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AGENDA Interviews: Gerry Brownlee Re Don Brash


AGENDA: GERRY Brownlee


16 September
Presented by LISA OWEN
Transcript ©Front Page Ltd 2006
May be used provided attribution is made to TVOne and “Agenda”

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LISA Labour has dug its toes in over the campaign spending row saying that it won't repay the money it spent on the pledge card even if the Auditor General's final report confirms that the spending was unlawful. National meanwhile continues to demand that labour pay it back, a campaign that has widespread public support, however it was over overshadowed this week when the spotlight fell once again on the party leadership. National's Deputy Leader GERRY Brownlee joins me now, live from Christchurch.

Mr Brownlee to start off with can you just sum it up for us please, what is the case against Labour's pledge card as far as you see it?

GERRY BROWNLEE – Deputy Leader, National Well I think the issue is that the government is trying to put themselves above the law, and in a country like ours that’s just unacceptable. We all know what sort of countries have governments that don’t respect the law and simply make the rules to suit themselves, and so while people might say what is this all about, it's about the fundamental principle that in a democracy like ours we do have rights, we've had them since the Magna Carta, we've had them since the Bill of Rights, and this government is saying we don’t respect those rights, whatever we do is okay and we're just going to adjust the law to suit it. That’s what fundamentally is behind all this.

LISA But Labour argues that the Auditor General only found that its expenditure is illegal retrospectively, so what concrete evidence do you have that Labour knew that this was not appropriate spending before it spent the money?

GERRY Well remember that there are two aspects to this, one is the overspend in which Labour breached the electoral cap therefore calling into question the position under a particular clause in the electoral law, and secondly they dipped into their parliamentary service funding, taxpayer money, unlawfully. Now just to be clear about this the Auditor General sought to meet with political parties prior to the 2005 election to make clear how he would interpret those rules and that interpretation comes after very very exhaustive discussions that took place in the Parliamentary Service Commission after the 2002 election. There was concern after 2002 that all parties pretty much used that funding inappropriately.

LISA Were they categorically told if you spend that money it's going to be unlawful? Is there evidence of that?

GERRY Well that would be something you would have to take up with the Auditor General, but his position is as we understand it that in those discussions he pointed to the PSC rule, the Parliamentary Service Commission rule that said this money cannot be used for political purposes, for electioneering purposes, and those particular meetings were sought. Mr Mallard and I understand Miss Simpson from the Prime Minister's office met with him, Don Brash and senior National Party advisors met with him and other parties did the same. I think the interesting thing here is that the two issues are starting to become confused. The fact is also that the Chief Electoral Officer wrote to Labour and said if you put out the pledge card and the associated pamphlet during the election period it will count as election expenditure and that’s what's forced the breach of the cap. So two separate issues both of which leave Labour with pretty mucky hands.

LISA Well this has all prompted talk about greater regulation of election donations, do you support having full disclosure, do you support donations of $250 or more having to have the donor named, do you support that?

GERRY Well I think all of that discussion is a smoke screen to the real issue of whether or not Labour should pay back the $446,000 plus the other bits of expenditure rumoured to be taking the total to about $800,000 from all Labour members, and whether or not the electoral cap should be changed.

LISA But do you support greater transparency in election funding, I mean National has the Waitemata Trust 1.7 million dollars of anonymous donations at the last election, should New Zealanders know where that money is coming from?

GERRY I think it's very important to note that trusts are entities and they do disclose their position, the issue is whether or not any donation over $250 should be disclosed. Go to Australia and have a look at the wroughts that operate there. People do find ways to make money available to political parties without their name on it, I ask the question simply in a free and open democracy if people want to participate and do so by giving money to a political party, what's wrong with that. Labour have certainly taken a huge amount of money over the years from unions, not only up front on their declared campaign but also throughout the currently 67 electorates around the country, and they seem to have no problem with that.

LISA But does large scale anonymous donations, does that muddy the water around allegations of cash for policy?

GERRY Oh look I don’t think so, and the most glaring example of cash for policy, if you were to be silly enough to go down that line, in recent years would be the extraordinary union campaign run in 1999 to unseat the National government.

