Gordon Campbell | Parliament TV | Parliament Today | Video | Questions Of the Day | Search 1 September 2006 1 September 2006

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

Chickens Coming Home to Roost

The Clark Labour Government is easily the luckiest government in recent New Zealand history - led by easily the luckiest Prime Minister. Blessed with the best international trading conditions for many decades, the nation’s economic profit has translated into their political profit. The Clark Government has been accorded an aura of apparent political invincibility by the media. And Clark and her colleagues have, in recent times, started to believe their own press clippings.

Emboldened by a belief that they could change the rules at will, and break them with impunity, Clark and her colleagues have been cruising for a political bruising. Accommodating souls in the Police leadership and the Crown Law office have convinced Clark that she is bullet proof. And she has pushed her luck. On three separate fronts this week, the political chickens started coming home to roost.

The Field Affair or the Clark Affair

Twelve long months ago, the Ingram enquiry commenced into allegations involving former Labour Minister Taito Phillip Field. The report was to have taken nine days. A year later, and six weeks after the Ingram report was released, the Police have announced they will investigate. Field has been conveniently quarantined in the interim. Clark will rent his pivotal Parliamentary vote in return for a Parliamentary salary and privileges.

The Police enquiry will, in political or Parliamentary terms, tell us nothing. Sure, it will determine whether criminal charges should be faced. But even the shamefully flimsy Ingram report answered sufficient of the important questions to enable the Parliament, the public and, most important, Helen Clark, to draw the blindingly obvious conclusions. The fact that it has dragged on so long - that Clark refused to take appropriate action - has made this saga increasingly about the character of Helen Clark, not Taito Phillip Field.

What has become known as the Field Affair should much more aptly be referred to as the Clark Affair. The allegations against Field were always serious - that he accepted bribes or cheap labour in return for immigration assistance.

Yet someone decided that these allegations should be investigated, not by a retired judge with the powers of a commission of enquiry, but by a barrister with no powers to compel co-operation. Someone signed off on terms of reference that were woefully inadequate. And when it was clear that key witnesses needed legal advice and protection in order to talk, someone was responsible for that advice not being offered. When the report was finally delivered, many many months late, someone decided that no further action was required - that the Labour Government could just tough it out.

As the saga around Taito Phillip Field enters its second year, the public are entitled to hold someone to account for the brazen strategy of cover-up and tough-it-out that has brought the Parliament into such disrepute. That someone is Helen Elizabeth Clark.

Pledge Card Decision Still Haunts

As Helen Clark bundles Taito Phillip Field off on gardening leave, and Ministers seek refuge behind the commencing Police enquiry, her next political chicken prepares to head sqwarking back into the roost. The Auditor-General must, in the next few weeks, pronounce judgment on the unlawful use of Clark’s Parliamentary Leader’s budget to fund the $440,000 Labour Party campaign pledge card. The A-G has little room for manoeuvre.

A Crown Law opinion defines election expenses and Parliamentary expenditure with utmost clarity. Crown Law, you see, was not asked in this case to opine upon the merits of a particular case, as has occurred on the previous occasions in which members of the current government have been extended such leniency (the usual prima facie case but no further action scenario). In this case the A-G simply stated a range of factual possibilities, in a purely abstract way, and asked for the legal consequences to be outlined. As Clark and her underlings have run the expected strategy - muddy the waters, implicate others, etc - they have also relied on the "we have always done it this way" defence.

The pledge card, it has emerged, was unlawfully funded by the nation’s taxpayers in 1999 and 2002 as well. And the odd journalist has been moved to ask, why Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition did not, on those previous occasions, make a federal case (if we may be permitted to mix our constitutional forms) out of the practice.

The answer, of course, is that no one knew. Indeed, no one in their wildest dreams imagined that Clark and co. would use taxpayers’ funds for such a nakedly political purpose. And it would have stayed that way to this day had it not been for a simple, innocent enquiry. The former Chief Electoral Officer, David Henry, had come into possession of said pledge card. And a file note, dated 30 August 2005, tells us that he rang the General Secretary of the Labour Party Mike Smith, to point out the party’s failure to carry an authorisation on the card - a requirement of all publications and advertisements under S221 of the Electoral Act.

The note records that Mr Smith advised no such authorisation was required. The Labour Party hadn’t paid for the pledge card. It had been funded by the Parliamentary Leader’s budget. As had been the case in both 1999 and 2002 as well. For that dutiful enquiry, and the subsequent response, the nation’s horribly ripped-off taxpayers should be very grateful. Ripped off, they may remain. But at least they now know what the Labour Party has done to them.

Some Explaining to Do

The diligent Mr Henry did not leave matters there. On September 2nd he wrote to Mr Smith to leave him in no doubt: the pledge card, regardless of who paid for it, was an election expense. And he expected to see it recorded as such in the Labour Party’s official return. From that moment onwards, the Labour Party was on notice.

Any further campaign spending over the final fortnight of the campaign needed to be reassessed to ensure Labour remained below the allowable limit (just as Mr Clarkson was required to do in Tauranga, after a similar warning from Mr Henry). But this week copies of the official AC Neilsen data were released. In the fortnight following Mr Henry’s written warning, the Labour Party spent a further $1.8 million on advertising. $620,000 was spent on press advertising alone in the final fortnight - $416,000 of it in the last week.

All of which shows not just that they breached the campaign spending cap of S214B of the Electoral Act, but that they knew precisely what they were doing. And that, in the words of S214B is called a "corrupt practice."

Last Convictions Quashed

The week must have been capped off nicely for Helen Clark this Thursday with news that the last two remaining convictions against policemen who had carted the PM in her cross Canterbury speedathon, had been quashed in the High Court. The civilian driver had already won a similar victory. And Justice Priestley, this week, completed the clean sweep. All of which brings to a conclusion one of the most ignominious and unnecessary episodes in New Zealand legal history.

As longtime readers will know, Helen Clark (and any Minister of the Crown on official business) has the power, under the Transport Regulations, to authorise her driver to break the speed limit. Clark should have stood behind both her driver and the Police escort. A simple statement that she had authorised their actions would have seen them all off the hook. Instead, she left them hanging out to dry. But justice has finally been done. No thanks at all to the one person who could have saved everyone the trouble: Helen Clark.


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