Friday, September 08, 2006

Political decadence...

I have written several times on the actions and attitudes developed by politicians in their frantic quest for and to retain power.

It is a universal, so trying to select individual instances to prove the point are meaningless; Blair in the UK, Bush and the Republicans in the US, Howard in Australia, Ortega in Nicaragua, and Clark and Brash in NZ.

I fringed around the debates that came out of the last US Presidential elections and the “Swift boat files” in particular, but wrote fairly extensively on the parallel here with the Exclusive Bretheren (despite their religious prohibition on voting) spending a fairly considerable sum in supporting the National Party campaign.

The “Rules” relating to the funding of electoral campaigns in this country are quite extensive, are “agreed” between the political parties rather than being directly imposed, and have always led to vigourous debate post-election.

But there has never been anything quite like this last election.

There are essentially two opposing arguments with sotto twitterings from the piccolos backstage.

The accusations of “illegality” centering on the Exclusive Bretheren in support of the National Party are likely paralleled by other like minded organizations. Everyone knows who they are; the amounts contributed are comparatively small; the electoral support given is considerable. Primary instance – much less visible these past two elections it must be said – is the Business Round Table. This think-tank was very active in supporting the Nats, not in monetary terms but in media visibility and open statements. As I said, there are other like-minded organizations.

On the other side of the House, the strategists helping Auntie Helen and her mob have made a definite and very serious blunder.

Every political party with representatives in the House is paid from taxpayer funds for Members Allowances and a separate grant for operation of their individual Parliamentary offices. The accusation against Labour is that “they misappropriated $400,000 of taxpayers funds” for electoral purposes. The rationale behind this is fairly complex, but I must say at this point that Labour do appear to have got it very wrong.

First, the party that is “the government” is permitted to use taxpayer funds to “explain and publicise government policy”.

Second, the application of that is clouded by constraints upon “the use of Parliamentary funds for electioneering”. This constraint operates particularly in the six months prior to an election.

The subjectivity of that is the continuing business of government right up to the election, and the distinction of government “business” from “electioneering”. There were volcanic rumblings of this in the run-up to the elections, with Ministers making the usual patsy photo-ops that they are reknowned for...

Third, and this is the heart of their blunder, Labour issued a “Pledge Card” under the first point, it was printed and all outside the six months barrier, but it was delivered to households/taxpayers/voters inside the six month limit.

Fourth, and Auntie Helen can blame no one but herself for this, the Labour Government has been denying the “illegality” accusations and trying to avoid by every and any means, any debate on the matter preferring the old tried and true “Let’s just change the Rules retrospectively, and move on” trick. As a government, Labour is not alone in that. It has been the standard practice for many elections past; and will probably continue as a practice well into the future.

Now to pick up on “supporting cast” matters, Labour has always had the labour unions behind it – as one might expect – and the actions of those groups are in much the same vein as those supporting National. As a shade of difference Labour has always acknowledged the existence of that support and has been scrupulous in revealing the extent of the monetary donations from unions to the Party.

And that, conveniently, leads us to the next level of election campaign funding. A very large part of the funding for National, less so in Labour, and probably for the minor parties as well comes through “trusts”. These are not accepted as charitable trusts – no way are they that. They are a legal “filter” to protect those making large donations. They are the serious fund-raisers.

Legally, all donations in excess of (I think) $1000 must be declared by the recipient party. So, heading the list for Labour would be the unions, generous individuals and several “Trusts”. Same applies to National, though without the union support. The rationale behind the law is obviously to try and limit the possibilities of bribery, treating and corruption. If H makes a substantial contribution to B’s election funds and subsequently is awarded very valuable government contracts… join the dots.

The question being raised – and it is a very valid one – is this. What is the source(s) of the donation from ‘A Trust’? Who might there be included as an undisclosed donor expecting a substantial future return upon a substantial current investment?

But it is not just the parties. The individual candidates also have their “budgets” and their “limit”. The accounting for that gets mighty fine as one might imagine. A candidate who has a leaflet printed and delivered is expected to account for the total cost. No problem with the printing cost, unless of course the printer is a mate and does it as a favour. No cost of course, but a donation received “in kind”. Or is it? It can be as detailed and tedious as “If I have kept the timber from the advertising hoardings from the previous elections, does that cost count for the current elections as well?”

There is a funny side to all of this. There are some ridiculous situations that arise from time to time. Such as the Nats this time round “misinterpreting” one small part of the election campaign cost law. It involves the liability for GST which if not properly returned results in an illegality (tax law). However, if they do correctly return the tax, they will breach the electioneering law. Is that Catch 22 again or is it?

There is a secondary raruraru going on at the same time which has its impact in this area of election funding. It began completely outside of the election and any thoughts of illegal or corrupt election spending. It centres on Taito Phillip Field - Associate Minister of Immigration, his desire to help people (which let's face it is an important part of any politician's job, a Thai tiler, and a series of houses in South Auckland and Samoa. Another instance of political stupidity as much as anything. Even the Nats agree, "He probably did nothing wrong. But it is the appearance of the dealings that creates the doubt."