LISA But it wasn’t anonymous Mr Brownlee and it was counted – in 1999 it was accounted in the total expenditure.

GERRY Well be very careful about where you're gonna go here because any money that comes from our trusts of course – or trusts that support us I should say are counted, but look we're now having an argument about the law which I think's relatively clear, why aren’t we talking about what it is that Labour sees is justification for their telling the Auditor General where to go on this. You're about to go round your Dairy Diaries and look at small businesses there, but they send their annual accounts off to the accountant and then off to the auditor and it comes back and they’ve got a tax bill, they can't phone the IRD and say look terribly sorry the auditor got it wrong we're not going to pay, and that’s the issue here.

LISA What about the issue of third party campaigns, you raised them, you mentioned the unions, but what about the ones like the one mounted by the Exclusive Brethren, attack campaigns, should they be outlawed?

GERRY Two things, one is, people who are mounting campaigns should disclose who they are, they should not hide behind empty sections and false names, and the electoral act needs to take stronger action, or provide for stronger action in cases where people do that, but I tell you what, we cannot have election or rules in this country around the political process that inhibit the right of free speech. This is one of only five countries that I can work out in the world who had open democracy throughout last century and continue to have it today, it's a valuable thing and I don’t want to see Labour's mistake in this case, threatening that sort of freedom.

LISA That Brethren campaign how much did it damage you, did it do you more damage than good do you think?

GERRY I don’t think anyone could say it was particularly helpful, and I would just leave my comments about that at that point.

LISA Alright, well look over the last few weeks things have been particularly raucous in the House, the behaviour, has it got too personal, why did it get to that point do you think?

GERRY Well this sort of issue doesn’t get much bigger, a government choosing to put itself above the law doesn’t get any bigger than that, and I think the uncomfortable words that you find in Section 241B of the Electoral Act have caused part of the problem. It says that if any party willingly or knowingly breaches the electoral cap then that is a corrupt practice. There is communication correspondence in the public arena that would indicate that people inside the Labour Party knew they were going to breach the electoral cap. Draw your own conclusion.

LISA Alright let's turn to your own caucus now, Mike Blumsky's made some very public comments saying that there's been nattering in your caucus over Dr Brash's leadership - what natterings, what is the mood of your caucus.

GERRY Well I'm sure that Mr Blumsky wouldn’t have wanted his comments to be interpreted as anything other than the sort of discussion that you might expect people to have this week, generally concerned that Don gets the space that he's asked for to deal with a you know difficult personal issue. On the rest of it I've gotta say I think some of it is quite fascinating. I've read two papers and been made aware of comment in another one this morning. All of that comment is different it's sort of around the same theme.

LISA What of it is true Mr Brownlee, did Dr Brash offer to resign?

GERRY What's true is that Dr Brash got out there yesterday back in the public arena, back in a very public place, it was a longstanding engagement that he had in place and you know he's getting on with the business.

LISA Did he offer to resign was that offer extended to senior caucus members?

GERRY Not that I'm aware of and I'm sure if he had and that had been an issue I would know about it.

LISA Well obviously you’ve got some leaks in your caucus or have you identified where those leaks are coming from and what are you doing to plug them.?

GERRY Well let me first say that the stories this morning talked about National Party sources and I'm sure in times like this there's all sorts of people out there who like to tout their association with the National Party and offer their views. I don’t put much credence in any of what I've seen on the table this morning.

LISA But in terms of those leaks you had a leak, the original rumour came or speculation came from your own ranks, have you identified those people, are you plugging those leaks?

GERRY That’s an internal caucus matter and you can be assured that that’s under control.

LISA Alright, well Dr Brash is adamant he is staying, what's gonna happen next?

GERRY Well you saw Dr Brash out there yesterday, I don’t think the public were partly condemning of him, I think people are these days understanding of the difficulties that can arise in personal relationships, and we'll leave it at that.

