Saga returns to bite Rick Barker

By Patrick O'Sullivan

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Hawke's Bay regional councillor and former Labour cabinet minister Rick Barker has been in the national spotlight again following allegations regarding historical political donations. Photo/File
Hawke's Bay regional councillor and former Labour cabinet minister Rick Barker has been in the national spotlight again following allegations regarding historical political donations. Photo/File

Being in the national spotlight from his time as a Labour cabinet minister makes Rick Barker feel he is part of The Eagles' song Hotel California.

"You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave," the Hawke's Bay regional councillor said.

Millionaire businessman Donghua Liu has been at the centre of political scandals involving contributions to National and Labour, saying he gave "equally to governments of both colours".

Mr Barker was under fire because Mr Liu said he paid "close to $100,000" for wine at a Labour fundraising auction in 2007, at least $50,000 hosting Mr Barker and others on a boat cruise on the Yangtze River in 2007, and visited Mr Barker in Hawke's Bay in 2006, where Mr Liu made a donation to the Hawke's Bay Rowing Club which Mr Barker was associated with.

Mr Barker was pictured handing a large bottle of wine, signed by then-Prime Minister Helen Clark, to Mr Liu's partner in 2007 but is sceptical about the price paid by Mr Liu.

"I have checked with all the people I know that I have been to auctions with and nobody can remember a $100,000 bottle of wine, or anything that comes near to it," he said.

Yesterday, Mr Liu said his earlier statement was "capable of two meanings". He said "close to $100,000" was his total contribution to Labour, which included anonymous donations.

The Yangtze River cruise was while Mr Barker, the Minister for Internal Affairs at the time, was on a private trip to China.

"He gave me a tour of his factory and suggested we go to dinner," Mr Barker said.

"It was on a boat that looked to be full of staff. I felt like an intruder in a staff function.

"I would have been quite happy to go and eat food off the street, which I quite enjoy."

Mr Barker said that in 2006 he was contacted on behalf of Mr Liu, to say he was visiting Hawke's Bay to look at investment opportunities.

"They made the arrangements and close to his arrival I was told he was interested in sport, and could I make some arrangements for him to meet sporting organisations.

"This came as a complete surprise to me. The only sporting organisation that I was close enough to, to ask at such short notice, was the rowing club.

"He met with them and at the finish Donghua Liu, without being asked or prompted to my knowledge, put his hand into his pocket and drew out an envelope and gave it to representatives of the rowing club. It wasn't opened then.

"The rowing club met with Donghua Liu at the airport and presented him with a club T-shirt in appreciation. I was told then what the amount was - I can't recall exactly - but it was less than $5000. A significant personal donation but not over the top."

Duncan Barr, the president of the Hawke's Bay Rowing Club, said Mr Liu donated $2000.

Mr Barker said the donation was accepted as a genuine personal gesture.

"If Donghua Liu is now unhappy at giving an unsolicited donation to the rowing club, let him say and so and I will ensure that the money is returned and he will not be required to give the T-shirt back. The gift of the T-shirt was genuine."

Mr Barker said rules about political donations were different at the time "and eight years later it comes to haunt you".

Labour leader David Cunliffe claimed no knowledge of a letter he wrote in support of Mr Liu's residency.

Mr Liu was granted citizenship in 2010 after support from National minister Maurice Williamson and then-Auckland mayor John Banks.

Mr Williamson resigned from his ministerial portfolios after it was revealed he phoned senior police about a prosecution involving Mr Liu.

National Party president Peter Goodfellow refused to comment on whether National received any donations from Mr Liu, other than $22,000 disclosed in 2012.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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