John Armstrong on politics
John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: TVNZ gives English chance to close book

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Sometimes - as National's Gerry Brownlee reminded Parliament this week - you just get lucky.

Lucky? Bill English and his advisers would have been doing cartwheels in the Finance Minister's office before rushing out to buy Lotto tickets after TVNZ approached him to front a 60-second promo for an upcoming series on the economy which will screen on one of the corporation's Freeview channels.

Stunningly naive or simply stupid - take your pick - TVNZ effectively gave English a platform for a free party political broadcast without right of reply from opponents.

Even in its most vivid dreams, National could not have come up with a more helpful way of enabling English to try to close the book on the protracted mess of his Wellington housing allowances.

Luck had nothing to do with the decision by Auditor-General Lyn Provost not to make a formal inquiry into English's housing arrangements and his claiming an out-of-Wellington accommodation allowance when he was for all intents and purposes living in the capital.

But her verdict was further good news for English in helping to end this tawdry episode in his political career - at least as far as intervention by official agencies is concerned.

That must be of major relief to English. The prospect of the Minister of Finance being formally investigated by the independent watchdog on the spending of public money does not bear thinking about for too long.

English can thus take some succour from the decision. But it falls far short of vindicating his actions.

Provost is clearly less than impressed with the absence of adequate checks by parliamentary officials on where an MP is actually living as against where they claim to be living.

English cited Dipton in his Clutha-Southland electorate as his "primary place of residence" even though his family home was clearly in Wellington. He filled in the forms. His declarations and claims were considered to be appropriate by the various Speakers who subsequently approved them.

But the forms are inadequate in gathering information to assess the relative importance or "primacy" of an MP's Wellington accommodation compared to the home in his or her electorate.

English has effectively been cleared by the Auditor-General because he followed long-established practice and procedures. It is not his fault they are deficient. But that does not get him off the hook in a moral sense.

He also had been embarrassed by Provost's finding that he had an "indirect financial interest" in the family trust which owned the English family home where English wished to continue to live rather than shift into a Crown-owned ministerial house.

Ministerial Services would rent the English family home only if he had no pecuniary interest in the trust, something English remedied.

Provost's view that his relationship with likely beneficiaries of the trust meant English had an indirect financial interest in the trust is academic.

English has stopped claiming any housing assistance and the rules covering ministerial houses are about to change anyway.

It does not help English's case. But by now people would have long made up their mind about his behaviour. The same applies to the fuss over English's television promo, in which he talks about the economy growing out of the recession and exclaiming emotively "we're nearly through the tough times and things are looking up ... together, us Kiwis can do it".

Not surprisingly, Labour immediately demanded TVNZ pull the free advertisement and lambasted English for a supposed conflict of interest in fronting when he is one of TVNZ's shareholding ministers.

Labour's indignation was understandable, if a little overdone. It has devoted much effort and no little parliamentary time to sullying English's credibility and infecting his handling of the finance portfolio.

Suddenly here was someone - a media organisation no less - offering the beleaguered minister a chance to turn the page on the whole affair.

Moreover, like any Opposition party always fighting for media coverage, Labour had to ask what all this said about TVNZ's attitude to balance. Labour's vociferous response was all about ensuring there was no repeat.

The question of a conflict of interest would have arisen had English approached TVNZ rather than vice versa. That would have been unacceptable.

Asking the Finance Minister to help promote what is presumably a serious programme looking at the economy is not out of order. It is the manner by which it was done which is at issue.

Brownlee, answering questions on the matter in Parliament in English's absence, suggested Labour's complaints rang somewhat hollow.

The Opposition party would have grabbed the opportunity had it come its way, he said. Though Labour would never admit it, Brownlee is probably right.

Labour also cooked up a conspiracy theory of mega proportions by suggesting the promo was pay-off for English who had rung TVNZ in high dudgeon when the network, with TV3, ran prominent news stories which breathed new life into the housing allowance story.

A more probable conspiracy theory would speculate that the promo-makers knew exactly what they were doing and succeeded in attracting even more publicity for a programme that relatively few would otherwise have watched.

Lurking in the background are the more pressing questions of how much damage English has sustained from the exposure of his housing rort and the flow-on effect on the Government in terms of him being able to do his job without impediment.

The answer would seem to be some, but not that much and certainly not enough to warrant his removal from his portfolio.

Today's Herald-DigiPoll survey shows close to 78 per cent of respondents rating the Government's handling of the financial crisis as good, very good or excellent.

English scored nearly 64 per cent in the same categories for his performance as Finance Minister. Logic would suggest his rating should have been in line with that of the Government, as he is the manager and driver of economic policy. Logic, however, is not necessarily at home when the pollster calls.

The poll suggests people can separate English's behaviour as a perks-hungry MP from his role as the Government's economic figurehead.

They may be angry about the hypocrisy inherent in his recession-induced calls for public restraint and sacrifice - but not angry enough to regard it as overshadowing his work which ultimately effects them.

That is a tentative conclusion - but one that National will be hoping is accurate.

- NZ Herald

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