LISA Mr Brownlee, we were talking about where to from here. Look, I need to ask you, if something terrible happened tomorrow and Dr Brash was not available to do the leader's job would you be interested in it?

GERRY Look I'm not going to answer that question, the speculation around all of this stuff I think's very unfair, give Don a bit of time for goodness sake to get things sorted, and get back to the main issue. The only reason we're dealing with this is because Labour felt the pressure and you had two loose canons on the other side of the House who went berserk, most of the Labour Party people despite being my political opponents are fine people well motivated and I think there's a little bit of the unfortunate element in all of this, nonetheless, the issue's live and Dr Brash is out there getting back into the political fray but dealing with a personal issue. I really don’t want to discuss things beyond that.

LISA Oh well maybe we can come back to you on that one if the position comes vacant. I'm going to throw the floor open to our panel now, JOHN Roughan has a question for you.

JOHN ROUGHAN – Columnist, New Zealand Herald Mr Brownlee can he survive this?

GERRY Well I think New Zealanders are very very generous people, they are also I think more politically attuned than many other jurisdictions around the world and I think they will recognise that the issues that are there are for him to deal with personally but the issue behind it all, the political issue is the decision by the Labour Party to put themselves above the law, and I think most people would be pretty furious with that.

JOHN Is it going to be his decision alone or at some point are the caucus going to really want to make the decision on this?

GERRY The caucus always make a choice about who the leader is, the caucus at the moment of course know why fundamentally this position is there, you might say that’s the personal side of things but they know that the political reason it's there is because of the Labour Party's decision to put themselves above the law and you can't let their agenda for getting off the hook get in the road of the public understanding that that is a major problem.

LISA Let's bring DAVID Farrar into the conversation, you have pointed the finger at Labour here in terms of dishing dirt Mr Brownlee, but DAVID has some questions for you on leaks within your own caucus and behaviour within your own caucus.

DAVID FARRAR – www.kiwiblog.co.nz GERRY in terms of Brian Connell regardless of who leaked from the caucus, the reports we've seen of the discussion and the behaviour would seem to be inappropriate for a National MP and with Mr Connell there's been a series of issues over the last few years where every time it seems to be it damages National and there's been no positive runs scored on the board. Is the National caucus going to take some action against Brian Connell?

GERRY Well I said to LISA earlier DAVID that the matter is in hand, now you of all people would know how these things are dealt with and I'm making no further comments on that.

LISA Is it just him though, are there other people that need to be addressed in terms of their leaking information from the caucus? It would appear that Mr Connell is not man alone, he claims that he wasn’t the person who brought it up.

GERRY Well I just said I'm making no further comments on that, these are matters for the National Party caucus to deal with, but the obligation on the National Party caucus also is to ensure that the focus on the very very disgraceful activities of the Labour Party in deciding to put themselves above the law are not lost in all of this.

LISA JOHN – here's another question for you.

JOHN Mr Brownlee we're in new territory here politically in New Zealand, I can't recall a previous occasion when a party leader, a sitting party leader has had these sort of allegations levelled at him, we don’t know whether the New Zealand public can accept this even today, what does National do, how does National start to read the public response to this and make the right decision?

GERRY Well first I've gotta say JOHN I've agreed to come on the programme this morning to talk about the election overspend and the inappropriate flogging of $446,000 from the taxpayer's purse, now you’ve just said this is new territory, that’s an interesting position for you to take. We've decided that Dr Brash should be given a break to sort out his situation, and that’s where we're quite happy to leave it.

LISA You were on message for the last couple of weeks talking about the pledge cards, you were getting good publicity from your point of view and your people would have said you were getting traction, where has this left you now in terms of that>

GERRY Oh I am of a view that the voting public do look at issues, and I think if you look at some of the responses round the talkback and various other things in the last couple of days, they are going to continue to look at the issues, and the big issue at the moment is a government that puts itself above the law, and I don’t think that’s going to go away, I think it's been a slow burner and I think people are starting to wake up and realise that you know like you – as I said before your Corner Dairy owner they just can't tell the auditor where to go and say to the IRD forget it I'm not paying tax, won't pay it, and it's inappropriate and quite disgraceful that the government have decided to take the position they have.

