Plain English - Thoughts from Bill English
There is No Shame
The New Zealand public will ultimately decide the standards of public probity in politics. If they let Helen Clark away with her half million-dollar election spending rort, then standards of transparency and honesty will drop across the board. The election spending rort comes on top of Helen Clark defending MP Phillip Field who exploited illegal immigrants in return for political favours. We don't have corruption commissions like Australia, or detailed sanctions for politicians who break the rules. New Zealand politics stays clean because all politicians have presumed the public don't tolerate corruption, and because politicians do not want the shame of being seen as anything but squeaky clean - until now that is. Helen Clark's previous brushes with the law have encouraged her to believe that she can tough it out, that if she doesn't admit any wrongdoing, the media will eventually drop it, and the public don't really care. Helen Clark doesn't appear to believe the idea than any rules of public probity should get in the way of Labour's interests.
A Problem or a Big Problem?
Labour has several problems. First, it looks like they have spent about $800,000 of public money on electioneering for the 2005 election, including the pledge card. It's against the rules laid out by Parliament after the 2002 election, and confirmed by the Auditor General to the party Leaders early in 2005. Members of Parliament wrote the rules and everybody knew them. Secondly, Helen Clark can't admit she is wrong now because if she does admit fault the remedy is to pay the money back and Labour can't afford to. Thirdly, because the $800,000 counts as electioneering, whether she pays it back or not, Labour have exceeded the limit on how much a party is allowed to spend on an election. That amounts to buying the 2005 election with taxpayers money. These aren't wild allegations from the National Party, they are the only conclusions that can be drawn from the views of the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Office and the Solicitor General.
How We Know They Know the Rules
Labour were warned about the pledge card before the election and National was warned about an advertising campaign run by supporters for Bob Clarkson of Tauranga. National ordered Bob Clarkson to stop spending weeks out from the election in a seat National wanted to win in case the campaign turned out to be counted as election expenses. After the election Winston Peters took Bob Clarkson to court over the advertising campaign to try and overturn the Tauranga result. The court found that the advertising did count as electioneering, but because Bob Clarkson stopped spending, he didn't go over the limit. When Labour was warned they agreed with the Chief Electoral Officer that its pledge card would count, then Labour changed its mind when polling showed they were behind and spent another half a million dollars on advertising in the last 10 days of the campaign. If Bob Clarkson had done the same, the court would have found him guilty, turfed him out and given the seat back to Winston Peters. Helen Clark and Michael Cullen expect to get away with it.
What About The Three Blind Mice?
The next episode of this drama will test the character and principles of Rodney Hide, Peter Dunne and Winston Peters. Labour want to pass legislation to validate everything they have done and bring in State funding of political parties. Act, NZ First and United Future all face hefty bills to repay the public money they spent on electioneering, and so far they look like they will support Labour's legislation. So, along with Helen Clark, they will all have their finger in the wind for the next few weeks testing public opinion to oblige Helen Clark and let her get away with it, or will they all have to pay the money back? You decide.