Bryce Edwards: Are Labour and the Greens behaving unethically over the donations scandal?

Bryce Edwards: Are Labour and the Greens behaving unethically over the donations scandal?

NZ First is facing the boot at this year’s election, especially as it’s now embroiled in an unfolding donations scandal, which comes on top of low poll ratings. But what effect will the scandal have on NZ First’s government coalition colleagues? And is Labour and the Greens’ hands-off stance appropriate, or are they ethically compromised?

Pressure is mounting on NZ First’s coalition partners – and especially Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – to condemn the party over its political finance arrangements and orientation to media freedoms.

Critics argue some political actions are just too indefensible in a democracy, and by ignoring NZ First’s actions, Labour and the Greens are being hypocritical and allowing “dirty politics” and potential corruption to prosper. The counterargument is that Labour and the Greens have no responsibility for what their government partner does, and to admonish Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters would simply jeopardise the coalition government’s stability.

Veteran political journalist John Armstrong has expressed his views in the strongest terms, saying Ardern must grow a backbone and remind Peters who’s the boss. In his must-read column, Armstrong argues that Ardern’s refusal to comment on her coalition partner’s behaviour is “a major cop-out” and it is, in fact, “incumbent on the Prime Minister to be seen to be doing something that demonstrates she is treating the current and still unfolding affair with the utmost seriousness.” He believes Ardern should stand Peters aside as deputy PM, but leave him outside of Cabinet in his role as foreign minister.

Would this cause instability? Armstrong points to Peters’ weak position, especially with National ruling out his party for future government: “He is hardly in a position to pull down the Government. That makes Ardern’s failure to talk tough appear even more pathetic.” And he argues that the “the verdict of the Electoral Commission” was so damning “any other minister finding themselves on the receiving end of such a judgement would have been stood down forthwith.”

Stuff’s Henry Cooke says Ardern has slipped “into plain supplicancy” with Peters, and her arguments for not commenting on the scandal make no sense – see: Jacinda Ardern’s silence on Winston Peters is deafening.

Cooke goes through a variety of meaningful responses that Ardern could have made, which would have been useful for democracy and in the public interest. He points out that the recent publishing of photographs of journalists investigating the scandal, “clearly designed to intimidate journalists – is worth condemning, and you can bet that, if Ardern was in Opposition, she would manage it. Instead she’s not commenting”.

The Green Party, too, are criticised by Cooke: “Worse, this rot of silence has also infected the Green Party, which, as a confidence and supply partner, has plenty of legitimate room to criticise such tactics. You don’t need to tear the Government up or demand that Peters is fired – you can just say what the journalists’ union said on Friday, that Peters needs to explain himself and apologise. Instead the Greens just talk about how the law needs to be changed – which most people agree with, but isn’t the point. The topic at hand isn’t underhanded but lawful behaviour, it’s stuff that is potentially illegal – hence the police referral. The party should grow back its spine.”

Cooke does acknowledge that such criticisms of NZ First and Peters would take courage from Ardern: “He is not the kind of man to take a telling-off sitting down, and it would probably all get messier as Peters extracted some kind of utu for her daring to criticise him.”

National-aligned blogger David Farrar says the reason the Greens have been silent is “to protect their baubles of office” – see: The Government of kindness strikes again.

Here’s his main point: “Also worth noting the massive silence from the Greens. Let’s imagine the nightmare happened and NZ First had chosen to go with National, and all the revelations about secret donors, secret trusts, policies that benefit donors and finally the Deputy PM (or a proxy) having journalists tailed to expose their sources. The Greens would by at hysteria level 13 on a 0 – 10 scale. They would be calling it corrupt. Demanding resignations, court action. Calling for a general election. They’d be painting National as equally complicit and corrupt as NZ First for putting up with it.”

A similar point was made yesterday by Andrea Vance, who says Labour and the Greens used to be strong on these issues: “They now risk being accused of hypocrisy. Both parties were staunch critics of National’s ‘dirty politics’ tactics in 2014, but have remained quiet about Peters’ latest antics” – see: Snooping on journalists is an attempt to silence and shut them down.

Vance makes a plea for the governing parties to better protect the media freedoms involved in this controversy: “good journalism and a free press is an essential part of a functioning democracy. This attack on Shand and Espiner’s privacy is an attack on the public’s right to know about who is secretly funding their Government partner. Both Labour and the Greens must acknowledge that and condemn it, if we are to believe their exhortations New Zealand politics should be transparent and fair.”

The Greens have finally made a statement, with co-leader James Shaw expressing his concern – see Derek Cheng’s NZ First Foundation saga: Greens break silence on ‘chilling’ photos of journalists.

Leftwing blogger No Right Turn points out it was “obviously unsustainable” for the Greens to continue their conspicuous silence, which was turning into an “example of how getting along with their government partners was eroding their values and their own reputation” – see: Finally.

However, No Right Turn disputes the PM’s argument for avoiding taking responsibility for what her Cabinet ministers do: “She’s the Prime Minister, and wholly responsible for the ethical standards of her Cabinet. Pretending otherwise is simply a coward’s way of saying that she’s perfectly fine with corruption and dirty politics when it’s done by her allies, or at least willing to look the other way. But while this denial of responsibility gives her formal deniability, the problem is that this stench is not going to go away, and some of it is going to stick to her. And if it costs her a second term, she will have only herself to blame).”

The Prime Minister has gone on various media this morning to answer questions about her silence over the NZ First scandal. For example, on RNZ’s Morning Report she again denied that Cabinet ministers are answerable to her in terms of following the law on political fundraising, or their ethical dealings with media – see RNZ’s PM Jacinda Ardern washes hands of NZ First Foundation photos saga.

Ardern responded to questions, saying: “These aren’t matters that I have any responsibility for. I’m the leader of the Labour Party, I had nothing to do with this and I’m not going to stand here and explain it or defend it because it’s not for me… I cannot run both a government and three political parties.”

Similarly, reporting on her appearance on Newstalk ZB, Jason Walls says “Ardern has let NZ First leader and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters off the hook for admitting – then denying – having secret photos of journalists taken” – see: PM Jacinda Ardern again fails to pull Winston Peters into line over controversial photos.

According to this report, “Ardern wouldn’t directly comment” as to whether “Peters was upholding the highest ethical standards, as outlined in the Cabinet manual”. Although elsewhere she has argued the question isn’t relevant.

The fact that a party in the Labour-led Government is utilising Cameron Slater’s blogsite to publish the photos of journalists is going to be bad for Ardern’s re-election campaign according to Heather du Plessis-Allan, who says Labour had hoped to run as the party on the side of positivity and truth – see: Winston Peters’ flirtations with internet bringing trouble to him and Ardern (paywalled).

Here’s her argument: “Labour was clearly hoping to run a Goodie v Baddie campaign, where they pitch themselves as squeaky clean while accusing National of resorting to ‘dirty politics’. Well, that’s going to be hard to do, isn’t it, when Labour’s bedmate is the party most flagrantly and apparently unapologetically engaging in dirty politics in cahoots with one of the central figures of Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics book.”

Finally, could this scandal actually have bigger ramifications for our political system and party system? Danyl Mclauchlan argues today that NZ First and the Greens used to be the main parties to rail against corruption and anti-democratic behaviour in politics, but they’ve both been silenced – see his must-read column: The donations mess reveals a vacuum in our political system. Who will fill it? He ponders who will pick up the role of holding the powerful to account.