Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Shearer fails 'holier than thou' test

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David Shearer. Photo / Duncan Brown
David Shearer. Photo / Duncan Brown

Live by the sword, die by the sword. That's the parable MPs should take care to remember when they seek to fight on the terrain of political and personal finance. If you're going to operate on the principle of being 'holier than thou' then you really must be sure that you are. David Shearer has now failed that test with the controversy over his overseas bank account. This is best outlined by Colin Espiner in his highly-critical blogpost, Shearer's own 'brain fade'.

Shearer's own goal is not your average political let-down. Instead it's a major strategic problem for Labour and its chance of winning government in 2014. After all, Labour's major political tactic in combating National over the last five years has been to challenge and erode John Key's integrity. This scandalmongering strategy was most evident in the 2008 general election when Labour focused all of its firepower on digging up dirt from John Key's past in an attempt to discredit National's main electoral asset. It didn't work then, but Labour has kept this strategy, considering it the best bet for chipping away at the Government's huge popularity. And slowly but surely this strategy has been working, with a growing questioning of the Prime Minister's integrity, ability, and process - especially over issues such as Dotcom, John Banks, and SkyCity.

Labour's grand strategy will now be less effective, as David Shearer himself could be considered guilty of the same sins that he's accused his opponents of.

It's not just that Shearer has forgotten to declare a foreign bank account itself. This is not 'a good look', as they say. But it's really that this comes after his harsh criticisms of other politicians with 'memory lapses', and he is now having those attacks quoted back at him. As Espiner writes, this is particularly a problem for Shearer's 'anti-politician' image 'Shearer, and Labour, have played up his credentials as the former aid boss and humanitarian worker who has no time for politicians' lies and silly games.

John Key's response to the incident has been particularly impressive - whether through design or sincerity. By downplaying the issue and signalling 'forgiveness', Key comes across to the public as a statesman operating above 'dirty politics' and scandalmongering. As Espiner notes, the PM has been 'remarkably gracious in response. He's said only that it's "unfortunate'' that Shearer forgot about his account and added, with more than a trace of irony, that mistakes can be made. Given what's been dished out to him over the years, he could have said a lot more'. David Farrar ponders what would have happened if the boot was on the other foot - see: Shearer declared bank account to IRD but not Registrar. But Farrar agrees with National's approach to act 'like decent human beings' over the issue.

Not all are so forgiving. No Right Turn asks if MPs will be held to account, or 'will they once again collude in their cozy conspiracy of silence around these matters?' - see: David Shearer's "mistake". Shearer's problem isn't limited to Labour. Other parties have also chosen the same political strategy of focusing on damaging the integrity of their opponents. Cameron Slater is watching to see if the Greens, in particular, will be holding Shearer to the same standards as others - see: What is Russel Norman going to say about Shearer?.

John Banks, whose own memory lapses were very costly has been quick to condemn, and has called for Shearer to 'fall on his sword'. He has reminded Shearer of his statement that those who suffer from memory lapses are unfit to hold public office - see Lloyd Burr's Banks calls for Shearer's resignation. Apart from the humiliation - especially of being preached to about ethical standards by John Banks - there are significant differences, not least that Shearer 'fessed up his error voluntarily - quite a contrast from he who didn't come down in the last cabbage boat. The other difference is that there appears to be no advantage to Shearer in not declaring the account and most observers seem to accept it was a genuine error.

Unfortunately for Shearer, it has drawn attention to some facts that a Labour leader, a 'man of the people', would probably prefer went unnoticed. If the bank account holds even a modest proportion of Shearer's UN salary it could be a very substantial amount calculates David Farrar in How much was in the undisclosed bank account?. Having a sizeable overseas account is enough to distance Shearer from his core support base, but forgetting you even have it is even more damaging writes Ideologically impure, and is 'a very vivid symbol of his membership of an elite - an elite who do not actually have to know instantly how much cash they have on hand - quite unlike the Waitakere Man whose vote he courts' - see: All I'm saying is ....

One of the biggest effects of the Shearer brain fade will be to further undermine confidence in Parliament's Register of Pecuniary Interests. The public might now be excused for thinking that the regime is less than robust if any MP can simply forget to include significant items for years on end. Pete George has blogged about the details in Shearer's declaration, but is frustrated that the use of trusts by politicians makes the process incredibly opaque: 'the pecuniary interest register is so vague as to be virtually meaningless about MPs financial interests' - see: David Shearer's pecuniary interests. So we might see some further demands now for more transparency about politician's assets. Cameron Slater is kicking off this movement with the suggestion to Shearer that 'he should publish his tax returns' - especially to clear up numerous questions about why the leader was keeping his money overseas and where exactly he has been paying tax on the proceeds - see: Secrets. Also see Slater's other post: Shearer's dirty little secret.

