Gordon Campbell | Parliament TV | Parliament Today | Video | Questions Of the Day | Search 21 July 2006 21 July 2006

A Weekly Report From The Keyboard Of Murray Mccully MP For East Coast Bays

The Great Credibility Nose Dive

This week saw a critical turning point in the life of the Clark Government. On two separate fronts, the Clark administration was put to the test. On both, it didn’t merely come up short. It was exposed as unfit to govern.

The release of the Ingram report into the conduct of Taito Phillip Field was expected to reveal much untidiness. But it was expected to be Field’s untidiness, not Helen Clark’s. Forced to choose between her political convenience (for that is all that was at stake here) and the principles that must underpin a credible democracy founded on the rule of law, she chose the former.

The long-awaited visit by Winston Peters on his self-declared top priority mission of restoring better US relations could well have been the making of him as a statesman. And Clark’s high-risk decision to award him the Foreign Affairs post would have been vindicated. Instead of rising to the challenge, Peters exposed on the largest of international stages, the foibles that have made him such a deeply flawed political figure at home. Exposing, in the process, Clark’s preparedness to place New Zealand’s international interest second to her unseemly accommodation with Peters and New Zealand First.

This week, more than any of the public commentators have been prepared to say, was a turning point in New Zealand politics. Much earlier in the term than expected, the fatal flaws of the third and last Clark Administration have been exposed for all to see.

The Field Affair

The political career of Taito Phillip Field was effectively over before the release of the Ingram report. Allegations that he had profited from the misery of his constituents and received painting, tiling and other services in return for immigration favours are enough to ensure that he never again holds ministerial office. Nor, most likely, Parliamentary office beyond the next election. But in seeking to avoid a report that convicted Field, Clark instead convicted herself.

The report by Noel Ingram QC was initially to take 13 days. Instead it has taken ten months. But even then it left the most important issues unresolved. And for the most obvious of reasons. Ingram was given no powers to require witnesses to answer his questions, or even talk to him at all. So, unsurprisingly, those with answers that would truly incriminate simply refused to make themselves available. It was the tooth fairy, apparently, that painted the houses for Field. And Santa Claus who did the tiling. Or so Helen Clark would have us believe.

The decision to clip Field’s political corpse onto a Parliamentary life support system for the balance of the current term after a deeply flawed enquiry will prove a costly error for Clark. Convinced of her own political invincibility, she has hung the future of her government on the utterly indefensible.

A letter alleging breach of privilege has been filed with the Speaker. The prima facie privilege case against Field, contained in the Ingram report, is obvious. If the questions over the conduct of Phillip Field are not sufficient to result in an appearance before the Privileges Committee, then nothing ever will be.

But there are numerous other avenues to be pursued. The Opposition parties are not about to let the Field case go away. The actions of Helen Clark in relation to the Field case are those of a political and moral cripple. A critical turning point in her career was passed this week.

Mr Peters Blows a Gasket

It was always a high risk strategy by Helen Clark to appoint Winston Peters to the Foreign Affairs portfolio. His track record for indiscipline and laziness suggested plenty of scope for disaster. By clutching him so close to her political bosom, Clark had ensured that in such an eventuality, the blame would be substantially hers.

Rule Number One for travelling politicians, especially Ministers, is to remember that you are the official representative of your country. Personal and political feuds must be left at home. Putting New Zealand Incorporated’s best foot forward is the name of the game. And Rule Number One is routinely followed by politicians on the increasingly frequent overseas trips that are part of modern Parliamentary life.

The situation before Mr Peters upon his appointment, could hardly have been better. Having declared that restoring improved relations with the US would be his number one priority, he was taken at face value. The Opposition Spokesman on Foreign Affairs, whose bi-partisan inclinations must, by now, be deeply worrying colleagues, welcomed the Peters statement and pledged to support any sensible initiatives.

The US, at the time, appeared to be searching for a way forward. Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill made it plain that he was prepared to put himself out in order to drive progress in the relationship. Until, that is, Messrs Peters and Mallard, in a fit of madness, decided on an American-bashing spree in the New Zealand Parliament.

Peters had, until that time, been perfectly positioned to make his Washington foray a huge diplomatic success. His could have been the definitive meeting at which the tide in the relationship was turned. Instead, his indiscipline and inability to place his Ministerial duty ahead of his lust for domestic political vandalism ensured a scaled back reception of perfunctory proportions. A tiny ripple rather than a turning of the tide.

The omens before the trip had been less than promising. A surly Peters refused to announce his trip in an effort to diminish media scrutiny by travelling journalists. By all accounts, the game of cat and mouse continued in Washington for the few media able to make the last minute dash. Then followed the truly terrible, massively embarrassing Peters gaffe as Republican high-flyer Senator McCain, potentially the next President of the United States, was shut down in mid flight by an ill-tempered Peters.

The much run tape of the McCain meeting makes Peters look bad enough. But put in context of the US desire to progress the relationship, this truly was a monumental defeat seized from the jaws of what should have been a relatively straightforward victory.

And there is a cost. The United States is now two years into its Free Trade Agreement with Australia. Every year that goes by without a New Zealand equivalent will see greater and greater pressure for New Zealand capital and skill to desert across the Tasman. New Zealand defence relationships with our nearest neighbour and obvious partner continue to be constrained by a Presidential directive banning New Zealand access to US military intelligence, technology and training. That our Foreign Minister could squander an opportunity to start the process by which these important handicaps might be addressed is truly appalling.

This week, Helen Clark paid for her foolish decision to offer the Foreign Affairs portfolio to a man who was unable to rise to the challenge of placing his country’s interests ahead of his own petty disputes. Sadly, every other New Zealand was forced to pay too. But it could, and should, have been so very very different.


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