Hard News by Russell Brown


Student politics, as we all know, is a strange business. But it got more curious this week with the election, by a margin of a couple of hundred votes, of Greg Langton as president of the Auckland University Students Association.

Langton is northern regional chair of the Young Nationals, and a member of the university's Evangelical Union. Neither of these facts ought to stand in the way of his election to the student office. But an email sent out on a Young Nats mailing list says that Langton's campaign was receiving financial assistance from the Maxim Insitute.

Craccum magazine tried to follow up the story this week, but got a no-comment from Maxim. Langton, who ran on a platform of "students not politics", has denied the assistance but it appears that there's a little more clarification required yet.

AUSA rules presently forbid candidates from spending more than $200 of their own money on campaigns - an impratically small amount in the modern world - and some students are claiming that Langton's swish campaign DVD could not have been produced for such a sum. Langton says it really was a shoestring job.

The money from Maxim is said to be relatively modest, either $1000 or $2000, and I don't really wish to bag Langton himself. The more acute issue here is that Maxim has charitable status - which means that it can't engage in direct political activity of the kind indicated in the Young Nats' email. If it does prove to have provided assistance to Langton, or to the Young Nats, then as far as I can see it is morally and legally required to resign its charitable status and the consequent tax advantages attached to it.

I might also venture to suggest that the Young Nats be careful who they get into bed with, so to speak.

NB: I was finally able to sort this out a bit better this afternoon. Craccum appears to have conflated the National party email, which referred to the Young Nats getting together to discuss their candidates for the AUSA elections (it's mildly unusual for students elections to be explicitly party political) and the Maxim money, which was a separate issue. I understand that Maxim was preparing to give Langton $2000 for his campaign but appears to have taken fright after Craccum broke the story.

Meanwhile, the Rationalists have caught Maxim fibbing in public - again. Maxim's fictitious claim that "A Christchurch School of Medicine study found that nearly two-thirds of Christchurch street prostitutes were under the age of 18" is still being made here on the Maxim website.

I presume I'm not the only one still feeling confused over the Amokura Panoho affair, which seems to have played out in reverse. The public phase began a week ago, when she resigned from her position with the Department of Labour's Community Employment Group after her employer questioned her role with the fledgling Maori Party.

The questions arose after two members of John Tamihere's electorate organisation attended a Maori Party hui and heard Panoho speak there. Tamihere was informed and passed on "concerns" about a potential conflict of interest to his fellow minister Ruth Dyson, who then, without, she says, knowing the identity of the employee in question, passed on those concerns to Labour Department chief executive James Buwalda. Buwalda met with Panoho, who resigned of her own volition last Friday.

Funny thing is, she doesn't seem to have done anything wrong. After her resignation became news and reporters started asking questions, Trevor Mallard claimed that she had "pressured" her staff to attend the hui, then Tamihere suggested that she had used CEG resources for the benefit of the Maori Party.

Both withdrew their claims this week after the department said it had accepted Panoho's word that she had not crossed the line, although Buwalda did issue a memo to staff emphasising the need for political neutrality.

Panoho says she resigned before the department reached a conclusion in order to spare the CEG from being drag through the political mud. But it does seem that the whole thing would have remained confidential if she hadn't resigned. She now says she is considering legal action against Tamihere. Meanwhile, Tariana Turia is claiming the government has a hit list of Maori Party members.

I can't help but feel that Labour has been played beautifully by the Maori Party here: the moment a question was raised, Panoho resigned, immediately escalating the affair and making it very difficult for Labour to do anything similar in the course of what will undoubtedly be a very bitter series of battles in the Maori electorates. Turia is making passive-aggressiveness into a highly effective keynote style, and the government just looks bad again.

No Right Turn turns the blowtorch on the government over the affair and says that Gerry Brownlee is misleading the public over the censure of Maori Language Commission chief Haami Piripi.

Meanwhile, out there in the world, billions of dollars of Iraq's money is being sluiced into Halliburton's coffers with little apparent oversight or accounting - and no say for Iraq's "sovereign" government in how the money is spent. The story comes at the same time as the news that the US Securities Exchange Commission has fined Halliburton $7.5 million for defrauding its investors through unacceptable accounting practices. The company's CEO at the time was US vice president Dick Cheney, who is being evasive about what he knew. Billmon does some more digging in search of Dick.

Asia Times is predicting that the Pakistani leadership will continue to produce arrests between now and the US presidential election as "bargaining chips" in its push for more US government favours. The UK Home Office is playing down Pakistani claims on both Pakistan's role in this week's British terrorism arrests and a specific plot for an attack on Heathrow Airport. The Independent is now describing the alleged Heathrow plot as "a media dream". Some weeks you wonder if anything is true …

Rolling Stone has acquired the secret "annexes" to the Taguba Report on the Abi Ghraib abuses. The new details of brutality and sexual torture appear to bear out claims made by the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh and foster the belief that the prison was hideously out of control.

Further in the Torturing for Freedom World News, the Guardian has a story on the dossier released by the so-called Tipton Three detailing various disgraceful forms of abuse at Guantamamo Bay.

Riverbend is back on the blog.

And The Independent reports on what is very possibly the scariest Bushism ever.

To end on a slightly cheerier note, congratulations to my Net rugby friend Tracey Nelson for putting the All Blacks' flat backline theory on the news agenda at the press conference after the Springbok game at Jade Stadium. Now everyone's talking about it.

And finally, I had a you-had-to-be-there moment this week, when Dion from the D4 got up on stage with the MC5 and absolutely freakin' nailed their protest classic 'American Ruse'. That was the highlight of a set that had its moments but also veered sometimes into pub rock - or perhaps it was just the regrettable Aussie pub-rock sound mix. I spent quite a bit of time tuning into the pure and natural guitar playing of Deniz Tek, late of Australian cult rockers Radio Birdman. Deniz, a one-time participant in the US space programme, was very, very cool. But, then, as my friend Woody says, Deniz was born cool …