Gordon Campbell | Parliament TV | Parliament Today | Video | Questions Of the Day | Search 18 August 2006 18 August 2006

A Weekly Report from the Keyboard of Murray McCully MP for East Coast Bays

Cullen Goes Right Over the Line

Michael Cullen’s extraordinary outburst filmed by TV1, in which he claimed senior journalists were writing anti-government stories because they were hankering for a tax cut, seemed like an isolated moment of madness. But this week he was at it again. And this time it wasn’t a simple matter of losing his grip in what he imagined to be a private exchange. This time he actually wrote it down and distributed it to the Press Gallery, leaving serious questions about his actions, and about whether he had improperly used information about the tax affairs of the Herald’s owners, APN.

Stung by a Herald dissection of Labour Party spin over the pledge card affair, Dr Cullen distributed a press release offering the usual rebuttal, before offering this little gem:

“The Herald would be wise to consider the consistency of its position. The owners of the Herald recently found themselves liable to a very large tax bill even though they could reasonably argue that the transaction which triggered it would not at the time have done so according to the general understanding of the law.” Cullen went on to ask rhetorically how many elective operations the Herald’s tax would have purchased.

The decision of the Minister of Finance to introduce a gratuitous reference to the tax affairs of APN in the context of disputing Herald coverage of the pledge card affair raises some very interesting questions. First, was Dr Cullen’s statement intended as a threat to the Herald that he would reconsider certain taxation legislation before the House unless the newspaper reconsidered its current line of coverage? Viewed in context, it is hard to see Cullen’s statement as anything else. And that is an extraordinary position to be taken by any Minister of Finance.

Second, was Dr Cullen’s asserted familiarity with the taxation affairs of APN acquired in part as a consequence of his role as Minister of Finance? Few others seemed to have any notion that APN was affected by tax legislation before the House. The suspicion that Dr Cullen acquired at least part of his understanding of this matter from Cabinet Committee or Ministerial discussions, or from officials’ briefing papers will be difficult to rebut. And if that is the case then this would be the most serious breach of duty for any Minister. For a Finance Minister it would be much, much worse.

Third, if grovellous, simpering editorial gratitude is Dr Cullen’s expectation of the Herald in relation to this previously obscure tax measure affecting a privately-held overseas-owned corporate, just what are his expectations of state-owned, charter-funded TVNZ of which he is a shareholding Minister? Are we to imagine that negotiations over charter funding are punctuated by Cullen demands that recent editorial offences be remedied forthwith? And that discussions over dividend feature Ministerial requirements of more accommodating conduct from Mr Espiner and his colleagues in future. The mind truly boggles.

This was a new and almost unbelievably desperate dimension on display by the Clark Government this week: one which plainly asserts a new rule-book for the fourth estate in the coverage of political affairs, and raises serious questions regarding adherence to Ministerial duty. It is a posture which shows a naked contempt on the part of the Labour party for the news media and the public they seek to inform - one which, if left unchallenged, would have the most serious consequences for all New Zealanders.

The New Solicitor-General

The Attorney-General Michael Cullen has appointed Wellington QC David Collins as the new Solicitor-General. That he has done so without consulting the Opposition is foolish. Because Collins, already the recipient of two appointments from the Clark Government (the ACC chair and a SPARC directorship), is well known to hold views not unadjacent to those of the Prime Minister and her colleagues.

The regrettable track record of Collins’ predecessor has been previously chronicled in this publication on more than one occasion. Against that background, the choice of a successor who so obviously close to the Government is a huge call. That it has been made without bi-partisan sign-up is asking for trouble.

The conventions that frown upon political criticism of the Solicitor-General are well founded. But they are predicated on an expectation that Governments will behave honourably, first, in selecting a Solicitor-General who is deserving of bi-partisan sign-up, and secondly in undertaking the necessary consultation with the alternative government (as well, of course as an expectation of professional decision making by the appointee).

