Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Govt vulnerable on allegations of corruption and cronyism

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Former National Party Minister Maurice Williamson speaks to media outside his electorate office in Pakuranga. Photo / Getty Images
Former National Party Minister Maurice Williamson speaks to media outside his electorate office in Pakuranga. Photo / Getty Images

"Dodgy politicians". That's the sort of response that is likely to be spoken about throughout the country in response to the Maurice Williamson scandal and resignation.

So often the details of such scandals are too opaque, murky and "beltway" for voters to concern themselves with. But nonetheless the public takes allegations about corruption and cronyism very seriously, and can be quick to write off an administration as being tired and politically sleazy.

That's why the National Government is highly vulnerable on the Williamson scandal, especially because the Williamson scandal comes on topic of other similar scandals and allegations.

Opposition politicians are now ramping up the pressure on National with such messages. Toby Manhire deals with this best today in his column, End of rainbow man golden chance for Labour. He says, pointedly, that "the overarching impression plays directly into the opposition's primary line of attack: cronyism, special treatment for special friends.

If there is a weak link in National's stonking popularity, it is the perception that this second-term government is increasingly detached from New Zealanders at large".

Audrey Young ponders Labour's response today, and forecasts that for the next week 'the themes National, cronyism and corruption will be on trial, along with John Key's standards' - see: Lack of judgment as worrying as it is bizarre. Also in terms of Williamson she also ponders whether "power has been so corrupting he lost the ability to tell right from wrong". That will be a widespread feeling.

The problem for National is that the Williamson scandal could be the one that is the straw that "breaks the camel's back" for many voters, because the accumulation of so many individual allegations about cronyism and corruption might suddenly hit the some sort of electoral "critical mass". Today's Dominion Post puts this very well: "It's not individual scandals that typically hurt a government, but a multitude that somehow connect - that indicate some recurrent, essential failing. The Williamson and Collins sagas jointly suggest a troubling cosiness between National and its funding sources. For a party naturally associated with wealth, it's a bad look" - see: Friends with deep pockets. The editorial also points out that the public is proud of the country's low-corruption status, and such political interference in policing challenges that.

The Southland Times newspaper also pushes this point strongly: "Williamson's fall has done some damage to wider Government credibility, feeding the spectre of money buying political favours. Liu, after all, was a party donor. The Opposition will now be encouraging the public to link this to other cases of impropriety on behalf of financial supporters" - see: The perils of just askin'. It argues that "This Government is already particularly vulnerable to the impression of favouritism. Its actions have made it so".

The Herald's editorial is also equally scathing of the National Government, questioning its ethical compass: "The number of such incidents involving members of the Key administration has reached a concerning level. It seems almost as though the Cabinet Manual is an irrelevance unless media disclosure is guaranteed. How much of this behaviour is never revealed, hidden away tidily through 'no surprises' - the insistence that bureaucrats warn politicians in advance of potentially embarrassing publicity?" - see: Williamson - the other questions. The editorial also states, "that this is a far from isolated instance of a member of Mr Key's Government displaying so grievous a lack of judgment that it raised questions about their personal ethics".

So, is the National Party too close to wealthy investors? It depends on your perception. Vernon Small says today that the Williamson scandal "opens the door to the perception of a different standard for the big investor over the average Joan Public; that 'economic importance' could be a factor in the way the police go about their business" - see: Maurice Williamson fallout will colour perceptions. He also says that "It all feeds in to the Opposition parties' narrative that the Government helps its 'rich mates'."

National vulnerable on the immigration aspect



Part of National's vulnerability relates to the ethnic and immigration aspects of National's relationship with donors, which will certainly concern more xenophobic voters. The NBR's Rob Hosking deals with this well in his paywalled column, Williamson/Lui affair a stalking horse for taxpayer funded political parties (paywalled). Hosking says, "That raises the other area of damage: migration and foreign investment. This is the sleeper issue of Election 2014 but it is one which is now waking up, fast. Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of the level of both investment and migration - especially from China - the crude political fact is it makes a lot of New Zealanders very uneasy. And a lot of that unease is stirring in the breasts of people who would normally vote National. Yes, it is often crude, xenophobic and downright racist at times. But it is there, it works at a very emotional level, and it is potentially very damaging not only to National's political prospects but also to the country's longer term well being".

Gordon Campbell also raises similar issues about the public's suspicion of residency-for-money money rules - see: On Maurice Williamson's brand of after-sales service.