LISA Mr Brownlee do you think you can get the numbers in the House to force Labour to pay this money back?

GERRY I think that’s a very interesting question because Labour are of course not alone in all of this, but I think if some of the smaller parties look at the fact that 81% of the public it would seem in a recent poll say pay it back they’ll realise the potential for political damage and start making their own arrangements once the Auditor General finally reports.

DAVID GERRY in terms of the pledge card you correctly pointed out there's been two issues, one is the breach of the Electoral Act, the other is the taxpayer funding. Most of the attention has been on the taxpayer funding, the pay it back campaign which is very catchy, but I wonder if the focus shouldn’t be more on the Electoral Act breach is arguably more serious especially that they do not have the defence Labour of saying we didn’t know in advance the Chief Electoral Officer warned them three times before the election.

GERRY Well there's an interesting little problem with that one and that is that the Police have investigated and are now outside the jurisdiction of investigation, that they have decided no prosecution is necessary, and I think what's becoming evident now is that the police investigation quite frankly was a little inadequate. I don’t want to be critical of the Police but when you see the case laid out, and to be fair to them they did say there was a prima facie case but if you read their various reports – in one of them they say for example that the Labour Party told the Police investigator that the Electoral Act in this case didn’t apply and therefore no prosecution was necessary, and for some reason they swallowed that. I think it's a little unfortunate but this one is gonna have to be condemned in the public court because the jurisdiction for any other action has run out.

LISA Thank you very much for joining us this morning, that’s the Deputy Leader of the National Party GERRY Brownlee.


LISA Welcome back, the University of Otago broke new ground this week when its ruling body adopted a code of conduct to control unruly student behaviour. The controversial new policy gives the university the right to discipline students for off campus offences but the students are giving up without a fight, they say the code is illegal and that they weren't properly consulted. So does the university have a point or should the students just get over it. Paul Chong, President of the Otago University Student Association joins me now live from Dunedin. Tell me Mr Chong what's wrong with the code?

PAUL CHONG – Otago University Students' Association Well the code quite simply is unlawful, it extends the university's powers beyond that which is given by the Education Act.

LISA The code would ban things like throwing projectiles, lighting fires, assaulting people, unreasonable noise. If you're well behaved or worse case scenario if you're just civilised why would you possibly need to worry about this?

PAUL Well the thing is the behaviours that you’ve just referred to I think everyone would admit that they're not good at all but simply it's the Police's responsibility to police that not the university's.

LISA So recently you had some riots which involved Dunedin students as well as Christchurch students, most of them got off with diversion, the university in this case now could step in and punish those students for what they did, what's wrong with that?

PAUL The issue really is drawing the nexus between the behaviours of the students and the good governance and discipline of the university, and in that case the link is quite tenuous, and so we would argue that the university has no grounds to discipline the students for their actions in that riot.

LISA So what you think it's double jeopardy?

PAUL Yes there's an element of double jeopardy in there.

LISA What would you rather see because the fact is that you were on the working party that unanimously approved this draft code, the draft code. What would you rather see?

PAUL Well there are two things, firstly we would hope for the university to defer it's adoption which is now too late so that we could first consult the students on their opinion and secondly to bring that section of the Education Act into the Code of Conduct that's clarifying exactly where the university's powers – how far they extend and thus making it a lawful document.

LISA A lot of other university's have similar types of clauses, for example Canterbury, Victoria, Lincoln, they all have clauses where students can be disciplined or punished if they bring the university into disrepute, why should Otago be beyond that, why shouldn’t you have something similar?

PAUL We're not actually arguing that, it's quite clear that there's a direct link with the behaviour of Canterbury students and Lincoln students and was the Auckland students because it has to reflect the good governance or bring the university into disrepute and that’s what we're arguing that as the Otago Code of Conduct currently stands that nexus is not a requirement.

LISA Tell me why do you think it's got this bad, why has student behaviour escalated to this point, I mean there's been some talk about problems with housing, overcrowding, too many students in single sectors of the city, why do you think things have got to this point?

