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

Labour Hypocrisy Over Pledge Card

The draft report of the Auditor-General (A-G), finding unlawful use of Helen Clark’s Leaders’ budget to fund the Labour pledge card, was greeted with feigned surprise by the Prime Minister. The A-G, and Crown Law who had advised him, had embarked upon on a new and much stricter course than had ever been contemplated before, said Clark.

And this week she pronounced herself to be "surprised", following a week of Government spin and obfuscation, that the A-G was prepared to discuss the basis of his findings with the media. All of which is deserving of a black belt in hypocrisy. The Auditor-General, you see, had made every attempt to warn the Prime Minister early last year of the consequences of the path she had chosen.

On 28 April 2005, the A-G wrote to both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The subject of taxpayers’ money being spent on political propaganda had vexed him for some months. Having completed a review of the planned $21 million "Working for Families" advertising proposal, the A-G had just chopped $6 million off the budget, and prepared a report designed to straighten up the shonky practices he could see clearly on the horizon. If the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition would each agree to meet him to discuss the report, much of the coming untidiness would be able to be avoided.

The Leader of the Opposition, Dr Brash, responded immediately. Anything that would assist the A-G in superintending taxpayers’ money would be agreed to. And he was happy to meet whenever it suited the Auditor-General to do so.

Several weeks went past, and nothing further was heard from the A-G’s office. So a polite enquiry was made as to when the upcoming meeting should be scheduled. There was much discomfort and embarrassment over at the A-G’s office. The meeting, they explained, was off. It had been requested on the basis that the Prime Minister would also agree to meet. And the unthinkable had happened: the Prime Minister of New Zealand had refused to meet with the Controller and Auditor-General, the watchdog of the public finances, and one of the highest independent public officials in our land.

Back in the office of Dr Brash, there was much speculation as to why Clark would make such an extraordinary decision. Clearly, much mischief was afoot with the taxpayers’ cheque-book. And all manner of political malfeasance was postulated for the coming electoral season (see of 8 June 2005). But no one - not a soul - came close to imagining the terrible truth: that Clark would have the sheer gall and deceit to use taxpayers’ funds to pay for the centre-piece of the Labour Party’s election campaign - the pledge card.

Upon further enquiry it emerged that the State Services Commissioner and the chief executive of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had already been briefed on the contents of the report. Helen Clark had been told what the report contained. And there was no way she was going to meet the Auditor-General to hear the bad news.

The Report Clark Refused to Discuss

The A-G’s draft, circulated to party leaders back in April 2005 is a long and fairly turgid affair. But there is a paragraph on page 2 which sums up the general drift:

"It is a generally held principle that taxpayers do not pay for political parties’ publicity, except to support a party’s parliamentary activities or the conduct of ministerial business. This is broadly consistent with the accepted position in New Zealand that the State does not fund political parties”.

There. He could hardly have been clearer than that. Political parties should use their own cash for the purpose of election campaign communications - not money taken from taxpayers for a completely different purpose.

By the 28th of April 2005, the Labour Party election planning would have been completed in great detail. Indeed, for the early months of 2005 key Labour figures had flirted with the idea of an early election. Those plans included provision for the nation’s unsuspecting taxpayers to foot the bill for the $440,000 pledge card. That such a step was unlawful should have been clear to anyone with a passing acquaintance with the Parliamentary Rules, and the Public Finance Act. The effect of the Auditor-General’s communication was to leave no one in any doubt at all. But Helen Clark and her colleagues were desperate people. So they went right on ahead anyway.

The "Everyone Else Was Doing It Too" Defence

n recent weeks, Labour has worked tirelessly to run the "everyone else was doing it too" defence. In that respect they have been assisted by the fact that a range of the minor parties, and some individual MPs have also been caught in the A-G’s post-election audit. The nature and scale of the misdemeanours are yet unclear.

What is clear is that nothing will come remotely close to Labour’s use of taxpayers’ cash to fund the pledge card - a centre-piece of the election campaign, released at the time of the campaign launch. Embarrassed by the A-G’s report, and without the cash to refund the payments, some smaller parties have found it convenient to rehearse the Labour line that the A-G has tightened the rules. Which is very very foolish. Firstly because it simply isn’t true. And secondly, because they allow themselves to be associated with the most breathtakingly naked electoral rort of all time. Which is a bit like the kids who have pinched the milk money volunteering to share a maximum security cell with a bunch of recidivist mass murderers.

The Responsible Minister

Assuming that the A-G confirms his initial findings (and the Crown Law advice leaves him little room to do anything else) some very very interesting questions will arise. The A-G has been at pains to say that he cannot force anyone to pay the money back. He can require the responsible minister to report the unlawful expenditure to Parliament. And the responsible minister may decide to require that the money be repaid. And the responsible minister, in this case, would be the Speaker: one Margaret Wilson.

On Thursday of this week, National’s Simon Power MP drew this state of affairs to the Speaker’s attention, and asked how she intended to rule on the matter. Both Wilson and Cullen, who appeared to have more than a passing familiarity with the process about to unfold, were quick to point out that the Speaker was not required to respond in Parliament to questions which related to her role as minister responsible for the Parliamentary Service Commission. A different hat, worn in a different place.

But the Speaker, wearing the hat of responsible minister, is required to answer written Parliamentary questions from Members. And those questions will surely be forthcoming. Questions like:

Did she know that Helen Clark intended to use her Parliamentary Leaders’ budget to pay for the pledge card? When did she find out?

Did she know that Clark had used the Leaders’ budget to pay for the pledge card in 2002?

Is it the case that she (Wilson) is also chairman of the Officers of Parliament Committee, which appoints, funds and oversees the Auditor-General?

So, what briefing did she get on the A-G’s draft report back in April 2005 (normally she should expect to be briefed before the report went to the party leaders)? Did she turn her mind to the clear implication of the A-G’s report that funding the pledge card from Clark’s Leaders’ budget was unlawful?

Did she raise this with Clark or others?

If not, why not?

Get the picture? Rather a lot of questions are to be answered before this sorry affair is over. All of which would have been completely unnecessary if Helen Clark had simply done her public duty, granted the request of the Auditor-General for a meeting in April of last year, and then obeyed the law of the land as both the A-G and Crown Law have so clearly laid it out.

Square Dancers Strike Back

Justice was in short supply for the nation’s oppressed square dancing fraternity this week. One of their number took broadcaster Paul Holmes and his employer, the Radio Network, to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA). Hot off the press, we have the BSA decision. Mr Holmes, we are advised, had, in his usual moderate tones, referred to the Green Party as a party of "hippies, the Morris dancers, the square dancers, the anti-Americans, the nuclear ships fanatics, the fascists of greenness, the far left, the remnants of the alliance, anti-free traders, apologists for Mao, communist sympathisers, the enemies of science, and the rabid, irrational anti-GM movement." So, what, we hear you ask, is wrong with that? Well, a great deal, apparently, according to a Mr Mike Savill of Auckland. Mr Savill took Mr Holmes and the Radio Network, to the Broadcasting Standards Authority. Mr Savill, it appears, is a square dancer. And, the Authority reported, "in thirty years of square dancing he had not met a square dancer who supported the Green Party." Mr Savill lost his case.

There is no justice to be had, apparently, at the hands of the BSA which, it appears, is now stacked with persons who are unable to discern the massive insult inflicted on this hapless minority by asserting a connection with the Green Party. The square dancers of New Zealand have every right to feel thoroughly defamed.


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