Bryce Edwards: A bad smell around politics and money

Bryce Edwards: A bad smell around politics and money

Business, money and politics are always drawn towards each other as natural bedfellows. But so often this relationship gives off a bad smell, raising questions about the influence of money on public policy and the decision-making process. Politicians and parties come to be seen as compromised by their relationships with the sources of their funding. It also allows politicians to level allegations of ‘corruption’ and ‘conflicts of interest’ at their opponents – something we’re seeing more of than ever before.

There are certainly plenty of murky relationships in New Zealand politics at the moment, with several party fundraisers under scrutiny, significant political donations being declared, and the ongoing stench of the Oravida-National cosiness. Such relationships may well be perfectly honest and without wrongdoing, but in the eyes of the public probably none of them pass the political ‘smell test’.

The National-Oravida scandal

Allegations of ‘corruption’ have erupted again over the National Government’s links to the Oravida milk exporting company, which also donates money to the party. There are two main areas that National’s critics are drawing attention to: Judith Collins’ involvement with Oravida, and John Key’s apparent – but disputed – advertising endorsement of the company.

References to ‘bad smells’ are being used frequently to describe the murky Oravida relationship. Duncan Garner makes a strident attack on all involved, saying ‘This not only smells fishy – but it’s plain rotten’ – see: How much longer can Collins be a minister? The key part of Garner’s analysis is his description of how he believes Oravida has essentially ‘bought’ the National Government: ‘They want to get their products into China to make millions of dollars. So they forged a very close relationship with National at all levels. They’re mates with President Peter Goodfellow. They donate to the National Party. They pay to play golf with John Key. It’s prized access. The stuff only money can buy. But not only that. They have appointed the husband of senior Minister Judith Collins to their board. That’s really strategic you see – it buys constant access to decision makers. So they’re close right? You get it eh?  So what can National offer in return?  National offers power – and access to others in power who make crucial decisions. National can smooth the waters in tough times’.

Duncan Garner also played an interesting 2-minute interview with Collins yesterday – listen to: Hear Judith Collins with Radiolive.

Winston Peters is leading the charge of ‘corruption’ against Judith Collins this week, saying that she had a ‘conflict of interest’ and should be ‘sacked for corruption’. Likewise, Labour leader David Cunliffe has started labelling the Justice Minister the ‘minister of corruption’ – see Tracy Watkins’ Judith Collins dubbed ‘minister of corruption’.

The basis of the latest round of attacks on Collins is the revelation that the Minister’s infamous ‘private’ dinner in China with Oravida and Chinese Government representatives actually followed on from a request by the milk company for the Government to undertake official lobbying on its behalf in China. For details, see Adam Bennett’s Collins’ date followed firm’s plea for help.

Patrick Gower also deals with this in his 4-minute video report, Oravida requested NZ Govt work on Chinese border control, also adding in opinion poll findings that 60% of voters think Collins is guilty of a ‘conflict of interest’.

The harsh Collins vs Peters battle in Parliament this week – reported best in Michael Fox’s Gloves come off in Parliament – nicely illustrates the escalating electoral war over issues of money, politics and integrity. As I’ve argued elsewhere, wars over political integrity have increased significantly in New Zealand politics recently because once an allegation is made, the accused party is inclined to throw a similar allegation back. Essentially, the peace which previously rested upon a electoral version of the ‘nuclear deterrent’ – whereby all politicians resist making corruption allegations in order to prevent mutually assured destruction – is now gone. See also, TVNZ’s report, MPs level accusations of corruption in Parliament.

It’s not just Winston Peters firing the ‘corruption’ missiles, but Labour’s Grant Robertson also ‘argued Collins was giving the impression that she went to China “to work for her husband’s company and behaving in a corrupt manner”’ – see John Armstrong’s Crusher bares fangs as Peters fires barbs.

In the case of Winston Peters, Judith Collins has returned fire by suggesting that Peters has been asking questions in Parliament on behalf of his partner’s business. Collins’ allegations appear to be drawn entirely from Cameron Slater’s recent blog post, Winston Peters and his own conflicts of interest.

National is also under pressure to reveal who the secret Collins dinner guest was and speculation continues about who it might have been – see Martyn Bradbury’s Why won’t Judith Collins identify who the Chinese ‘bureaucrat’ is? And today, politicians are suggesting which particular Chinese Government agency the mysterious high-level Chinese bureaucrat was from – see Newswire’s Peters claims Collins had dinner with AQSIQ rep.

For Collins the on-going story is made worse by revelations that the Government gave financial aid to Oravida and other companies – see TVNZ’s Oravida had taxpayer help after botulism scare.

We can now expect further nuclear-style exchanges of corruption allegations over these issues. Peters, in particular, is promising to produce documents revealing more against Collins.

Can Collins survive?

Will Collins survive this scandal? Today’s Otago Daily Times editorial concludes that ‘Mr Key should phone Ms Collins this weekend and say goodbye’ – see: Key’s tough choice over Collins.

Certainly Collins needs to improve her handling of the issue and the media – see, for example, Brook Sabin’s TV3 item, Collins dodges Oravida questions. Social media blogger Matthew Beveridge surveys the response by political journalists to her attempts to evade them – see: Judith Collins, hide and seek, the media and social media.

But Collins is receiving some relief now, with more support coming from those around her. For instance Margaret Malcolm, her ministerial adviser who was also at the infamous Beijing dinner, has backed Collins up – see Michael Fox and Tracy Watkins’ Adviser steps forward in defence of Collins.

