Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Political figures feeling the heat

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The man with the most serious allegations hanging over him - Shane Jones - has been exonerated of charges of corruption. Photo / File
The man with the most serious allegations hanging over him - Shane Jones - has been exonerated of charges of corruption. Photo / File

Being a political figure involves being subjected to various degrees of public scrutiny. At the moment there's particular criticism and condemnation being directed at Shane Jones, Don Elder, David Shearer and Bill English - with allegations ranging from corruption, through to gross mismanagement and petty tax raising.

The man with the most serious allegations hanging over him - Shane Jones - has been exonerated of charges of corruption. At the same time, the Auditor-General's report heavily criticises Jones and voices major reservations about how politicians make their immigration decisions, clearly stating that we have a system vulnerable to corruption and cronyism. The best article on this is Tracy Watkins' Disturbing questions in Jones report.

Watkins highlights the report's concern over the internal lobbying that occurs within the system: 'buried within the report are questions which lead to deep disquiet.

And those questions go to the heart of a system which allows politicians to overturn decisions by officials with apparently few checks or balances. The report reveals the pressure put on ministers by MPs in support of Mr Liu, including three letters from former Labour MP Dover Samuels, escalating the matter into one of extreme urgency'.

Watkins draws attention to the fact that during the Auditor-General's investigation the officials from Immigration were so concerned about political favouritism that they supplied the Auditor-General with further files to investigate, and the Office of the Auditor-General responded by launching a 'broader probe of files between 2006 and 2010'. In the end, the narrow scope of the investigation meant that these weren't fully investigated by the Auditor-General's office. Watkins says, 'That falls a long way short of offering the public an assurance that the system is above being rorted'.

So are the headlines about Jones being 'cleared' correct? A blogpost on The Standard concludes that 'cleared might be a slight exaggeration but he's not going to have the police turn up on his doorstep' - see: Jones cleared. This is correct - there was no illegality found. Of course, there is a very high threshold for proving corruption, and some will still feel that Jones is tainted because of this.

There is certainly enough in the report to further challenge the integrity of New Zealand's political system. No one could read the report and come away saying that Bill Liu did not receive special treatment. Why he received this unusual action is unanswered, or at least unproven. You can read Lyn Provost's report summary here: Auditor-General's overview. Not everyone is impressed with the report's conclusions, including blogger Danyl McLaughlan (@danylmc), who tweeted: 'Hope I get the auditor-general investigating if I'm ever up for murder: "Not guilty but repeatedly stabbing someone is not correct process".' Similarly, David Farrar highlights the report's criticisms in The Jones and Liu report. And Tweeting just after the report was released, journalist David Fisher (@DFisherJourno) expressed dismay: 'Astonishing OAG report on Jones. An unspoken coercive corruption compels the public service into bad places, just like the SkyCity report'.

The Dominion Post accepts that Jones is not corrupt, but is still harshly critical of the MP, saying that his actions have harmed New Zealand's reputation for being corruption-free - see: Not the standard expected of ministers. The Herald also sees the report as highlighting the flaws in the ministerial immigration regime, with a potential for corruption that necessitates reform - see: Jones report shows scope for corruption.

Jones has handled the release of the report very cleverly - as he did with his 'blue movies' credit card scandal - making strongly worded statements of regret. This serves him well, reducing the chances of a backlash again him. Jones' scandal-handling is covered well by Vernon Small, who says Jones has been suitably 'contrite' - see: Labour's Jones returns to front bench. And as one newspaper editorial says, at least Jones hasn't 'claimed he's been totally vindicated' - unlike the PM in response to the report on the SkyCity pokie deal. Instead, Tracy Watkins says that, 'Through a combination of charm and self-deprecating wit, he has mastered the art of the mea culpa'.

The main reaction to the Shane Jones report has been to emphasise the errors made by the ex-minister. For example, on the No Right Turn blog, the point is made that 'In most workplace, such an abysmal performance would result in retraining or sacking. In the Labour Party it apparently merits promotion' - see: Not corrupt, just incompetent. Similarly, John Armstrong says Hopefully Jones has learned his lesson.

But should this be enough for Labour to rehabilitate Jones to its frontbench? Chris Trotter says 'no'. In fact, Trotter suggests that in lowering his ethical threshold of what is acceptable in politics, David Shearer's own moral compass is suspect - see: Shane Jones case tests leader's morals.

Solid Energy's dramatic decline is putting all sorts of public figures under severe pressure - especially ex-CEO Don Elder, who has become Public Enemy #1. TV3's John Campbell has been particularly tenacious in scrutinising what has happened to the company - for example, watch his 10-minute video Reality behind the spin at Solid Energy. Campbell also interviewed the new face of Solid Energy, Bill Luff - watch the full 24-minute interview, Solid Energy's Bill Luff comes forward - and managed to elicit much more in-depth answers than when Luff appeared at the parliamentary select committee last week. So now Luff is in the firing line, with serious questions being asked about why he refused to give this information to Parliament - see Kate Chapman's Solid Energy to face contempt charges.