The Maori have a traditional practice of koha; for the Samoans it is lafo. They differ somewhat in the detail so my explanation relates to koha only as I have some (small) knowledge of it. If I were to give an entirely independent example, it would be the Japanese practice of giving of gifts when meeting someone for the first time or at an auspicious event. Koha can be a straight donation, the value based upon the donor’s regard for the person, the group represented, or what they represent. Koha can be given in expectation, as well as payment. It can be used to create an obligation, or to repay an existing one. So, for example, if I take a couple of fish and give them to my neighbour I might have no direct expectation of any return, it is a gift. To my neighbour it is koha, accepted with respect and with the knowledge that my gift may have created a small obligation in accordance with my mana and the size of the gift. Is this sounding familiar? It is important to note that koha is opportunistic as well. My two fish may have been given to that particular neighbour because he mowed my lawn one weekend while I was away on holiday; that might have been two years back, but having the fish creates the opportunity to repay. There should be no expectation of return in the giving.

So, a Maori candidate might attend a hui, during the course of which several people come up to him and give him (small) amounts of money, tuck it into his pocket…. That is koha – because they want to support him, they wish him well, they support the party he represents. Most candidates are scrupulously honest and return the koha as donations. There is little doubt that is the correct thing to do. But as Taito Phillip Field is finding out, koha (in his case lafo) can be very tricky. It is not always a public matter. The secrecy is for anonymity rather than for ulterior motive. It can be very public, especially when the size of donation is directly connected to personal mana. But when accepted in circumstances that might imply some secrecy then it can give totally the wrong impression to an accidental observer.

I must say that in general the traditional practices (not in just this limited area) have adapted very well to the operation of NZ (English) law.

There is one thing certain in all of this. Once again Auntie Helen has one hell of a lot of ‘splainin’ to do. Her public credibility as an effective and honest leader is shrinking fast. It is not just Taito Phillip Field… add in Tennis-ball Benson Pope, a Minister of Justice caught with the very common practice of short-cutting the law on declarations (not as Minister but in private life before becoming a politico), John Tamihere, there are quite a few including “Arty-gate” and the signing of art works by Auntie herself… Auntie has not handled any of this well. She has ignored (denial doesn’t get a look in) the obvious. She has excused the suspicious. It is getting to the stage where some people are looking at events – such as Appeal Court decisions – and wondering at the coincidences that might be involved.

Caesar’s wife… ahhh what a beauty she was! As chaste as a new-born babe. As honest as the new day!!


Let us also be clear about another form of “election buying”. The next round that we will see here in NZ is with the next local government elections. Some of the groundwork is already being laid with the recent “100% increases in rates” experienced by some ratepayers.

Obviously there is going to be fertile ground there for those local reptilesentatives who promote themselves for “lower rates” and “separate city” and all of the other little hobbyhorses that suddenly explode out of the nursery walls like a baby Hitchcockian nightmare.

I have worked in the fringes of this kind of movement about 30 years back Spent my time planning “strategies”, “campaign progressions”, and all of the other paraphernalia associated with floating a political idea. About the only thing I leart was that none of the leading lights were interested in fact or logic. Only the outcome mattered. That outcome had nothing to do with the community, or the cause being promoted. They were only the vehicle for keeping the leader in the public light, as active and proactive, and in power.

On the national scale, we have the new perennial of tax cuts. It really is laughable – that people will be bribed by their own money.

Let’s be honest here. I earn quite a margin over the average wage. I think the statistics put me in the income 8th decile. How much would I have gained if National had won the Treasury benches and Jonkey had put his tax cuts in place? About a 5% increase in take home pay – about $175 per month. The guys downstairs on the lines? About 2% - or roughly $10 per week. The CEO? Well he would pocket a measly increase of only 8%, perhaps as much as 10%.Something over $1000 per month.

Let’s talk health insurance for a moment. My personal policy was costing me about $1600 per year; I am now provided with health cover by my employer for which I will remain grateful for the time being. If I were to leave this job, my health insurance premiums would now be around $2300 p.a. And that was one of the Nats primary targets for “privatization” – our health system.

That folks, is what tax cuts are all about.

That is vote buying at its worst.

This will be the last term of this Labour government. There is now quiet debate on their ability to see out the full term. There are deep political stirrings with the minor coalition partners already seeking to create brand difference to limit the fallout damage should the worst happen to Labour.

This will be the last Labour government until the Nats start getting too big for their boots, too arrogant to listen, too close to the margins that we the voters will accept; then perhaps we will welcome back the new blood.


Final note –

I just love Jam Hipkin’s - “reptilesentatives”

Oooo!! Yes! Fits the bill very nicely. Thanks Jim.



This should warm the cockles of the Old Whig's heart.

High profile Auckland QC Tony Molloy is spearheading a legal claim against Prime Minister Helen Clark and 50 Labour Party MPs over the alleged unlawful pledge card spending.

Molloy, who represented boxer David Tua in his battle against former managers and was an adviser in the Winebox inquiry, is perhaps best known for taking on one of New Zealand's most powerful law firms, Russell McVeagh, over its role in failed bloodstock ventures.

Molloy is now representing Libertarianz leader Bernard Darnton in the pledge card case, which was filed in June and names the MPs as first respondents and the Parliamentary Service second. Labour spent $446,000 on the pledge card and accompanying brochure before the 2005 election.

Molloy is seeking a court declaration that the spending was wrong but said it was not his role to dictate whether a win would force Labour to pay the money back

More interesting to most is that it shows how the political process can run. Updates as they come to hand...

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