PAUL I think you’ve actually just identified it, it's just been the rapid growth of Otago University as an institution and right now I think the city's catching up with the rapid growth in enrolment.

LISA So how responsible does the university have to be for this when it's encouraged students to come to Dunedin using partly the social life and the social aspects of campus life as an incentive to come to Dunedin, so how responsible are the university then?

PAUL Well I think it does seem a little bit hypocritical of the university to first you know try and attract students based on the lifestyle down here and then go in and try and discipline the students, but I think that what we're referring to here is that there's actually quite a core, a small minority of students that are actually offending, the large majority of students are actually quite well behaved and largely do enjoy the lifestyle that’s down here.

LISA We're going to bring our panel into the discussion here, first to DAVID Farrar who has an interest in student politics, you thoughts on this?

DAVID First Paul are you worried that this could be the thin end of the wedge that your point seems to be that the other universities only say you have to bring the university into disrepute, but Otago has gone beyond that and quite specific, do you fear it could even get back to what it used to be in the 60s when the university used to tell people males and females can't live together for example?

PAUL Oh I don’t imagine it would ever resort back to that, I'd hope that we've all moved on since the 60s, but there's always the risk there, you know something that universities reassured us on is that they wouldn’t discipline a student under the Code of Conduct unless there is you know sufficient link to the university's activities, but simply a statement or reassurance is not good enough I think, it should be written into the Code of Conduct.

LISA So how far are you gonna take it, you are planning legal action, these things cost a bit of money, how far are you gonna go with it?

PAUL Well we've been recommended by our lawyers that the best way to you know bring this through the court system is to seek a judicial review upon the first students to be disciplined under the Code of Conduct which you know where links between their conduct and the university's governance is reasonably tenuous.

LISA So this is not brought in until next year, the argument is if you weren't happy with it you could shift universities. There's ways around it.

PAUL Yeah quite possibly but of course I mean this is just one of the reasons why, I mean there are a number of reasons why people come down to Otago, the lifestyle's one of them but also the quality of the education, so I imagine that students will still be coming down for the education regardless of whether or not there's a Code of Conduct.

LISA Just before we go, have you burnt any couches in your own university career Mr Chong?

PAUL Oh I don’t think I should really comment on that one.

LISA Alright thank you very much for joining us this morning.


UMR POLL

LISA We have some final ominous news for the National Party, a UMR poll taken between the 7th and the 11th of September shows National well ahead of Labour with 44.8% of the vote, Labour's on 41.1%, the Greens on 6.7%, New Zealand First on 2.5% and the Maori Party on 1.3%, Act on 0.8%. But of course that poll was taken before Don Brash's marital crisis.
FINAL THOUGHTS – GUEST COMMENTATORS

LISA How long has Don Brash got? JOHN Roughan.

JOHN About three weeks possibly.

LISA Seriously?

JOHN Well I think the thing about Don is I think that National would have probably rolled him anyway unless the polls stay as good as they have been in the last month or so, but you know he's not a new face and National needs a new face, every new government does. This might be the pretext that they needed or wanted, but yeah I don’t think he's going to last.

LISA Why would you want to stay around under the circumstances, why do you think he's so doggedly saying I'm here I'm staying?

JOHN I don’t know that he is actually. We know from GERRY Brownlee that he hasn’t offered to resign contrary to the press report this morning.

LISA Well that GERRY know of, was GERRY's tag line.

JOHN Yeah but GERRY also said I would know, and he would if this offer had been made to senior ministers. I imagine Don like everybody else is sort of watching how this plays, what the reaction is, how you know whether his credibility can get through it.

LISA Let's bring DAVID in here, DAVID the public's thoughts on this, there was a poll last night on One News, 70% supported him 23% against, does it matter or is what really counts polling of the caucus?