The National Party has been restrained in its public comments to date. Collins will get a chance to demonstrate that he is up to the job. But if he drops the ball, Michael Cullen and his colleagues will have only themselves to blame for the consequences.

Carter Flouts AG Findings

Conservation Minister Chris Carter will have a nervous wait for the decision of Justice Fogarty in the Whangamata Marina case. A decision that he behaved unlawfully in overriding an Environment Court decision would raise serious questions about his conduct. But Mr Carter is also courting problems with authority in another forum. He is blatantly flouting the recommendations of the Auditor General’s recent report into DOC’s stewardship of the national estate.

Back in May, the A-G raised concerns that DOC, the nation’s largest landowner, was in breach of statutory obligations under both the National Parks Act and the Conservation Act. And the Department appears to be in no hurry to rectify matters. In answer to Parliamentary questions, Mr Carter has revealed that conservation management strategies, required under the legislation, some of which are already years overdue, will not be completed any time soon. Most will not be completed until well into 2008. And in Nelson/Marlborough it will be 2010 before the conservancy complies with its legal obligations.

The picture is no better with a heap of national park management plans fingered by the A-G as overdue. Many, according to Mr Carter, will stay that way until 2008, with the Paparoa plan not expected until 2010 - a very cavalier attitude indeed for the owner of the national estate to take to its legal obligations.

But for sheer gall, get a load of this: A key concern of the A-G was the state of complete disarray of DOC’s land acquisition and disposal processes. Taking two case studies for detailed examination, he had found DOC’s actions riddled with breaches of its own procedures. And so he ordered the department to conduct an audit of each such transaction conducted in recent years.

Three months after the tabling of the A-G’s report, the Minister was asked how the audit process was coming along. There were “approximately 20 significant land purchase transactions” of the sort referred to be the A-G’s report, and “a number of the more recent transactions will be selected for review,” said Mr Carter. That’s right. Nothing has yet been done to comply with the A-G’s recommended audits, and when it is, only carefully selected transactions will be reviewed. Ones least likely to show Minister Carter personally involved in a most unflattering light. Which is not what the A-G had in mind at all.

All of which raises a truly important question: how can our government expect individual New Zealanders to comply with the law of the land when a large, well-funded department of state is permitted to take such a cavalier attitude to its ongoing unlawful behaviour?

Cheque Book Diplomacy

Our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Peters, in a speech to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association this week was critical of cheque-book diplomacy in the Pacific. While omitting to name names in the speech, he later offered the example of Taiwan’s role in the recent Solomon’s unrest as an example. The worldwide headquarters of is pleased, on this occasion, to endorse the Foreign Minister’s remarks.

While the Taiwanese example was, according to all accounts, perfectly fair, there are many other examples of instability in the Pacific, generated by cheque-book diplomacy. New Zealand has been extraordinarily coy about identifying this growing cause of unrest. And Mr Peters is to be commended for so doing.

Recent actions of the Chinese and the Japanese have, like those of Taiwan, also raised eye-brows. They equally deserve to be outed for their efforts. New Zealand and Australia will need to substantially increase the investment the two countries currently make in achieving stability in the Pacific. But we are all wasting our time and money if the current style of cheque-book diplomacy is permitted to persist.

Mr Peters is right to raise the matter at this time. Let’s hope that he follows through at the upcoming meeting of the Pacific Forum, and elsewhere, to start the process of eliminating one of the most serious causes of instability in our region.

Advocacy Award

An award for effective advocacy must, this week, go to an Australian politician - Warren Entsch, the Liberal Party MP for the Cape York seat of Leichardt. Mr Entsch recently introduced a Bill to afford equal rights for same sex couples. And his advocacy was truly powerful. None of the usual shrill, hand-wringing stuff usually featured on this side of the Tasman.

Mr Entsch, reported to be a former crocodile hunter and bull catcher, offered this rationale for his Bill: “They’re usually young, pretty good-looking fellas,” he said of gay men, “ and it gives us old fellas a chance at these good-looking young sheilas.”

So how about a ….. er… bouquet for Mr Entsch?


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