Hard News by Russell Brown


There's a lot of it about

The failure of the Labour members of the privileges committee to find with the multi-party majority that Winston Peters had provided "false or misleading information on a return of pecuniary interests" was pathetic, and they know it.

They will presumably privately despair (and "despair" might be a polite way of putting it) at the judgement of a man who could have shut down the whole thing months ago at the cost of some minor personal embarrassment, but chose to bluff and bluster to his own destruction.

There was, doubtless, a political calculation involved. Although the committee's recommendation on punishment (short version: "go back and do your returns properly this time") will seem rather easy-going to any ordinary citizen who has faced, say, a tax audit, Peters' pride is such that he might well have gone nuclear had even the party he has helped keep in Parliament this year turned on him.

Better, then, for Labour to embrace the lesser embarrassment of heroically extending Peters benefit of the doubt -- while making it clear that he will not return as foreign minister in this Parliament -- than risking the more bloody spectacle of Peters lashing out at the government? Perhaps. I just know that I'm tired of it.

More specifically, I'm tired of political calculation masquerading as moral posturing, all round. John Key's recent renunciation of a future coalition deal with New Zealand First was, of course, a political calculation -- and potentially a fruitful one. But Key drained his stance of much of its moral weight this week by giving the appearance that his first instinct was to lie about a TranzRail shareholding that created a clear conflict of interest.

When even the New Zealand Herald editorial column frets thus about Key's conduct in an impromptu TV news interview on the matter …

Embarrassments such as these are not mere errors of political judgment, or presentational "gaffes". They are much more than "a bad look". There is no way to downplay the fact that when Mr Key was asked the question, his first instinct appeared to be to deny the truth.

You know it's bad. Under the memorable headline The contemptible behaviour of both Peters and Key, Gordon Campbell at Scoop observes:

For much of this year, Key has been hammering Peters and the Prime Minister on ethical grounds, for failing to disclose information where there was a clear obligation to the public for them to do so. Over the Tranzrail shares, Key would seem to have comprehensively failed to meet the standard that he has sought to impose on others. There’s a term for that sort of behaviour - it is called ‘hypocrisy.’

Yesterday, we got to the point of farce. Peters, who may well be stuck in the "anger" stage of the grieving process for his precious reputation for the foreseeable future, lashed out at the Maori Party for failing to stand by a fellow bro. The idea that the Maori Party's representative on the committee should make a decision based on some sort of racial solidarity is ludicrous enough, without even thinking about what sort of solidarity Peters has really shown to the Maori Party.

But it clearly stung Pita Sharples, who responded with this statement, which not only emphasised that he and Tariana Turia had contacted Peters on a personal level to offer support (he explained this morning that they had urged him to "hang tough" through the inquiry, which may account for Peters' feelings of betrayal) but included this passage:

"I personally had two separate phone calls from a senior Minister urging me to vote in favour of Winston, and suggesting that there would be unpleasant repercussions from Maori people if I didn’t. Both Tariana Turia and myself were disgusted with this kind of activity, aimed at perverting the course of justice and fair play."

"Perverting the course of justice," has a meaning, and I don't think what Sharples described matched that meaning at all, especially given that Parekura Horomia volunteered his own name to journalists and gave an account of the circumstances in which his conversations with Sharples took place. By this morning, Sharples was down to declaring that the conversations "didn't feel right" and Te Ururoa Flavell was refusing to name the New Zealand First official who he met with. Undue suasion appears to have extended no further than observations that Maori voters might not like what they'd seen.

Not everyone agreed, of course. Corruption! screamed David Farrar. I'm more inclined to go with Audrey Young's assessment:

Parties try to persuade each other to their viewpoints all the time, but Prime Minister Helen Clark expressed concern at any "politicisation" of the committee.

That would have made any lobbying by Labour hypocritical.

Quite. There seems to be a lot of that about lately.

In the week of financial crisis on foreign shores, and at a time when the parties should be making a real case for our votes, this affair is doing little for public confidence. It has done the odd reputation some good (step up Russel Norman) and damaged many more.

But if we're to persist, how about we go back to the roots?

I hold no brief for Peters, and I suspect there will be worse to come on his and his party's affairs. I think Chris Trotter's comparison of the privileges committee's action to a lynching (he even has a picture of a man being lynched on his blog) is revolting.

But senior journalists, including those with a direct view of proceedings, are privately saying this: that neither of the two newspapers that have made the running on the Peters donation scandal were actively investigating the story, and that its key elements were brought to them by someone who had gone so far as to hire a private investigator.

If someone wanted Peters to take a fall, as much as Peters might have deserved it, that is a story in itself. But who does that investigation?

**UPDATE:** Phil Kitchin has been in touch, and he says he's heard talk of a private investigator too -- but he's had nothing to do with one, and has been working on the story for about two years, since he was put onto it by Ralston at TVNZ. In that time he's spoken to at least 20 New Zealand First people and been as far afield as Australia. He says the Dom Post had to "rattle our dags" when Owen Glenn's donation become news, but the investigation was very much underway.


Meanwhile, video of the TVNZ 7 Internet Debate (including the second hour that didn't air on TV) is online in high-quality Windows Media form. Having been in it, I haven't seen it myself yet, but it felt pretty good. I think there's a lot in there. The only clunky moments came when the MPs indulged in politicking rather than talking about policy.

And this week's Media7 has Tracey Barnett, Therese Arseneau and Bernard Hickey talking about the US election campaign and its recent backdrop of financial crisis. It's a lively discussion, and there are two Newsmashes that traverse some of the wilder shores of the campaign.

The Windows media clips of the show are here, and the podcast is rockin here.

Unfortunately, the ondemand version is having a Fail moment (there are some major technical changes going on there) and the YouTube channel hasn't been updated yet.

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