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Q+A: Prime Minister Bill English interviewed by Corin Dann

Q+A: Prime Minister Bill English interviewed by Corin Dann

Prime Minister still “unclear” of Todd Barclay employment dispute details

Prime Minister Bill English says he is still unclear of exactly what happened between Todd Barclay and the staff member who took an employment dispute against him.

Speaking in a pre-recorded interview this morning on TVNZ 1’s Q+A, Mr English told Political Editor Corin Dann the dispute, which saw Mr Barclay stand down this week, was “messy” and “difficult”.

“The context for this was a complicated employment dispute, personality differences that had been bubbling away for some time. No one's quite sure yet what happened. I don't know what actually happened. I only know what I was told,” he said.

Mr English also said he’d played no role in the actual settlement process involving the staff member and that the allegation of a cover-up was “ridiculous.”

“The police conducted a 10-month investigation into this and did not lay charges. And even if they had, it's up to a court, not the media, to determine whether a criminal offence occurred,” he said.

The National Party is holding its election year congress in Wellington this weekend.


Please find attached the full transcript of the interview and here’s the Link:
Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TVNZ 1 and one hour later on TVNZ 1 + 1.
Repeated Sunday evening at around 11:35pm. Streamed live at www.tvnz.co.nz
Thanks to the support from NZ On Air.

Q + A
Episode 16
Interviewed by Corin Dann

CORIN Political editor Corin Dann ended up interviewing him Friday evening and asked, 'What was going through your head when you were first asked about Todd Barclay?'

BILL Oh look, this has been going on for a long time. There's all sorts of things that happened. I hadn't seen, you know the scope, the full scope of whatever the media were publishing.

CORIN When you came down at 10 to 10, the traditional caucus run that we have on Tuesday morning, you knew there was going to be a lot of media there. Did you come down thinking that you would actually tell the truth and give people the full story?

BILL Well, I came down and answered the questions I was asked with what I thought at the time.

CORIN Had it crossed your mind, though, that this was maybe the time you needed to tell everybody what had actually happened?

BILL Well, look a lot of what had actually happened had been in the media over a period of 12 to 15 months, so from my view, there was nothing particularly new about what was being said.

CORIN But from the public's point of view, there was.

BILL And on the matters of real public interest, which was my statement to the police went, and after those interviews on Tuesday morning, went and looked at the police statement and clarified what I'd said.

CORIN But why didn't you tell us on Tuesday morning when I think I asked you was it Todd Barclay that told you? What went through your mind?

BILL I said what was in my mind at the time. Then I went to check the police statement and clarified what I'd said to the police, released the statement as soon as I could.

CORIN And are you seriously telling New Zealanders that you could not recall that it was Todd Barclay who told you about the tapes?

BILL Well at the time, it's what I said. All sorts of people had said all sorts of things. I went and …

CORIN Had anybody else told you about the tapes?

BILL Well you have to remember everyone's looking at these events in hindsight. They had over a long period of time — in fact over, for over 12 months — allegations had gone backwards and forwards. There'd been intensive discussion.

CORIN But had anyone else, apart from Todd Barclay, told you about the tapes?

BILL People were talking about it all the time. It was the background to the candidate selection and a whole lot of rumour in the electorate.

CORIN But you couldn't recall that Todd Barclay had told you, and you had told that information to the police in person?

BILL Well, I knew that I had been questioned by the police. I went and got the police statement, which I had not looked at for a long time, and said, when it was clear what I had said there, then I clarified the matter publicly.

CORIN Do you regret not telling us at that point in the morning the full story?

BILL Well I couldn't be more definitive than I was. I’ve gone, went and clarified it from the police statement. I mean, this is a matter that had been subject to an employment dispute confidentiality agreement, which I wasn't party to.

CORIN You could have been a lot more clearer. You could have told us what you must have known.

BILL Well the way that the media works and the intent, I suppose, of the publication of the story was the element of surprise.

CORIN But this is the point I'm coming to from the beginning. You had a few hours. You had two or three hours to jog your memory if there was any doubt about your recollections. So isn't it in the minds of, I think, most reasonable New Zealanders, not credible for you to suggest you couldn't recall who it was?

