Polity by Rob Salmond

28

Bridges swims in troubled waters

I received new information from Simon Bridges this week, via the OIA. In my opinion, it proves he and Wayne Eagleson have been lying to New Zealand to cover up an abuse of power around the Northland by-election.

Bridge bribe

Remember the failed Northland bridge-bribe? That was a National party plan, not a government policy. The rules on those kinds of partisan initiatives are clear - politicians cannot use taxpayer-funded officials – at all – for this kind of project (Cabinet Manual, section 6.60).

Yet that is exactly what Simon Bridges did when he forced NZTA officials to drop everything and work on his bridge bribe. A series of emails, released to me via the OIA a while back, show the panicked and wide-ranging requests from Bridges’ office to the NZTA.

Then, predictably, the excuses began; each sillier than the last.

First, they claimed the rules said they were fine. Then someone showed them the rules, and they changed their mind.

Second, they invented a new rule. The only bad part would be “seeking policy advice,” and Bridges had apparently only “sought information.” It was a head-of-a-pin-samba to begin with, then someone showed them the emails from Bridges clearly asking for policy advice, and they changed their mind again.

The most recent excuse, from Wayne Eagleson, was that National was initially planning this whole caper as government policy, then after getting the work done changed its mind and did it as a partisan announcement instead.

The cinematic masterpiece Super Troopers sums up my reaction to that claim best:

I'll believe ya when me shit turns purple and smells like rainbow sherbet.

Minister: “I got nothing”

But I wanted to give National a shot at being right on this so I wrote to Bridges and asked him, under the OIA, for:

all documents held by your office that mention or detail whichever specific “government policy formation process” was used by Wayne Eagleson to justify the tasking emails about Northland that your office sent to NZTA …

This week, I got a response. The total number of documents Bridges could find to back up his story was … wait for it …

None. He couldn’t find even a single email obliquely mentioning a possible government bridge-widening programme in Northland. It was a ghost policy.

This is completely ridiculous. As I blogged at the time I made the request:

And, if they can’t find any documents, but they say that Bridges – in his own head – first intended the NZTA work to be for government policy formation, later changing his mind, then you might as well print the Cabinet Manual in two-ply. If the rule is “Ministers can use public officials for party work so long as the thought crossed their mind once for it to be government work,” then just delete the rule and be done with it.

That standard – obviously rortable as it is – is now what that National says protects the taxpayer from having to bankroll unlimited partisan research for the government of the day.

It is a sham and a disgrace. In other countries they’d call it corrupt.

The government needs to stop bullshitting everyone, admit Simon Bridges acted inappropriately, and stand him down for as punishment.

Continuing to insist on this obviously, provably fake version of events makes them look like a lying child caught elbow-deep in a cookie jar.

Turn about is fair play

I want to say one more thing here, too. National’s knee-jerk butt-covering sets a dangerous precedent, namely that a Minister’s fleeting thought is enough justification to get the public sector beavering away on ultimately partisan work.

That precedent allows other Ministers a way to rort the system even more than Bridges did. And, because National set the precedent, they’d have no credibility with then complain. If they want to have low standards that advantage the government of the day when they are in government, they’d better sit there and lump it like grown-ups when they’re in opposition.

 That’s not my preferred outcome. I’d rather both sides played by the actual rules. But I remember my game theory classes. If the other side is going to play dirty, then often it’s better to do the same right back than be a lily-white loser.

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