For a more ideological defence, see Stephen Franks’ Opposition damages public morality with Oravida claims. Franks argues in favour of a narrower definition of ‘corruption’, and says that it’s absurd and without any evidence to label Collins as ‘corrupt’. He argues that it’s actually the job of politicians to help private companies.

Government endorsements of Oravida

National’s close contacts with the Oravida business are also under further scrutiny due to the publication of yet another commercial advertisement using John Key’s image – this time to sell scampi. Does the ongoing publication of images of the New Zealand Prime Minister to sell products amount to any kind of ‘endorsement’? Key says ‘no’, citing Cabinet Office advice – see Tracy Watkins’ John Key OK with photo on Oravida ad.

Others are less convinced. No Right Turn says that ‘by refusing to tell them to stop, he’s made it clear that Oravida has his implicit permission to use his image to implicitly endorse their product with the message “as eaten by the Prime Minister of NZ”’ – see: Touting for the donors.

Certainly it’s the case that Cabinet rules appear to be stretched a very long way if paid commercial advertising for businesses can now utilise the image of the PM whenever they want. As Tracy Watkins points out, ‘Advertisers appear to have the green light to treat the prime minister’s image as public property’.

John Key’s fundraising for the Maori Party

The Prime Minister seems to spend a lot of his time doing political fundraisers – not just for his own National Party but, unusually, for other parties too. The Maori Party is the beneficiary of the PM’s willingness to wine and dine with those willing and able to pay $5000, as uncovered by Maiki Sherman’s 8-minute Native Affairs report John Key the star attraction at Maori Party fundraiser.

Such favours from the PM around raising cash could give the impression that the Maori Party is now ‘owned’ by National. As John Armstrong asks Is the Maori Party now in debt to National? Armstrong ponders whether Maori voters will ‘assume the Maori Party is now obliged to back a National-led Government for a third time following September’s election’.

John Key has denied that he expects the Maori Party to return the favour somehow, and he has justified this type of fundraising by referring to the fact that other politicians also utilise similar methods – see Claire Trevett’s PM: No strings attached to Maori Party dinner.

Any notion that there are ‘no strings attached’ to such funding is naïve, according to Morgan Godfery, who has blogged to say that ‘Donations arrive attached with expectations of reciprocity. The Prime Minister will expect a return in loyalty. The donors will expect their interests to be represented in Cabinet. To think otherwise is deliberate ignorance’ – see: Our double reality: on being Maori and being political.

Such fundraising also raises questions about whether political influence and access to those in power is being sold. Did the dinner guests pay for access to the most powerful politician in New Zealand? Discussing Key’s fundraising, John Armstrong says ‘the ethics of which frankly stink’.

Interestingly, this apparent ‘selling of access’ isn’t being criticised by Labour. Labour blogger Rob Salmond has suggested that Labour doesn’t really have a problem with such fundraising, declaring that there is ‘Nothing illegal about this at all, or really anything immoral either. Key wants to help the Maori Party help Key, so he’s putting in an appearance. No problem’ – see: Maori Party / Key fundraiser.

Labour’s stance on this is probably due to the fact that it also fundraises by selling access to politicians. For example, Labour was spotted by David Farrar doing something similar for their party conference in October – see: Labour seeking corporate sponsors for its conference. Farrar had got hold of a PDF of Labour’s fundraising sales pitch and details, and commented that ‘All political parties do fundraising, but I think selling direct access to MPs at a party conference is new for New Zealand’.

Allegations of Peter Dunne’s conflict of interest

Even the sole MP for United Future is now under fire for alleged conflicts of interest. TV1’s Seven Sharp ran a 4-minute item, Peter Dunne and Legal Highs Son, suggesting that there could be something wrong with Dunne’s son working in the industry that the politician is trying to regulate.

Was this a media beat-up? Yes, according to Pete George (ex-United Future) – see: Seven Sharp’s stink perception. See also, The Standard’s Father & son: Dunne deals?

But it’s not the only allegation that Dunne is facing – see TV3’s Greens want inquiry into Dunne’s Trust link.

Political donations

The latest lobbying donations in the spotlight are those from Les Mill gym empire owner and eco-businessman Phillip Mills, who has given generously to Labour and the Greens – see Michael Fox’s Les Mills boss adds to Labour, Greens purse and Isaac Davison Climate swings donor left.

In general Labour appears to be struggling to get donations however – see Felix Marwick’s Electoral law reform hitting Labour in the wallet. Party General Secretary Tim Barnett points the finger at electoral laws, which he says are having ‘a chilling effect’.

For other information on recently donations to various parties, see Adam Bennett’s Act receives a further $100k election year boost from donors.

But what do such donations afford the donors? Labour has recently been making allegations that National is selling honours titles to party donors – see No Right Turn’s Cash for honours. Also see his blog post, Seemly?

John Banks legal trial

The other on-going allegation of untoward handling of political finance is the John Banks legal trial, with the most recent information being reported by David Fisher in Ruling tells of Banks’ memory lapse. It seems that John Banks’ defence is that he can’t remember many of the important details of the case. No Right Turn blogger has labelled this The Reagan defence.

Electoral law expert Andrew Geddis explains why he thinks this trial is proceeding and why he’s personally glad about that – see: Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.

So is New Zealand suddenly looking more corrupt? Not necessarily to outside observers. Beith Atkinson reports that ‘New Zealand now ranks 6th on the Rule of Law Index published by the World Justice Project last month (comparing 99 countries)’ and that this is partly because of New Zealand’s ‘absence of corruption’ – see: New Zealand again rates well on Rule of Law index – but who cares?

Finally, for humour on the Judith Collins and Oravida scandal, see my updated blog post Images of Judith Colllins and the Oravida milk scandal.