Judith Collins scandal reignited



A big downside for the National Government is that the Williamson scandal reignites questions about the Judith Collins Oravida affair. Many commentators are now questioning why Williamson had to resign but Collins didn't. This is best argued by Paul Buchanan in his blog post, Another National double standard. The key part is this: "What is similar and what is different about the two cases? They are similar in that they both involve Chinese nationals with economic ties to the National party or entities linked to it. They are similar in that the ministerial interventions were in violation of the cabinet manual regarding conflicts of interest. They also represent obvious forms of political influence peddling. How are they different? Collins is a key player on National's front bench, whereas Williamson is on the outers with National's heavy hitters. Thus he is expendable while she is not. Comparatively speaking, Williamson's crime was arguably less than that of Collins".

For Andrea Vance the explanation is that Williamson is the victim of Collins being protected by Key: "After Judith Collins' questionable dalliances with Chinese company Oravida, National could not afford another whiff of cronyism. Even the best spin doctors would struggle to contain a scandal that involves a long-serving minister, domestic violence and a wealthy donor. Former minister John Banks will go on trial next month accused of submitting a false election return. In an election year, and weeks out from the Budget, Key can't afford to use precious airtime defending the inappropriate behaviour of a low-level minister. Particularly one that many say is past his sell-by-date" - see: Nicely done Mr PM.

Similarly, Duncan Garner says that Williamson has "paid the price for Key being too kind on Judith Collins and her involvement in helping Oravida get ahead in China" - see: Maurice Williamson's approach was pure arrogance. Garner takes a very hardline on National and Williamson: "What is it with National and their Chinese contacts and donors? It's really starting to stink, isn't it? Anyway, it's now time for Williamson to signal the end of his political career in Wellington. He is no longer fit to stand again in Pakuranga. It's over. He has no future in Parliament. Out in disgrace".

For another explanation of why this is so bad for National, see Danyl Mclauchlan's National's week. He argues that Williamson's sins are worst than other previous transgressions: "I think this Williamson resignation is a pretty big deal. Superficially it resembles the case of Nick Smith resigning after intervening in an ACC debacle. The big difference is that Smith intervened on behalf of a friend who was struggling in her dealings with the agency, while Williamson intervened on behalf of a National Party donor who assaulted his wife and her mother by informing the police that the accused was very wealthy. Smith looked like a Minister who abused his position. Williamson looks like a horrible, hateful crooked scumbag who obviously doesn't accept that he's done anything wrong: he's given a 'sorry if I caused a perception of wrongdoing' non-apology and insists he's going to stand again in September".

Allegations of cronyism



There are other parts of the National Government's administration that are under attack at the moment. And not just from opposition parties. The NBR's Matthew Hooton is now running an on going campaign against 'corporate welfare' and the idea that the state is getting too close to businesses and industry. This is best put in his paywalled column, Joyce resurrects Muldoonist state (paywalled). Hooton focuses on the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), which he says has become 'a socialist monstrosity, the likes of which Mr Anderton could only dream'. Hooton draws attention to numerous subsidizing roles that MBIE undertakes, focusing particular attention on a golf tournament example: "Mr Joyce personally decided that Sir Michael Hill's annual golf tournament - some call it a private party - should receive $2 million of taxpayers' money. Mr Joyce knew the tournament was certain to make a loss. Therefore, he decided, taxpayers should reduce the losses of its promoters, who have close links to the government. The golf tournament's backers even got to present their case directly to senior ministers, after the Major Events Investment Panel - chaired by a close personal friend of the prime minister's chief of staff - couldn't make up its mind".

In today's NBR, Hooton has yet another column focusing on such "cronyism": "decisions on funding are ultimately the gut instincts of ministers and officials. That is, decisions about many hundreds of millions of dollars - if not billions - have been based on value judgments by politicians and bureaucrats against woolly criteria. The whole thing is arbitrary. If this were a sub-Saharan country, we would call it business as usual. In New Zealand we might use another word".

Finally, the demise of Maurice Williamson could provide the necessary boost for the Conservative Party, especially if Colin Craig is able to take advantage of the mess and successfully stand in Williamson's Pakuranga electorate. I'm interviewing Colin Craig today at 1pm for the University of Otago Vote Chat series, and will ask him about this. You can watch this 1-hour conversation livestreamed on the Herald website here.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

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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