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Paulo Politico: Prebble’s Nightmare Unleashed


Paulo Politico: Prebble’s Nightmare Unleashed

Troubleshooters in politics will no doubt privately say Prebble is ACTivating the only option available to him – isolating a cancer [the scandal] before it infects the entire party. But scandal and intrigue are part of what the ACT Party is all about.

Richard Prebble’s New Year nightmare has arrived in the form of the scandal currently swirling around ACT MP Donna Awatere-Huata.

In so many ways the scandal is ACT’s worst-case scenario coming to fruition. The party that says it stands for lower taxes, small government and higher standards than most. Yet is has been subject to more political scandals per capita than any other party in Parliament

Like most of the previous scandals surrounding ACT, the revelations swirling around Awatere-Huata literally drip with delicious irony.

Since coming to Parliament in 1996, all ACT MPs have campaigned tirelessly for taxpayer’s money to be spent wisely. Prudence with the public purse is been central to the party’s dogma.

ACT dined out on Tuku Morgan’s expensive underpants fiasco in 1997. Robyn McDonald’s expensive taxpayer-funded trip to Paris was the source of ACT Party ridicule. Rodney Hide raised concern about MPs using taxi chits and free domestic flights around New Zealand.

My, how times have changed.

The Pipi Foundation was set up to help implement a reading programme. The Foundation received around $800,000 of taxpayer’s money to allow the reading programme to be implemented.

In recent weeks allegations have been levelled against Pipi – allegedly, taxpayer’s money (earmarked for the reading programme) was instead spent on a stomach stapling operation, a trip to a fashion show, on garden supplies, and materials for a fruit shop.

Oh how glorious the scandal would have been for the ACT Party – if only the allegations were not levelled against one of its own MPs (Awatere-Huata). It was she who helped set up the Pipi foundation. It was she who is alleged to have used money to pay for a stomach stapling operation. It is she who now stands accused.

In the court of public opinion, the scandal is intensifying. Even Awatere-Huata’s own leader, Richard Prebble, is hedging his bets.

It would be fair to assess that Prebble appears to have raised public interest concerns even higher, intensifying the pressure on his embattled colleague. He has commented on the revelation about her operation, suggesting that because she had not told the women of New Zealand that the procedure had contributed to her significant weight loss, that such a nondisclosure in itself is a very serious matter.

Does this mean that the ACT Party now regards the physical profile of its MPs as the criterion for judging higher standards? Or is it a convenient fallback position in the event that a police investigation and an audit office report does exonerate Awatere-Huata?

This writer finds it interesting that a party with a reputation for feasting on the failures and shortcomings of Maori in public life, now harbours a disaster of its own. Awatere-Huata is one of the longest serving ACT MPs currently in Parliament. She has previously boasted one of the highest profiles as well, giving the party much needed exposure during its infancy. Where is the reservoir of support and goodwill from her colleagues?

How interesting that ACT, the party which rallies against wasting taxpayer’s money, has nothing to say about Pipi – notwithstanding the association with Awatere-Huata. ACT claims to be the party of individual responsibility. A party, which is true to its word, surely ought to have critiqued such expenditure on behalf of the taxpayer?

How interesting that Prebble can set the bar so high for Awatere-Huata, but appeared to be more understanding when it was discovered that a former ACT MP, Owen Jennings, allowed his taxpayer-funded Parliamentary office to be the venue of a private meeting where a group of businessmen discussed a get-rich-quick scheme in 1998.

How interesting that Prebble appears ready to cut Awatere-Huata loose, but did not appear to apply a similar measure for ACT MP Rodney Hide, who was embroiled in a scandal involving a speech given at an investment seminar in Fiji. When families invested money in, what many have called a scam, and lost out, why didn’t Prebble front up and explain why Hide was there, and preach ACT’s “higher standards”?

Why is the party of virtue so often a hive of scandal and intrigue?

Why is a party that advocates the free market as a mechanism for judging success or failure so quick to apply arbitrary judgement when one of its own fails in the eyes of the public? Why does a Maori woman appear to be judged more harshly than two European men during difficult times?

Education Minister Trevor Mallard has rightly called for the auditor-general’s inquiry into allegations against Awatere-Huata to be widened to include the circumstances surrounding the original decision by the previous National government to give money to Pipi.

The original decision to give money to the Pipi Foundation was made in 1999. National MP Nick Smith was the Minister of Education at the time. Whilst the Cabinet minute directed the Ministry of Education to provide funding, it appears that no cabinet papers exist to support the allocation. What motive did the previous National government have to provide funding to Pipi? (remembering that National too endeavours to make capital out of being prudent with taxpayer’s money).

ACT press secretary David Young, who was previously sent to the Hawkes Bay to assist Awatere-Huata, has reportedly been admitted to hospital with stress-related symptoms. Perhaps he will reflect on his party’s recent opposition to new health and safety laws (affecting the workplace) during his time of convalescence. Who could possibly deny the man some rest?

Watch this drama unfold.

The irony and double standards are numerous, providing rich pickings for people who loathe hypocrisy in politics.

ACT, the party of “higher standards”, would appear to have failed to make the grade. Only this time the failure has drawn a different reACTion from Prebble.

Troubleshooters in politics will no doubt privately say Prebble is ACTivating the only option available to him – isolating a cancer [the scandal] before it infects the entire party. But scandal and intrigue are part of what the ACT Party is all about.

Prebble may well try and weld the knife against Awatere-Huata in a futile attempt to limit the damage the Pipi fiasco has inflicted on the right-wing party. But a true leader would look beyond the scandal and ask serious questions about an underlying pattern of behaviour that all too often lands ACT in hot water.

For right-wing politicians who preach fiscal prudence and the highest standards of personal conduct, 2003 promises to be a very challenging year.


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