Yet what has been looking like a black and white case of gross mismanagement on the part of Elder and co is now appearing a bit more grey and ambiguous, especially after his appearance at yesterday's select committee hearing. Tracy Watkins' covers this well, saying that Elder after 'weeks of being hung out to dry by his former political masters, the one-time darling of the business world' is now shifting from 'villain to victim' - see: Spotlight on Government's role in Solid Energy. John Armstrong was also impressed by Elder's performance saying that he managed to turn the 'witch trial' full circle and come out with credibility - see: Elder finds the perfect straight bat as Labour probes. Other commentators have finally come to the rescue of Don Elder - see Rod Vaughan's (paywalled) Don't blame Don Elder, energy expert tells 'hypocritical' politicians, and Fran O'Sullivan's Solid Energy duo deserve their say.

Instead it's now the National Government under intense scrutiny, with allegations that it is partly responsible for the company's increased debt - see Adam Bennett's Govt told Solid Energy to borrow and Key under fire over Solid Energy claims. Questions can also be asked about the previous Labour Government's role in sending the SOE in the direction it went - this is covered well by David Farrar, who has been unearthing some evidence - see: Labour on Solid Energy.

David Shearer and his party are suddenly under pressure on the issue of asset sales - particularly on the question of whether a future Labour government would buy back the SOE shares. Shearer has essentially said 'maybe' - see Audrey Young's Shearer won't rule out buy back. This middling non-committal position is, according to two leftwing blogs, the worst possible response - see Lew Stoddart's Labour: locking in lose-lose and No Right Turn's David Shearer: Spineless chickenshit.

Others are attacking the Opposition's entire asset sales referendum strategy. David Farrar has three potentially wounding blogposts: The taxpayer purchased referendum, Have Labour, Greens and unions broken the CIR Act?, and According to Labour the 2011 election was a referendum on asset sales. Similarly, Pete George asks if there is an ulterior motive in Asset petition a data source for political spam?. And then to top things off, Labour's problems are very well satirised in Scott Yorke's A new asset sales plan?.

National's Bill English is under pressure over the Government's proposed so-called 'carpark tax', with an array of critics uniting to oppose it. The issue might seem minor, but it is being likened to Labour's ill-fated policies on shower heads and light bulbs - see, for example, Colin Espiner's Is car park tax National's 'lightbulb moment'?. For this reason, Vernon Small predicts that Nats likely to back out of car park tax. But Cathy Odgers sees Bill English Dying In Ditch.

For further discussion of the problems with the carpark tax, see Eric Crampton's Tax all the things, Hamish Rutherford's Business will evade car park tax, and Richard Meadows' Costs outweigh car park tax revenue. But the tax does have its supporters - particularly the Greens - and Brian Rudman has put together a well-argued opinion piece - see: Taxing carparks the right move. And, of course, Labour appears to have a confusing stance on the issue - see David Farrar's And another clear stance.

Other recent important or interesting items include the following:

* Two very interesting items today show how political and bureaucratic figures attempt to 'pass the buck' and avoid scrutiny - see Simon Bradwell's farcical story, Ministry fails on Novopay debacle and Jane Clifton's Three-strike ministerial ping-pong.

* Michelle Boag has some insightful analysis of John Key's PR skills but warns they could start backfiring - see Dan Satherley's What will stick to 'Teflon John'?.

* Has TV3 done the Act Party a disservice in its coverage of their recent conference? Pete George has been investigating the channel's reportage of Rodney Hide's controversial statements - see: TV3, ACT, and make believe news.

* The new Speaker of the House of Representatives has been getting a lot of bad press. But is he really that bad? John Armstrong has a balanced view in Mr Speaker Carter does it his way.

* News on how MPs voted on the gay marriage bill can be found in Isaac Davison's Gay bill bolts over hurdle. But how open has the debate been, and why were some views excluded from the select committee consideration? Ben Heather reports that some views were seen as too radical or outrageous to be heard - see: Gay marriage views too rude to hear. Andrew Geddes explores the issue of suppressing potentially offensive views in If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out. Meanwhile, Toby Manhire has both the best coverage of the latest parliamentary debate as well as an interesting critique of the marriage equality bill, saying that we shouldn't 'mistake it for a bold progressive change' - see: Crazy flyer helps marriage bill fly.

* David Clark's 'mondayising bill' passed this week - an impressive example of MMP in operation. But Tracy Watkins reports that this didn't occur without 'acrimony' and calls of 'shame' in the debating chamber - see: Mondayising holidays bill passes crucial vote.

* The Government's water reform proposal could lead to significant conflict. Chris Trotter has outlined how the Government's Land and Water Forum is a ruse to co-opt and neuter conservation groups in favour of agri-business - see: Hell And High Water - the National Party agenda to seize water.

* John Key's Latin American trip can be judged as a quite a success, especially in securing support for New Zealand's bid to get back on the UN Security Council - see Andrea Vance's Key expects Latin American ties to strengthen. But TVNZ's Tim Wilson ponders whether that outcome is even desirable - see: Government insecurity over UN Security Council.

* Our politicians seem obsessed by what Hollywood thinks of us - see Toby Manhire's New Zealand parliament approves motion denouncing Affleck's Argo.

* Finally, which political parties are winning the online election campaign? Martyn Bradbury evaluates the numbers of Facebook and Twitter followers in What if NZ Parliament was proportional to Facebook popularity?. And Rob Crawford also looks at what's going on in Social media; the art of communication.

- NZ Herald

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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