddling in their politics. Indeed, Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull accused his Labor Party opponents of plotting “to steal government by entering into a conspiracy with a foreign power”.

The best response to this came from the Australian Financial Review’s Laura Tingle: “Talk about losing it. The Barnaby vortex opened and consumed Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in a whirlpool of hysteria and conspiracy theories that would do Donald Trump proud” – see: The day New Zealand conspired to overturn Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Tingle explains in plain language what really happened: “someone in the ALP dared to ask someone in New Zealand to check up on citizenship requirements”.

The National Government joins in

New Zealand’s National Government also has an interest in exaggerating the saga. Prime Minister Bill English has jumped in: “I can’t remember a time when an MP has done something like that that involves the politics of another country. It’s just another misjudgement about what is actually a serious issue” – see: Anna Bracewell-Worrall’s Bill English condemns Labour’s Chris Hipkins in Aussie citizenship saga.

To Gordon Campbell, National is simply running the same line as the Australian Government: “The real conspiracy here isn’t the one between Hipkins and his mates in the Australian Labor Party. It’s the one between the National Party and the Liberal coalition in Australia. In both countries, the two conservative governments have found common cause in running a treasonous conspiracy theory aimed at their respective opposition parties” – see: On why Labour isn’t responsible for Barnaby Joyce.

Campbell explains why “our own government has chosen to further that narrative, and make itself an accomplice. Evidently, the National government is similarly desperate for anything that might discredit or derail the Ardern juggernaut”.

According to Claire Trevett, Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee has also used the incident to suggest that if New Zealanders living in Australia lose even more rights there, then Labour would be to blame – which Trevett suggests is an argument without merit – see: Aussies accuse Labour of foul play.

And it’s not just National attempting to make political gain out of it. Winston Peters has gone hard against Labour, suggesting that Labour MP Chris Hipkins – as well as Peter Dunne, who has backed him – have sunk to the levels of infamous Australian cricketers, the Chappell brothers: “The hit put on Australian Deputy Prime Minister by the Labour Party and corroborated by a Minister in the National-led government is like an underarm delivery” – see the Herald’s Barnaby Joyce citizenship ‘hit’ compared to underarm cricket. Peters concludes, “This is not how we do things this side of the Tasman. Simply put, it is not cricket.”

Chris Hipkins is caught out

MP Chris Hipkins was the MP who put in the written question to the Minister of Internal Affairs, which helped spark the whole saga. This is all well covered by Richard Harman in his account, NZ Government kept Barnaby Joyce’s citizenship top secret.

Harman points out that Hipkins’ parliamentary questions carried special weight because, “Unlike media questions, there was a formal obligation on Internal Affairs to answer Hipkins’ questions.”

National-aligned blogger David Farrar expands on this: “Here’s why Hipkins involvement was important, even though there had been media inquiries also. There is no deadline for DIA to respond to inquiries by foreign journalists. Even if it was a NZ journalist asking, they could take up to four weeks to answer under the OIA. But by having Hipkins ask a parliamentary question, the Minister is obliged to answer within five working days or one week. So Hipkins was able to get Australian Labor the information as much as three weeks earlier” – see: Labour causes rift with Australia.

Of course, Hipkins has made a number of statements pleading ignorance of the role he was playing in the saga. For example, Sam Sachdeva reports that “Hipkins said it was his decision to lodge the questions as part of a broader interest in the treatment of New Zealanders living in Australia, and he did not want to affect Australian politics” – see: Accusations of meddling fly in Trans-Tasman barney.

Few people seem to accept that Hipkins didn’t know what he was doing. Barry Soper says: “The story doesn’t stack up here because if Chris Hipkins wasn’t told by his fraternal comrades in Australia that the target was Joyce, then he was sucked in. And for a senior politician, that’s inexcusable. It beggars belief that he wouldn’t have asked why they wanted to know” – see: Jacinda Ardern has a John Key moment.

Similarly, Mike Hosking reacts: “He argues he didn’t know what the questions were about, or who they were for. Really? So is he saying he just asks questions for the sake of it? You can get him to use his time to fire off any series of questions you like on any old subject going, and he’s not a bloke who asks questions about the questions? Does anyone really believe that?” – see: What the hell was Chris Hipkins doing?

Jacinda Ardern looks strong

The big winner out of the episode is probably the new Labour leader. By all accounts she has been able to make good use of the “bad news” to show leadership. For example, Gordon Campbell says: “Jacinda Ardern, for her part, has handled the first international flap under her leadership admirably and showed the same sort of steely aplomb that one used to associate with Helen Clark” – see: On why Labour isn’t responsible for Barnaby Joyce.

Of course, National was trying to make use of the scandal “as a way to undermine new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern’s inexperience, just two weeks into the job”, according to Tracy Watkins – see: Everyone smeared by trans-Tasman dirt slinging. But it hasn’t’ worked out that way.

Watkins gives Ardern top marks for her handling of the situation: “Ardern’s response, however, was straight out of the Helen Clark play book. Clark operated on the golden rule that no one ever lost votes by standing up to the Aussies. Ardern didn’t mince words about Hipkins, whose behaviour she said was completely inappropriate. Ardern even offered to talk to Bishop and talked up the importance of the relationship. But she would not apologise. Labour’s new leader could have had the wind knocked out of her by the force of Bishop’s attack. But she managed to look decisive and unflappable.”

In fact, Ardern upped the ante, hitting out at the Australians and accusing them of making “false claims”. She met with the Australian High Commissioner yesterday to “register my disappointment”. And many New Zealanders will her cheer on – see, for example, No Right Turn’s blog post, Ardern stands up for kiwis.

Overall, it seems that almost every politician has found a way to try to make the scandal work to their electoral advantage. But voters have not gained any great insight into principles or policies – probably only confirming that politicians love a good political fight to posture over.

Finally, the Australian Government’s whole problem can be easily fixed, says Toby Manhire. He suggests New Zealand could establish a new law “so that anyone holding New Zealand citizenship who is successfully elected to the Australian house or senate has that citizenship automatically revoked” – see: Dear Australia. We can fix your politician citizenship crisis. Love, NZ. And all we would want in return is for Australia to “bin all the changes you’ve been stealthily introducing that discriminate against the 600,000-or-so New Zealanders – many born in Australia”.