DAVID The polls do matter because caucus will be swayed by the polls, last night's poll while welcome though isn't the key one, it is going to be eventually what the public polls are showing with the party vote. Now there's no hurry it's two years before the election, no one in National should be panicking, I don’t think there's going to be anything in the next couple of weeks, I think some way down the track there will probably be a bit of a you know is this working, can Don take us to the election, and that was always going to be the case, there was always going to be a – are we doing well enough in the polls to stay on course. So I expect that nothing will happen in the next couple of weeks but there will be a look of course, as caucus is always looking.

LISA Well if not in the next fortnight or three weeks, what is going on behind the scenes do you think in terms of Bill English and JOHN Key, who is the primary candidate and when will they think the time is right to move?

JOHN Well I think on my theory that a new government needs to be a completely new face not a reprint from the previous government, I think JOHN Key is the only choice.

LISA In saying that though you have pointed out yourself in your column today that there's a certain degree of naiveté to Mr Brash, some would say lacks the experience, what do you think?

JOHN I think he can look a bit like the next Bill English if National aren’t careful. He's an untried person like most new leaders are, once the initial gone off a new face he may not impress the electorate but I think he's a clever fellow and he's got new ideas too which is an important thing for a new government.

LISA DAVID Farrar do you reckon he could step up to the plate, I mean one of the papers down south is saying Key and Catherine Rich would be the dream team.

DAVID Well that has the ODT who I think are honour bound to push the local connection. If you asked JOHN Key would he rather become the Minister of Finance before becoming Prime Minister I think he as almost any sane person would say yes. No one should want to become Prime Minister before they’ve had ministerial experience generally, because you know it's a very tough job. If there is no other option, if the current leadership isn't viable then of course that comes into play but that’s why I think that you're not going to get anyone wanting to be the first one to make a move on this, they would rather if it can work, stay with the status quo.

LISA Some people don’t want to be seen to be picking over the bones I imagine as well. Can I ask then what about Mr Brownlee who was our guest this morning, what do we think his prospects would be if Dr Brash went, leadership or deputy leadership or gone altogether.

JOHN You'd know better than I would probably.

DAVID I would be amazed if GERRY doesn’t remain as deputy leader, I think almost all the commentators have said GERRY has been putting in quite a sterling performance, in the House especially he complements Don to some degree where Don isn't so strong there and I can't see a scenario where GERRY's not still in the leadership role there.

LISA Now you were very interested in the poll, the UMR poll we had there do you think that next time it's not gonna be so rosy for them or can they turn the Titanic so to speak?

DAVID I think National and Labour will probably go down, when you get this personal stuff happening it's about …on both of your parties and I think the major challenge for both National and Labour is who gets the blame for this going public, did Labour actually push the nuclear button. The analogy I would use is they're being a bit like the serial arsonist, they’ve gone to the house, they’ve poured petrol round the house, they’ve got the box of matches and left it where the children can get to it. Now someone else – someone may have blundered along but for Labour to then go – oh shock horror we never expected this to go public, defies belief, but whether that will get across how that is pushed by the media by National and Labour I think is gonna be quite key too in the polls, I think the public don’t like what's happened but they don’t quite know who to blame.

JOHN And they must be wondering why it happened and suddenly the whole pledge card public spending issue, the public realises just how this has stung Labour just how deeply it's stung Labour and it really has.

LISA It exposes them somewhat to that.

JOHN I'm not quite sure why, I mean it's an important issue but I wouldn’t have thought it was quite the one that has triggered this kind of vicious reaction and it is quite vicious.

LISA Is it enough of a diversion for Labour though, as I said to GERRY Brownlee they were getting headlines over the pay it back, can they get back on message and how are they gonna do it.

JOHN They have to don’t they, somebody was saying previously that the big test will be of his leadership if Don Brash can come back into the House and resume the attack as strongly as he was and we heard Helen Clark on TV last night saying she's looking forward to him talking about integrity in the House again, well he has to, he has to go back and he has to push through this and say this is what's important in this country.

LISA So watch this space. Thank you very much to our panel, and just before we move on for the record – Trevor Mallard's office had assured us that he did not call Michelle Boag a slag as she alleged on the programme last week, in fact he called her a party hack as did his press secretary when her husband called to complain.

ENDS

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