BILL Look, people will make up their minds about credibility. I'd said what I thought. I went and sorted the issue as quickly as possible by checking what had been said, made that clear. Then, of course, we had to move on to actually dealing with the issue as it unfolded. I mean, my job as the Prime Minister is to deal with what was a sad, bitter employment dispute, to the extent it had an effect on government, and get it dealt with so we can get on with the business of governing.

CORIN Sure, and I think people understand that. But what we're talking about is your credibility and you telling the truth. And I wonder, do you think politicians now just don't have to tell the truth?

BILL No. I think the standards of what's required are much higher than they used to be, because of social media, because essentially you're always on live video.

CORIN Do you believe politicians should always have to tell the truth?

BILL I think they should as much as is absolutely possible.

CORIN And is this a case where it wasn't possible for you?

BILL No. I'm not saying that at all. I said what was in my mind at the time. I took the responsible position of going and checking what had actually happened, what I had actually said, and then I clarified that.

CORIN Andrew Little was asked this week if he had lied as a politician, and he said yes. What about you? Have you lied as a politician?
BILL I don't recall setting out to deliberately mislead people, if that's what you mean.

CORIN In the response to this saga, you did launch, I guess, a defence of your credibility, claims of a cover-up against you, by saying that you had reported the matter to the electorate chair, that you had reported the matter to police. Is that correct?

BILL When I said I reported it, that, of course, wasn't technically correct, and I'm quite happy to be corrected on that. I responded to questions from the police. But the allegation of cover-up is ridiculous. There is no higher standard than a criminal investigation. And any role I had or any role Todd Barclay or anyone else had was dealt with by the New Zealand police.

CORIN But the semantics are important, Prime Minister, because you stood up in the house to defend yourself against the allegations of a cover-up by saying, 'No, no. I reported this to police, and I reported it to the electorate chair.' But in fact, you were prompted by the electorate chair in the text for a response, and the police came to you. And that's quite different. Those semantics matter.

BILL Well as I said, with respect to the police, I replied to a statement, and we corrected that, corrected the use of the word 'reported'. Bear in mind, everyone's been operating in the last few days on the idea that there was some certainty of a criminal act. That has never been established. The process in New Zealand is you're innocent until proven guilty. The police conducted a 10-month investigation into this and did not lay charges. And even if they had, it's up to a court, not the media, to determine whether a criminal offence occurred.

CORIN Yeah, because you said yesterday, ‘While there's an understanding that there was a potential offence, at the time that was not the case.’ Do you stand by that?

BILL Yes, I do. We're not all lawyers or walking around with lawyers on our shoulders. The context for this was a complicated employment dispute, personality differences that had been bubbling away for some time. No one's quite sure yet what happened. I don't know what actually happened. I only know what I was told.

CORIN If I could stop you there, Prime Minister. How does that square with the text you sent in February last year that says, The settlement was larger than normal because of the privacy breach, and it had to be part-paid from the Prime Minister's budget to avoid potential legal action.' So, clearly, at that point there was some thinking that this was a legal matter.

BILL It wasn't my thinking.

CORIN That was your text.

BILL Yes, it was, but I was no party to the dispute. People forget that. I was the former MP, as a Minister of Finance, not dealing with staffing issues. They were no longer my staff.

CORIN But you must have known that the money was coming from the Prime Minister's budget to help pay for it.

BILL Well I'd been told that, and that's what was in the text. I mean, the point about all this is that the employees have rights; the employers have obligations. The relevant people were dealing with it. Any suggestion of a cover-up is ridiculous because all those matters that might have been involved—

CORIN But you're trying to downplay the significance of the event at the time, saying it was unclear about whether there was a potential offence. But at the same time, your text is quite clearly saying you were so worried about potential legal action you increased the amount paid of taxpayers’ money.

BILL No, I absolutely disagree with that. I was no part of the settlement of the dispute as you're trying to imply. I was no party to it.

CORIN I don't mean to imply that.

BILL You did, and I was no party to it. Whatever happened there was a matter of the legal advisers and whoever negotiated the settlement.

