Editorial: Labour loses moral compass

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This is a time, not for elegant mendacity, but for simple truths.

Senior Labour MP Rick Barker ran a publicly-funded political poll from his Parliamentary office last month.

He told the pollsters to identify themselves as being from a fictitious research company, rather than acknowledging they represented Labour.

He told them to use false names, if they so wished.

And, when confronted last week by a Herald on Sunday journalist, he initially denied knowledge of any polling.

This was not the pursuit of scientific clarity and statistical accuracy, as he and his party have claimed.

This was dishonesty.

It was dishonesty of the sort that former Labour Cabinet minister Lianne Dalziel displayed, when she denied knowledge of a leaked immigration report in 2004.

Yet that was a foolish deceit, made by an impassioned minister in the heat of the moment. Dalziel, at least, had the grace and integrity to resign from Cabinet.

No such integrity is shown by the Labour Party under Phil Goff.

Rick Barker refuses to admit his intent to deceive. And worse, his party's parliamentary leadership has largely backed him.

Labour, it seems, has lost its moral compass.

Barker had already demonstrated a grotesque lack of judgment in his four-year relationship with Chinese tycoon Yang "Bill" Liu, a wealthy political donor who was seeking assistance from Barker as immigration minister. Barker and his wife Jennifer would visit Liu and his wife Vienna in their plush $2.4 million apartment in Auckland's Metropolis tower.

In June, Liu was arrested at Auckland International Airport as he tried to leave the country, and he now faces charges including deception and having false passports. A formal inquiry into how Labour granted him citizenship is ongoing.

And now, again, Barker is ducking and diving. He and senior whip Darren Hughes have suggested that using a false company name for the political poll was somehow justifiable in the pursuit of scientific accuracy; that answers to questions about the party's performance might have been tainted if the respondents knew their information was being hoovered up by Labour.

In other words, it was justifiable to lie in the pursuit of truth.

Organisations representing market researchers described it somewhat differently this week: Labour's actions, they said, were unethical, misleading and an abuse of trust.

Barker follows in a dishonourable tradition of deceit, though not to the same fraudulent scale. Among his Parliamentary predecessors in the Hawke's Bay are Michael Laws, David Butcher and Donna Awatere-Huata.

Michael Laws was not accused of fraud but was forced to resign his seat in a controversy over his secretary's fake signature on a poll report.

Former Labour MP David Butcher was convicted in 1999 of fraudulently claiming MPs' airfare rebates.

And Act list MP Donna Awatere-Huata, of course, was jailed for ripping off public money from her child literacy foundation.

The voters of Tukituki booted out Barker in 2005, but the vagaries of MMP returned him as a list MP to Parliament - where the Labour caucus appointed him to Cabinet. Now, again, Labour's leadership is protecting this high-booted cowboy.

To outside observers, Barker always appeared to have been promoted far beyond his ability. But in politics' smoke-filled backrooms, success is sometimes less about brilliance than about blind loyalty.

And that, unfortunately, is where Labour's senior whip Darren Hughes - another former minister - has also disgraced himself.

Hughes is smart. But, like Barker, he has been found willing to insist that black is white if that is what the leadership expects of him. Hughes has fronted the media, insisting that Barker's fraudulent poll was justifiable, allowing leader Phil Goff to duck for cover.

Barker has acted dishonestly.

Hughes has sacrificed principle for patsy-ism.

Goff has just cowered and, when confronted by political reporters outside the Labour Caucus room with nowhere to hide, obfuscated.

Labour's leader must now stand up and take responsibility for the deception that was conducted with funds entrusted to him by Parliament.

Barker should be sacked from all his Caucus responsibilities. Hughes, too, must be left in no doubt about how repugnant his rationalisations are.

These, then, are the simple truths that are demanded of Labour's tarnished leadership.

And these are the truths Labour has forgotten.

- HERALD ON SUNDAY

- Herald on Sunday

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