Gordon Campbell | Parliament TV | Parliament Today | Video | Questions Of the Day | Search 29 September 2006 29 September 2006

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

Clark’s Problems Get Bigger

The problems for Helen Clark just keep getting bigger. Several months of Parliamentary bombardment over her attempted cover-up of the Taito Phillip Field affair saw her take welcome refuge in a Police enquiry that just weeks previously had drawn staunch resistance. Public reaction to her refusal to accept the Auditor-General’s finding that taxpayers’ cash was unlawfully taken to fund the Labour pledge card has been universally negative. Even her own supporters believe she should pay the money back. And now the Maori Party has revealed an attempted $250,000 bribe to secure their support for Labour in the current Parliament.

Opinion polls showing Labour support moving south prompted an orchestrated campaign of dirt-throwing in the final weeks of the Parliamentary session. While Clark subsequently moved to rebuke Mallard once the scale of negative public reaction became evident, the decision to get personal with Dr Brash was clearly sanctioned at the highest levels. Clark’s decision to call a halt to mud-slinging, and publicly rebuke Mallard seemed sensible. Her use, days later, of the word "cancerous" to describe Dr Brash was tasteless, ill-judged, and drew loud public condemnation.

In a week’s time, the House resumes. The Auditor-General’s final report on the pledge card will be due. Recent days have seen increasingly unsubtle attempts to heavy the A-G into watering down his conclusions.

First ACT, then the Greens, and now possibly NZ First are showing signs that they will join the "pay it back" movement. It appears that the A-G may be exercising leniency on the borderline expenditure items, thus reducing the amounts owed to manageable levels. But that won’t help Labour out of its pledge card predicament. As others reduce their bills to a manageable size, the number of votes available for retrospective validating legislation has become perilously tight.

Clark and Labour’s response to date has been to chant an accusation of "cash for policies". How very unfortunate that this week Maori Party co-leader should let slip a revelation that could yet have profound implications: that someone had offered her party $250,000 in a cash for coalition deal. Another major management headache to add to the already formidable list confronting Clark in the remaining weeks of the 2006 Parliament.

Cash for Coalition

There is one certainty around the cash for coalition revelations: Mrs Turia isn’t making it up. She asserts that her party was approached by an intermediary:

"He spoke to us twice asking if, in return for a sum of money, we would be prepared to give our vote to Labour."

The amount offered was $250,000. The prospective donor was someone who lived overseas, who had also donated money to the Labour Party. Well, there’s a lead or two to go on with. There can’t be too many people who have the means to write a cheque for $250,000, who also donate to the Labour Party, and who live overseas.

The allegations are at the very serious end of the range. It was always anticipated that the Maori Party would win enough seats to play a material role in the post-election coalition negotiations. Someone, we are now told, was prepared to pay $250,000 in order to subvert that process, and potentially buy office for the Labour Party.

Senior Labour officials now have some serious questions to answer. The notion that someone smart enough to have a spare $250,000 at their disposal would also be silly enough to give the money away without checking with the Labour Party, for example, that it would not cut across other discussions under way with the Maori party, is too fanciful for words. And Mrs Turia’s revelation that the prospective donor had also contributed to the Labour Party leaves a clear inference hanging that now requires comprehensive rebuttal.

"Authorised by Parliamentary Service"????????

The unfolding High Court proceedings against Clark and Labour MPs initiated by Libertarianz Party Leader Bernard Darnton show every sign of providing significantly more than mere nuisance value. Little is yet available from the Court file to shine further light on events. But this week some material did emerge that blows a massive hole in the story retailed thus far by Clark and her colleagues.

Helen Clark has always maintained that expenditure of taxpayers’ cash on Labour’s pledge card had been "authorised by Parliamentary Service". Time and time again she has rehearsed the "approved by Parliamentary Service" line in Parliament. If it was approved by the relevant authority, her logic goes, it can’t possibly be unlawful.

The documentation on the Court file so far is sketchy. But it paints a very different picture. It is true that officials of the Parliamentary Service did write the cheques to pay the pledge card bills. But it clear that they did so with a large bazooka pointed at their heads (and possibly other vital parts of their anatomy as well).

Clearly officials in the Parliamentary Service queried the pledge card invoices. Clearly there was some animated discussion between Prime Minister’s Office head Heather Simpson and those officials. On 17th of November 2005 the Head of the Prime Minister’s Office -arguably one of the most powerful officials in the land - wrote to the Parliamentary Service, in effect, to command them to pay the bills:

"The publications were created and issued in compliance with established procedures. To my knowledge, they comply with all applicable laws and procedures for such publications. That is entirely sufficient certification for your requirements. Kindly ensure that the payments are made without further delay."

So there! The invoices were clearly approved by Clark’s Prime Minister’s Office head, Heather Simpson, not, as she has asserted, by the Parliamentary Service. The desperate tone of her letter, and the fact that it was written two months after the election, speaks volumes of the arguments that must have preceded it. Officials who made the payments clearly regarded themselves as under orders. And clearly considered that refusal might result in future careers singing soprano in the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Another gigantic credibility gap to be explained when our Parliament resumes.

And Madam Speaker..?

Much of the inelegant heavying of the Auditor General in recent days has centred around the question of whether he reports on the pledge card wearing his Controller hat, as well as his A-G hat. Amongst the vast legions of taxpayer-funded lawyers and flunkies assembled to fight the case for the Labour Party, the distinction is important. At issue is whether the Controller and A-G, Kevin Brady, makes a report under the Public Finance Act, to the Responsible Minister - in this case Madam Speaker.

It is not the A-G, under the Public Finance Act, who decides whether the pledge card monies must be repaid (he merely decides whether to report a breach). That task falls to Madam Speaker as Minister responsible for the Parliamentary Service Vote. If Mr Brady, as Controller and Auditor-General, issues a report finding the pledge card expenditure unlawful, Speaker Wilson will be required to report to the House. She will need to state what she is doing to remedy any breach or, alternatively, why she believes no such breach occurred. And that, for Madam Speaker, could present certain complications.

If there had been serious concerns prior to the election about funding the pledge card from the Leader’s Office budget, (and given the interest of the Chief Electoral Officer that seems likely), then it stands to reason that the Speaker (as Chair of the Parliamentary Service Commission) must have been alerted. And if there was a dispute after the election about whether the Service was going to write the cheques, as we now know there was, then you would expect Madam Speaker to have been informed. All of which will make for some interesting explaining, depending on the process ultimately chosen by the A-G to make his final report.

Supreme Court Costs Skyrocket

Waiting for a hip replacement, cataract operation, or similar minor surgery? Wondering just why it is that our Government cannot find the cash to meet your legitimate health needs? Well, the answer, in part, at least, is that the Minister of Courts, Rick Barker, has been pouring it down a large black hole called the Supreme Court.

Back in 2003 the unsuspecting public was told that a new Supreme Court building would cost the nation $19 million. That seemed extravagant enough. Especially when its task was to replace a Privy Council process that cost taxpayers very little.

By May 2006 the projected cost of the new Supreme Court building had risen to $53.4 million. And last week we were told the latest estimate is $65.1 million.

All of this to house a Supreme Court that has issued just 28 substantive judgements since 2004. Somebody has clearly lost the plot here.


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