CORIN I don't mean to imply that, Prime Minister. I apologise for that. What I'm trying to get to is how significant and how serious you thought it was at the time because there is an issue about if it was that serious at the time, whether you should have done more about it.

BILL Well, I had no role in a confidential employment agreement between an employer and employee, of which I was neither. So I could not be held responsible for actions taken when I wasn't the employer; I wasn't the local MP; I did not employ the staff; and it was dealt with legally quite separately, as it should have been. I was simply an observer of the process, who used to be the MP. in any case, it didn't really become clear there may be an offence involved until there was a police complaint, and the police appeared to take that seriously. then they came and questioned me, as I am sure, I presume they questioned other people, and they investigated the matter. so whatever seriousness was there, the police took that up and started to deal with it.

CORIN Did you tell prime minister John Key at the time about it?

BILL Well, he would have been dealing with it through his staff because ultimately the responsibility goes through parliamentary services.

CORIN Did you talk to him about it?

BILL We had some brief discussions, but again, I didn't have a, any formal role in it. I knew the people, though, and that's the involvement here.

CORIN So let's flip this around. If you were prime minster and your deputy prime minister came to you and said, 'there's this potential issue here with allegations of 'secret recordings,' as prime minister, wouldn't you take some action?

BILL Well, that was dealt with in the context of an employment dispute. Again, the prime minister's not the employer. Parliamentary services is the employer.

CORIN Yeah, but it's one of his MPs who's continuing to deny allegations in the media, going for reselection. Yet, a matter which has now cost him his job, nothing was done about it at the time.

BILL Well, a prime minister can't sack an MP. An MP is there because their constituents vote for them. Prime minister can sack a minister.

CORIN Prime ministers can use the media. They can use all sorts of mechanisms in order to express their displeasure about someone's behaviour.

BILL Well, there's always behaviour of politicians about which any prime minister may have views or not have views. Bear in mind, in this case, that there was no particular clarity about what might or might not have happened. It was seen, at the time, for what it was and is, and that is an employment dispute of which was not unique. They happen. There's thousands of people involved in politics, and sometimes those people fall out, and this happens to be a particular intense and sad dispute, because I know the people involved. And now it’s, Todd Barclay’s made a decision to leave politics, and let's hope that's going to work well for him, because it was a brave decision.

CORIN Are you disappointed that this may have damaged your reputation? You've built a reputation as an honest broker, as a straight-up politician, and yet now there are people calling you a liar.

BILL Well, look, people will make up their own mind about that. I’m disappointed that it happened at all, not because of the effect on me, but because of the effect —

CORIN But are you disappointed with your behaviour in this particular episode?

BILL No, I think I dealt with it, knowing the complexity and intensity of the situation about as well as you could, knowing that this is a messy, difficult dispute that went on for a long time, and it would have been much better—

CORIN Your conscience is clear?

BILL Yes, it is. It would have been much better if it had been resolved earlier in the way that these things usually resolve rather than in this very high-profile and difficult manner.

CORIN All right, if we look ahead now to your conference and to the next three months, do you think you can win this election on your past record?

BILL You've got to put a case for the future. I got no doubt about that. New Zealand’s done well, but this election's all about the opportunity to do better.

CORIN What is that case? What does it mean in terms of people's back pockets?

BILL Well, the budget package around family incomes is a very good start and a challenge which will come into practice on the 1st of April.

CORIN Does that give people a sense of hope in their future?

BILL I think it helps. Look, there's a lot of confidence out there now. An economy creating 10,000 jobs a month, which is probably a peak, but it's pretty impressive. More people than ever in work. That is hope and aspiration.

CORIN But they're not earning enough, are they? Is the system broken to such a point where wages aren't rising enough that you need to step in? I mean, the reserve bank of Australia is making these sorts of noises that people need to demand more in terms of wage rises. Is it time for the government to send the message to business in New Zealand that they need to pay more?

BILL Look, I think that our businesses and our employees have very realistic and effective
views about what they should get paid and how they work that out, and that's up to them to do that.

CORIN Prime minister Bill English, I’m going to leave it there. Thank you very much for your time.

BILL Thank you.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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