Donna Awatere Huata is nothing if not indefatigable. As constitutional experts line up to declare shock and awe at what has been expressed in the traditionally modest language of an Auditor-General's report, the exiled Act MP still insists she has been cleared.
The sudden circus has been enhanced by the fact that the post-stomach-stapled Awatere Huata now presents like an Extreme Makeover contestant. Sort of Twiggy in trouble - or perhaps Yoko Ono on speed.
What has been found is that her relentless lobbying of government agencies procured nearly $2 million in funding for groups with which she was linked.
As Act continues its desperate bid to cut her loose, other parties are doing their best to assure everyone that they had nothing to do with it. A notably forthcoming Trevor Mallard is blaming the last National government, which is in turn pointing out that Labour has had four years in government to put it right.
They're both right to an extent, but the fact is that the seeds of inappropriateness were very much planted in 1999 and before. As the Dom Post's story says:
It found that the Education Ministry was hamstrung in its initial negotiations with Mrs Huata because the last (National) government approved funding for her four-minute reading programme without seeking official advice and without negotiating what would be provided in return for its $253,000 grant. However, it criticised the ministry for not keeping detailed track of how money was spent and letting the scheme be tried in schools that did not meet agreed criteria.
The New Zealand Herald story expands on the theme:
One of the main projects involved a four-minute reading programme backed by the Ministry of Education, but funded through a trust which Mrs Awatere Huata was linked to, and which her husband chaired.
The Audit Office report shows how former Maori Affairs Minister Tau Henare, then a Mauri Pacific MP, and former National Treasurer Bill Birch were instrumental in the $253,000 programme being approved without any public contesting for the contract.
This tends to tally with the general feeling of a failure of good governance which helped shift National from the Treasury benches in 1999 - and, of course, came crashing into the election campaign at the last moment in the form of a scandal which saw the then Immigration Minister, Tuariki Delamere, dismissed after bending the rules to accommodate an investment scheme in which Awatere Huata's husband Wi was a key player.
The story became a severe embarrassment to Act leader Richard Prebble, who thunderously denounced Delamere only to discover that Awatere Huata had been lobbying Delamere to clear the scheme on her husband's behalf.
Act, as it has since, weighed in with papers and promises to investigate, but Prebble declared his wayward MP to be in the clear because she had not been "directly lobbying" for the scheme, just checking on its progress. The behaviour might better have been addressed in depth then.
But, then - just as other parties' MPs get caught driving drunk or something - Act does have terribly bad luck with this sort of thing. There was the bizarre and unsatisfactorily resolved business of Owen Jennings hosting a pitch for a pyramid scheme in his taxpayer-funded Parliamentary office. And, of course, Rodney Hide's paid appearance at a seminar for a scam investment scheme in which his fellow New Zealanders were fleeced of $10 million.
The enduring impact of the Donna debacle, it is clear, will be a further tightening up of practices. Which is, in a way, the shame of it. Process and contestability add overhead to everything that private agencies and trusts try to do. She has made it harder for everyone else.
Now, to yesterday's scary pine tree story in the Herald. NZPA's Kent Atkinson wrote a story unraveling the Herald's beat-up which was delivered to newspapers yesterday afternoon. But, amazingly, it doesn't seem to have been used either by the Herald or the Dominion Post - or anyone that I can find.
I have a copy, but of course I can't use the whole thing here. So this is the guts: the allegation by former Forest Research scientist, Dale Smith has been investigated three times before, and will now be investigated again. Smith claims a biosecurity breach involving pinus taeda embryos sourced from a lab at Princeton University.
There is no visible evidence that the pinus taeda tissue was contaminated with the pine pitch canker fungus (which is nasty), just, it seems, the observation that Princeton's lab is located near a part of the US where pine canker is endemic. The embryos were grown in sterile culture at the lab and underwent a phytosanitary check on entry to New Zealand. Given the form in which the plant tissue arrived, it seems unlikely that the fungus would not have grown quickly and prominently had it been present.
Dr Smith insists that the pinus taeda was grown in the same greenhouse as some locally-developed GM pine seedlings (which is where the GM angle comes in - otherwise you could take the GM out of the story and it would be exactly the same). If they were, they don't appear to have been there at the same time. Forest Research's Dr Tom Richardson says the taeda plants, grown under a short-term research contract for an overseas client, "were in and out of our facility long before the GE material was being worked through." If someone knows different, they should get on and say so. Biosecurity is vital to our economic future, and I'm happy to see the allegation investigated for a fourth time. You can't be too careful and all that. In the meantime, I can't help but wonder about hysteria.
That didn't stop a number of Hard News correspondents yesterday confidently declaring the story as an indictment of "the risky GE pine field trials" and another "little scandal". I'm happy to hear debate about this issue, and I have a good deal of respect for sensible advocates on either side. But some anti-GM people, as has been the case all along, are some of the most angry and intolerant correspondents I have ever had. One advised me thus yesterday:
Do yourself a favour and stop riling the large percentage of your reader base with your shameless GE defending.
Well, if shameless means "without shame", I guess so. But for the millionth time, I resent being pushed into any kind of advocacy stance. I'm just trying to interpret it as I see it, and sometimes I do see things that bring out my contrarian side.
The idea that I should trim my thoughts to avoid "riling" people is repugnant. I see a deficit in the debate and I look to fill it; it's sort of what I do here. I don't even claim to be right, but I am unnerved by a developing GM absolutism that wasn't there even two years ago. Anyway, over. Please don't email me to tell me what I am or accuse me of saying things I didn't say. Thank you.
Onto less controversial technologies: to wit, the Big Mac - a supercomputer made of 1100 dual-processor Power Mac G5s which is poised to leap into third place on the Top 500 list of the world's fastest computers. The Slashdot discussion was excellent - skim through the Score:5 posts for an interesting argument about discounts, supercomputers and processor design. Well, I found it interesting …
And don't forget, footy fans, that Jeremy Newsboy, Damian Christie on myself will be presenting the 95bFM alternative commentary on tomorrow night's Rugby World Cup quarter-final between New Zealand and South Africa. We'll have phone-outs to Finlay Macdonald and Dion Nash, and half-time entertainment from Downtown Brown. The programme begins at 8pm and kick-off is at 8.30pm (note that I briefly had the wrong time listed earlier this week - 8.30 it is). You can pick it up in Auckland on 95FM, or over the Internet on the 95bFM streams via servers at Xtra and Ihug. I just hope that we'll see a result that'll have us back next week …