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Marc My Words: Itches for public office, in palms

Marc My Words… 1 September 2006
Political comment
Marc Alexander

An itch for public office often settles in the palm of the hand

It's pretty clear no-one needs to lead Taito Phillip Field into temptation. He can do that all by himself. His position as an MP is untenable. Allegations include falsifying a Samoan birth certificate, accepting payments that augment his $130,000 MP's salary package for immigration favours, misleading the Ingram inquiry, threatening witnesses, and making false representations to a minister of the crown. As Richard Harman expressed it so well in the Press (31/8/06)," when Taito Phillip Field helped a man out of financial trouble by buying his house, and then turned round and sold it for a massive profit, he was only helping himself."

But that's not all folks.

His former Electorate agent has made a number of disturbing claims: that he took money from those seeking help (for which receipts were not issued), including on one occasion a $100 bill being hidden under papers. It was also alleged that a staffer was under instruction to return half her parliamentary service income to Field's wife. Furthermore it seemed Field's testimony to the Ingram Inquiry regarding whether he told immigrant seeker Siriwan he had work for him in Samoa was seemingly contradicted by what he said in a TV interview last September about him "working on our project".

Nobody can accuse Field of being less than enterprising. He evidently had such a work ethic that a former Labour Party officer stated that many of Field's own constituents couldn't get in to see him because he was so busy with immigration matters for people outside his electorate.

The political damage to Helen Clark and her authority is incalculable. Whatever she does now will look like a game of catch-up and spin. She has lost the moral high ground. Her integrity is shot to hell because it never looked like she wanted to deal with the issue head on. The media has quite properly focussed on the facts and seen through her attempts at spin. Restricting the scope of the inquiry in an attempt to yield a safer outcome for her was certainly a politically expedient approach. It looked like she wanted to bury the truth and minimise the damage to her credibility. She failed. The taint on her administration's inscrutability won't go away. It is no longer in her hands but the police. Whatever she does now can only be seen as an attempt to save her own bacon.

For those in the Labour caucus with higher ethical standards, this sorry episode will be too much to bear. It will tear at the once unanimous support behind the Helen Clark/Heather Simpson hegemony. It should spur the more honourable members within to rally the troops for a new direction under a new leader. We can only wonder at the guest list of the next Phil Goff barbeque. Who will clink Pinot Gris with Maharey? And who will eat meat pies and sausage rolls with Mallard?

As for Field, he won't quit Parliament. He has nowhere else to go. Labour won't be able to entice him with a Union job (they aren't that stupid); a chairmanship of some government commission; or provide him with a diplomatic post (Winston's already got that covered and coveted). Those options would simply indicate that while they Labour don't want him in their caucus they still have a degree of unwarranted confidence in him. And they don't. What choice then?

Field wants to hang on till 2008. He has called Helen Clark's bluff to disappear by saying he won't, signalling to one and all that her authority over the party is waning. Nevertheless he won't want to be banished into the Siberia of the back bench for potentially two more years. He could start a Pacific Island party. Why not? Until the next election he could delude himself into thinking he was a Party leader (just like Anderton), puff himself up and be a continuing thorn in the side of Labour. At a time when Labour stands accused of having its nose in the trough over the election overspend, the Taito Phillip Field affair is the last thing Labour wants to deal with on their way to an election defeat.

Still, we shouldn't be surprised. Field has learnt from his master well. Helen Clark has been the perfect role model for splitting hairs and making distinctions between the unethical and the legally defensible. She has operated on the premise that if you want to avoid a lie then force people not to ask the right question. Hence the spectacularly narrow terms of reference given the Ingram report. Helen Clark is highly adept at the art of 'dancing' on the ethical fringes. Signing paintings that she didn't paint wasn't a lie - it was terminological in-exactitude! Similarly with the speeding car incident. It was a masterful gift-wrapping of the facts to blame the cops.

The Commissioner of Police has now decided to commence an investigation into all the allegations against Taito Phillip Field. Finally we may get some believable answers. The investigation will include looking at allegations raised over the weekend on Television New Zealand's Sunday programme.

This decision is important because it's a massive vote of no confidence in the Ingram report, its terms of reference, and Helen Clark's defense of the report over the past six weeks. It will also drag on, further demoralizing the Labour caucus, and rubbing their noses in a very public inquiry of moral bankruptcy. Field is effectively on holiday now at full pay. If he is ultimately found guilty then he should at least be made to payback his salary. Taxpayers should expect more from their employees.

All the same, Labour should be geared up for such things. After all, they've had so much practice at dealing with their own questionable ethics. Not only Clark's high speed dash, painter gate, or the legal proceedings against her by Libertarianz leader Bernard Darnton for misappropriating public funds, but also Parker who thought he did something wrong but legally didn't; Benson-Pope, found by police to have a Prima Facie case of assault on a pupil; Tamahere and the Waipareira Trust; Peck who pranged his car; Duynhoven with retrospective legislation dealing with his citizenship problems; Dover Samuels with allegations involving an under-age girl; Dyson's conviction for drunk driving; and the perennially happy Marian Hobbs who was alleged to have incorrectly claimed accommodation allowances. While some were cleared of the allegations it's hard to avoid the conclusion that at the very least the Labour lot are bloody careless.

I'd be surprised if Labour didn't have a support group within caucus for the ethically challenged and legally doubtful. What really gets up my nose is that a government that wants to tell us how to live and behave doesn't have standards of their own their willing to keep.


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