Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: NZ a 'soft touch'?

Local Government Minister Nick Smith returning to the Beehive after announcing his decision to resign as a cabinet minister. Photo / NZ Herald
Local Government Minister Nick Smith returning to the Beehive after announcing his decision to resign as a cabinet minister. Photo / NZ Herald

Is New Zealand a 'police state' or a soft touch for armed political activists? This week has seen two significant developments that will have some people pondering this question.

First, the judgement in the Urewera court case was finally made, and today there are two very good commentaries on the saga - the Dominion Post's editorial, Costly Urewera defence hollow, and Chris Trotter's blogpost, Failing The Crown. Both commentaries put forward a trenchant criticism of all involved. The Dominion Post says, 'The list of people and organisations which emerge with their reputations enhanced from the Urewera trial is short. The list of those who emerge with their reputations tarnished is considerably longer. It includes law-makers, the police, the four defendants - Tame Iti, Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara, Urs Signer and Emily Bailey'. Politicians get the blame for passing the poorly drafted anti-terrorism legislation simply to align New Zealand with the west's 'War on Terror', the police are blamed for their heavy-handed and illegal operations, and the accused - as well as fellow activist Valerie Morse - are rubbished for their lack of credibility in justifying their actions.

Chris Trotter's blogpost details the many mistakes of the police and state. But he also cautions against 'those on the Left who are celebrating the outcome of this trial as some sort of "victory"' and concludes with a challenge: 'The accused's moral responsibility: to explain to New Zealand exactly what they were doing in the Ureweras, and why; remains similarly unfulfilled'. Similary, the Dom Post says, 'Before making further pleas for sympathy, Ms Morse might like to explain to the public exactly what she was doing in the bush with a pistol.'

Three other items in the blogosphere help make sense of the Urewera issue: Martyn Bradbury counts the financial cost of the whole affair (True cost of Urewera case closer to $14 million), Joshua Hitchcock discusses the repercussions for some of the political parties (Reflections on The Urewera), and Toby Manhire surveys what the bloggers are saying.

The second major development involving police operations and political activism comes from the Government's successful passing of the Search and Surveillance Bill. Danya Levy's report, Search and Surveillance Bill passes, explains some of the reasons that Opposition parties were yelling out 'Police State' in Parliament last night, as the bill was narrowly passed by 61 votes to 57. The Mana Party says that the legislation provides 70 government agencies with the ability to obtain surveillance warrants based on suspicion of a crime. The Greens say that those agencies will now have the powers 'exercised by police in its heavily criticised 2007 so-called "terror raids" in Ruatoki'. And according to Audrey Young's Labour fails to change search bill, Labour unsuccessfully battled 'to have the powers of the Serious Fraud Office included in the law and to have journalists exempted from powers that could compel them to reveal their sources'. For a further critique of the bill, see TVNZ: Fears new surveillance law too powerful, which details the concerns of Thomas Beagle from the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties.

The Nick Smith ACC scandal still won't die - partly because the protagonist, Bronwyn Pullar is now speaking very publicly - see for example, Adam Bennett and Andrew Koubaridis' Nick Smith resignation 'truly regrettable' - Pullar and Phil Kitchin's Pullar: ACC complaint to police false. Cameron Slater has a must-read critique of both Bronwyn Pullar and Michelle Boag: Stop Digging. The Whaleoil blogger argues that Pullar has herself contradicted her claim that she wasn't attempting to blackmail ACC, and also that Boag's role in the scandal is unforgivable for the National Party, and that she should have prevented rather than help cause this scandal.

Further information is also still emerging - see Adam Bennett's Friend warned Smith he faced PR disaster - and political opponents are still pushing hard for an inquiry - see Vernon Small' Calls for fresh investigation of ACC pondered. ACC has also begun to front-foot the issue, with ACC chairman John Judge coming out publicly to declare that ACC hadn't released the information to the media about Pullar, and to say that Nick Smith had not attempted to politically influence ACC (Release evidence to back claims, Pullar told). The issue of ACC's actual privacy breach is also still being discussed, with the best single item being written by TVNZ's Simon Bradwell - see: ACC trips over itself.

The most interesting analysis of the fallout comes from Jane Clifton in her Listener column, What was Nick Smith thinking?. Clifton says that 'Although all parties are guilty of cronyism, this affair suggests it is so deeply ingrained that even super-bright MPs like Smith don't even realise they're engaging in it, or in danger of being seen to engage in it'. Newspaper editorials are also weighing in. The Southland Times downplays Smith's 'mistakes' as 'not the crime of the century', and suggests that he had merely been weak in succumbing to the entreaties of 'a woman of considerable persuasion, terrier-like tenacity and well-placed friends'. The editorial predicts the return of Smith to Cabinet - see: Ministerial irresponsibility. The Press harder on Smith, saying his 'transgression is almost inexplicable'. It also blames John Key for being 'slow to recognise the seriousness of the case'. The editorial warns the Prime Minister: 'Winging it is not always advisable and, if Key makes too many such misjudgments, he may find voters' tolerance of it will wear thin' - see: Errors of judgment. The Manawatu Standard's editorial today (Little point in ACC letters inquiry) weighs in against having an independent inquiry: 'It will become a costly witch hunt that will add to the myriad inquiries and reports that float around the Beehive. By the time anything of relevance is discovered, collated and reported everyone would have moved on considerably'.

To contextualise the Smith scandal, David Farrar has a very interesting blog post in which he grades political scandals of recent decades, with top points awarded to Taito Philip Field's fall from grace - see: Parliamentary resignations. Similarly, Chris Ford blogs, The Nick Smith resignation: political scandal now part of our culture.

The heating up of parliamentary allegations about political impropriety, smears, and 'conflicts of interests' can be seen in Marc Greenhill's Press report, Dalziel 'grumpy' over meagre red-zone offer. It seems that Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee has been fending off questions about quake compensation from the Christchurch MP Lianne Dalziel on the basis that he was 'deeply troubled' because she had a 'personal concern about how much she was being paid' for her red-zoned Bexley house. Brownlee told Parliament that Dalzie is being offered $87,200 for her land but she wants $200,000. No Right Turn has labeled this as 'an appalling act of information thuggery, involving deeply personal information' that Brownlee shouldn't have access to be making public - see: More information thuggery.

The Ports of Auckland dispute appears to have no end, despite earlier signs of a possible resolution - see Matthew Dearnaley's Strike off but unionists locked out and Bernard Orsman's Port row: Brown calls in top QC. The New Zealand Herald has even come out to criticize the company's tactics in the dispute, saying in today's editorial, 'The company should rescind the lock-out notice and concentrate on less aggressive means of achieving its ends' - see: Provocation move wrong route for port.

Other important items today include: Audrey Young's McCully expresses confidence in John Allen, Chris Trotter's Smith has gone, but his legacy will mar long, Jane Clifton's Leave the big jobs to big government, Gordon Campbell's Speeches offer more heat than light, No Right Turn's Shearer and "Gotcha" politics, John Drinnan's Teapot fiasco back on boil, and David Farrar's Party spending in 2011. But the pick of the day for those interested in the landscape of business interest and lobby groups is Patrick Smellie's Business lobbyists being rationalized. In this, Smellie surveys the rise and fall of various elite groups, as well as the connections and mergers between the many lobbyists.

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Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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