John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: A nasty smell that needs cleaning

David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell
David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A straightforward case of glasshouses and the indiscriminate chucking of large rocks by Labour's leader therein?

David Shearer took a firm line on John Banks' recent troubles, demanding the Act leader be stood down as a minister while police investigate whether he breached local body electoral law.

That stance has come back to bite Shearer big-time in the form of Labour MP Shane Jones and the case of his four-year-old ministerial approval - despite officials' advice - of citizenship for a Chinese millionaire who also happened to be a donor to the Labour Party.

The Prime Minister is accusing the Labour leader of hypocrisy. John Key is right. In failing to stand down Jones from his front bench, Shearer has not been 100 per cent consistent in applying the same standard to one of his MPs as he demanded should be applied to Banks.

As Key did with Banks and the donations by Kim Dotcom, Shearer has likewise accepted Jones' assurances that he followed proper processes when he approved the citizenship application of Chinese businessman Yong Ming Yan.

Shearer, however, can claim some mitigating factors. He confronted Jones immediately and directly after Yan, also known as Bill Liu, boasted in court that he had MP friends who would ensure he got citizenship. Shearer also conducted his own informal inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the approval. Key, in contrast, did not speak to Banks and instead only got his chief of staff to question him once the story started to get legs.

Shearer's position is made more difficult by there being no specific allegation of wrongdoing being levelled at Jones. That raises questions of fairness. Is mere innuendo sufficient for an MP to be stood down? How low do you set the bar?

In Banks' case, there is no argument that there were donations, leaving serious questions about their status and whether Banks was aware of them.

That said, the conjunction of citizenship approvals, claims of having mates in Parliament and political donations make for a nasty smell which needs the application of political disinfectant. Jones could make life a lot easier for Shearer and things a lot clearer if he explained exactly why he approved Yan's citizenship despite Yan being red-flagged by Interpol. Jones, however, is not commenting until Yan's trial on fraud charges is over.

That Shearer is understood to still be keeping his options open in terms of calling in some independent body like the Auditor-General to conduct an inquiry into the approval of Yan's citizenship suggests the Labour leader realises he is not on terribly strong ground in not standing Jones down, if only temporarily.

Shearer will simply have to take Key's criticism on the chin, put it down to experience and give thanks that Budget week means other matters are paramount and thus more likely to grab the public's attention.

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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