The best satirical takes on the issue are the Civilian's David Shearer suddenly remembers affair, and Scott Yorke's David Shearer suspends rule-breaking Labour MP. Meanwhile, Shearer can be seen to be making similar strategic mistakes in another area, and according to Toby Manhire should refrain from throwing stones - see: The Labour party and glass, um, houses.

Other recent important or interesting items include the following:

It could be a innovative move to challenge traditional western leadership models, but the proposal to make the Maori Party's three MPs all leaders looks far more like an ongoing failure of a dysfunctional party to deal with a basic political issue. Morgan Godfery thinks that the continuing rejection of Te Ururoa Flavell's leadership aspirations could lead to their complete demise - see: 3 leaders but no one to lead. Apart from who gets the title of leader it may be that the relationship with former colleague Hone Harawira is also a source of friction - see Peter Wilson and Dan Satherley's No quick fix for Maori Party. See also Rob Crawford, who wonders whether a change of leadership would even make any difference to the party - see: Maori Party; Hot air hui in Huntly.

Maori TV's Native Affairs had very good coverage of the Maori Party issue, but the video only seems available online at their Facebook page. Herald TV reviewer Colin Hogg has high praise for the show: 'Native Affairs is all the better for its Maori perspective. It's the best local current affairs show on TV right now' - see: Maori TV hits current affairs sweet spot.

We shouldn't be surprised if there are more staffing problems in the Minister of Education's office warns Cameron Slater - see: Queen Hekia's staffing issues. Slater says that political journalists 'have really dropped the ball on this one' and tells them what questions they should be asking.

There are no angry mobs in the Wellington streets yet, but the Greens comparison of the Reserve Bank's plans to the current crisis in Cyprus has the backing of some banking experts - see David Mayes' Government must insure our savings. It appears that the Government is planning to give banks the power to take money from people's accounts if they fall over - see James Weir's Kiwis could face Cyprus-style trim and Bryan Gould's Cyprus outrage not too far from home. It is a good example of Labour being 'slow out of the traps, and short on the principles involved' compared to the Greens says Gordon Campbell in On the official emergency plan to steal from your bank account.

The Greens will be less happy with the IMF's latest report on New Zealand, which dismisses the Greens' arguments about the threats of the high dollar and manufacturing crisis. Instead, according to the Herald, 'This report confirms that Dr Norman's credibility is under far greater threat' - see: IMF report shows cool heads needed on economy.

Did the Solid Energy bosses mislead MPs? Clayton Cosgrove isn't impressed at the differences between what the Select Committee was told and what they read in the media later - see: Newswire's Solid Energy bosses face contempt complaints. The saga has overshadowed the Mighty River Power float but the Government has to take the blame for that. As recently as June last year Ministers were still talking about the coal company being included in the partial sales program - see: Hamish Rutherford's Solid Energy sale was planned despite bad report. For a good analysis of where it all went wrong see Tim Hunter's Solid Energy: Elder thrown overboard. Colin James says the 'public-private' mix led to the bad decisions: 'In short, a public entity, an SOE, was expected to act as if it was a private entity, a firm, but had to do so under the thumb of public-sector ministers who made a careful public-sector (fiscal) decision but a dubious private-sector one' - see: Need to sort out public-private muddle.

The latest revelations about the spying on Kim Dotcom do not reflect well on the public agencies involved says Patrick Gower in Dotcom: A systematic cover-up by police and spies. See also his report, New Dotcom papers reveal GCSB 'relaxed', and questions raised on The Standard blog: Billy Big Stepper.

Having DOC sponsored by Fonterra is the same as the Ministry of Health being sponsored by a tobacco company argues Rachel Stewart in How DOC sold its soul for $20m.

A Government minister has rejected a ruling of the Ombudsman, and according to the No Right Turn blog, this goes against constitutional practice - see: Williamson shits on our constitution.

Labour is being challenged about hypocrisy in another area at the moment. David Farrar argues that opposition parties are being hypocritical in their stances on citizen-initiated referendums - see: A tale of two petitions.

What is distinctive and strong about New Zealand's public service? Jane Dudman makes some comparisons in her report, Civil service systems around the world - also summarised in the Guardian: Germany, US, New Zealand or Singapore: which civil service is best?.

Ten years on from the invasion of Iraq Jon Stephenson, who was in Baghdad 10 years ago, says our involvement after the war was more style than substance: 'the reality is that it was a... I wouldn't say a publicity stunt, but an operation done with very strong public relations results in mind. Those engineers really made very little headway in terms of reconstruction' - see: NZ's Iraq contribution 'grossly overstated'.

Finally, should foreign and historic political figures be allowed to be mocked in public advertising? The Auckland City Council says 'no' if such advertising might offend anyone - see Rebecca Quilliam's Chairman Mao Gangnam Style ad banned from bus stops.

- 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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