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

Bryce Edwards: The National Government is looking sleazy


Perceptions of corruption, cronyism and conflicts of interest can be incredibly damaging to any government, and National will be very wary of a narrative developing that this administration is infected with political sleaze.

Nothing makes a government look more tired, out-of-touch, and arrogant than scandals that suggest governing politicians are ethically compromised and governing in the interests of the powerful rather than the public.

Judith Collins' milk endorsement scandal is beginning to have a serious impact on the Government's reputation. But unfortunately for National, there are a number of similar stories dogging it at the moment, and they all come on the back of previous allegations of cronyism related to the scandals over John Banks as well as the SkyCity convention centre procurement process.

Allegations of corruption, cronyism and business dealings

The scandal over Judith Collins and her allegedly favourable treatment of the milk company that her husband helps run has allowed National's opponents to make some strong attacks on the character of, not only the Minister of Justice, but the whole National administration - see, for example, Felix Marwick's Government all but accused of corruption.

Opposition politicians are accusing the Government of being too close to the interests of the rich and powerful, and claim they are being compromised by National's various links to businesspeople.

If this characterisation becomes accepted by the public, then the Government will be badly damaged by the 'sleaze factor'. In our anti-political age, in which politicians, political parties, and governments are viewed suspiciously by the public, such allegations can prove to be electorally disastrous.

For those still not convinced that there's been any sort of conflict of interest in the Judith Collins scandal, see Tim Watkin's blog post Collins & Cunliffe - how to win friends & influence people. Adam Bennett outlines the parallels of this scandal with the one that brought down another National minister - see: Shades of Pansy Wong.

What is particularly unfortunate for National is that the Oravida firm in question isn't just linked personally to the Minister of Justice, but has incredibly strong links to a number of senior National Party people. For more on this, see David Fisher's Milk firm has hosted string of Nats. And for a further example of how easily National is being painted as too close to private interests, see Jane Clifton's The 'Crusher' looks a bit flat.

Arrogance in government

So far the problem has been that National, John Key, and Judith Collins have not appeared to take the issue seriously, which has just made the situation worse. I commented on this yesterday on TVNZ's Breakfast programme - see the article and interview Judith Collins 'blinded by arrogance' - commentator. In my view the over-confidence of Collins - and the National Government in general - is causing it to make mistakes. I also discussed this last week in my column, National's overconfidence problem. Collins herself has responded to my analysis in her 7-minute interview together with Shane Jones on Breakfast this morning - see: Shane Jones apologises to Judith Collins over personal remarks.

Today the Otago Daily Times has a hard-hitting assessment of Collins, calling for her to be sacked, and drawing attention to National's arrogant response to the public concerns on the issue, and concluding: 'The familiar pattern of pride, even arrogance in long-serving government MPs - which also afflicted Helen Clark's team in its last term - is insidious. Ms Collins, it could be argued, clearly manifested such dangerous signs. If National is going to win September's election, it must root out such tendencies without delay' - see: Insidious arrogance of power.

Today's Dominion Post also cites the growing arrogance of National as its Achilles heel: 'Two senior National figures have been made to look foolish and cavalier. Mr Key knows that voters detest arrogance in their rulers, and he has tried hard - not always successfully - to avoid any taint of it in his own style. But this episode has combined high-handedness and incompetence, a deadly combination' - see: Collins embarassing the PM. The editorial says that the 'serious issues at stake here that must not be dismissed as mere beltway storms', and the scandal has 'raised serious questions about National's trustworthiness'. See also, Rachel Smalley's Collins has been flippant and foolish.

The very strong condemnation of Collins

Probably the harshest condemnation from a political commentator, is Duncan Garner's very strongly worded opinion piece, Judith Collins must resign. In this must-read column, Garner says 'She has misled the NZ public and that's not acceptable. She has lost the confidence of a nation. She has misled the PM - and that's where it always used to get terminal for Ministers with Helen Clark in charge. But John Key has decided to tough this one out. It's the wrong decision. He should sack her'.

It's not only Collins who has handled the scandal incredibly poorly and appeared not to take it seriously. John Key is now coming in for a lot of criticism for his role in it all. The most interesting response has been Patrick Gower's John Key is scared of Judith Collins.

For similar analysis, see also John Armstrong's 'Mr Angry' pulls minister down to Earth and Vernon Small's Minister caught with milk on her face.

The Crushing of Judith Collins' political ambitions

Despite surviving in her job so far, Judith Collins' future political ambitions appear to be have been crushed by her own actions. Few commentators - or National insiders - are likely to be forecasting Collins to take over as party leader when Key eventually steps down. Until recently she's been the frontrunner but, as the NBR points out, the iPredict website has shown a big fall for Collins, a rise for Steven Joyce and an even more interesting rise for Simon Bridges - see: Bridges edges Collins as favourite to replace Key.

In Defence of Judith Collins

Few on the political right appear to be willing to go into bat for the beleaguered minister. Despite usually being the darling of the rightwing blogosphere, it's difficult to find any significant defence of Collins. Instead, the rightwing politician has been left to stand up for herself. You can watch her recent appearances on TV, such as the 6-minute interview with Paul Henry, Judith Collins on Oravida and cutting ribbons and the 10-minute interview with John Campbell, Judith Collins fronts about Oravida visit.

Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking suggests that 'the smallest mole hill is in serious danger of being made into a ridiculously large mountain' - see: Where do we draw the line?. Moreover, he makes the case that Collins might be excused due to the grey areas involved in the case: 'If you have found what Collins did to be dodgy, let me ask you a few questions. Just where do we draw the line? If you're a minister and your partner is in business, are you banned from ever dealing with that business or dealing socially with the people in that business? If the partner is in an export business, what's the line between promotion of that business given we're an exporting nation and it looking a bit slippery?'. Hosking also argues 'I don't think anyone in their right mind thought Collins was endorsing a milk product when she said she liked the milk'.

Similarly, in the Listener Jane Clifton puts the case for Collins: 'Those calling for her head, however, are stretching a point. Yes, she may have praised Oravida's milk, but it would have been bad manners to do otherwise. And she neither wrote nor authorised the account of her praising the milk that appeared in the company's publicity material' - see: Another balls-up (paywalled). Clifton also points out that it has now simply become the job of Cabinet ministers to promote such business interests: 'MPs visit businesses every week and talk them up. Jingoistic boosterism is mandatory when they go overseas'.

A further defence tactic of Collins and National is essentially the line that 'it is human to err' and that Judith Collins is simply human. Although, in reply to this, blogger Carrie Stoddart-Smith says Minister Collins human error is not a defence.

For more on Judith Collins and what makes her tick, see the latest Ruminator blog post interview Me and Ms Collins. Expect to see more 'human' stories about Collins and less projection of the 'Crusher Collins' image. And perhaps expect to see some tears. One account of a tearful Collins can be seen in Rachel Glucina's gossip column Crusher in tears over bungled Oravida affair.

And for more on why Collins is upset about personal rumours, see Stacey Kirk's Collins knocks 'hurtful' rumours.

Parallels with the 1999 general election campaign

The best New Zealand case study of 'political sleaze' scandals helping kill off a government's popularity, can be seen in the lead up to the 1999 general election, in which the Jenny Shipley-led National Government was dogged by similar allegations of corruption and cronyism. The most damaging was the Shipley-Saatchi scandal in which the PM was accused of conflicts of interest in her political relationship with the Saatchi and Saatchi Chief Executive, Kevin Roberts. The Saatchi boss was a close personal friend of the PM's, and his dinners with Shipley become a story of controversy. Shipley admitted that the dinners were about advising the Government on campaign strategy. At the same time, Saatchi was awarded an international marketing campaign for the Government Tourism Board. This eventually led to resignations from the Tourism Board that cost $900,000, and the resignation of the Minister for Tourism Murray McCully.

There were other public sector scandals around this period including allegations that the National Government had stacked many public sector organisations with their supporters, one of whom - the TVNZ chairman Ross Armstrong - was forced to resign. Leading up to this, there were also a spate of public sector prosecutions, firings and embarrassments that called into question the ethical probity of the government sector. Also prior to the 1999 election, the Minister of Immigration, Tuariki Delamere resigned after controversy over his approval for permanent residency of a group of Chinese businessmen.

It was at this election that New Zealand saw its first campaign based around allegations of scandal and cronyism. The Labour Party made much of such political sleaze, and was partly elected on the basis of getting rid of public sector corruption, mismanagement and improper conflicts of interests. Ever since then, there's being an escalating war in New Zealand politics about personal and political impropriety.

There is no doubt that Labour will now throw everything into bolstering this scandal and attaching the idea of political sleaze to the Government's reputation. Labour blogger, Will Matthews has correctly pointed out the strength of this strategy for the Opposition: 'Allegations of crony capitalism have been one of the only things that the opposition have been able to make stick to National, and a week of stories that incriminate some of the most important figures in government could be the start of a slippery slope that ends in election disaster. If Judith Collins goes, then she could take the future of the National Party with her' - see: Oravida's Employee of the Month.

The latest scandals foretell a particularly aggressive election campaign on its way. There will be much more discussion about links between business and politics - with more columns such as Brian Rudman's latest: Cash needed to grease wheels of democracy. But, in the end, fights over political finance and trust will lead to a further sullying of public's opinion of MPs and political parties - see Gordon Campbell's This is why we don't trust politicians.

Mixing business, politics and citizenship decisions

It's unfortunate for National that another political finance scandal has been brewing this week - with revelations about the National Government providing citizenship to a businessman - against the advice of officials - and then accepting a political donation from one of his businesses - see Jared Savage's original story Citizenship, then $22k for Nats and today's update: Businessman in citizenship row up on violence charges.

This citizenship story has parallels with Labour's scandal over a similarly-named Bill Liu, but David Farrar points out that there are some key differences - see: Another Liu citizenship issue. Nonetheless the saga raises key questions again about whether Cabinet ministers should be over-ruling immigration officials, and today the Herald calls for reform on the matter - see: Ministers and immigration shouldn't mix. See also, Stacey Kirk's Key: 'Nothing untoward' in citizenship waiver.

Further allegations and satire

A less high-profile scandal is alleged by blogger James Dann - see: Special Investigation: Adams Family Values. Other leftwing bloggers have followed up on the issue with further questions for National's Amy Adams - see Rob Salmond's Amy Adams in very serious conflict of interest, and No Right Turn's Amy Adams owes us some answers.

Finally, for satirical and lighthearted portrayals of the issues of the day, see Scott Yorke's John Key explains to the media, Toby Manhire's You've got mail from our esteemed leaders... , and my own blog post of cartoons and photos - Images of Judith Colllins and the Oravida milk scandal.

- NZ Herald

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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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