Rodney Hide: Risky response to donor row

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David Cunliffe, flanked by David Parker, left, and Grant Robertson. Photo / Mark Mitchell
David Cunliffe, flanked by David Parker, left, and Grant Robertson. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Deny, deny, deny. Attack, attack, attack. That's been Labour's response to businessman Donghua Liu claiming he donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Party.

Labour's strategy is risky. It is challenging Liu's honesty and integrity. He's no doubt feeling aggrieved. The danger for Labour is that Liu produces documents, witnesses and photographs confirming his substantial donations.

That's what did it for Winston Peters in 2008. Sir Owen Glenn was able to prove the donations that Peters denied.

Labour also risks drying up its donations. Attacking a donor is hardly encouraging to others. I doubt there will too many Chinese charity auctions for Labour this election.

It's a risky response but Labour's entire attack strategy has been risky. Attacking John Banks for declaring Dotcom's donations as anonymous ran the risk that its own house wasn't in order. Likewise in attacking Maurice Williamson for ringing the police on Liu's behalf.

Cunliffe's letter 11 years ago for Liu wouldn't have mattered except for the hellfire and brimstone he visited on National for similar advocacy. It's true Cunliffe wasn't ringing the police. It's true Liu wasn't facing charges. But such difference matters constitutionally. It doesn't matter politically.

As far as headlines and soundbites go, Cunliffe has been caught doing exactly what he railed against.

So where are we now? Confused. Liu said he gave substantial money to the Labour Party. The Labour Party says it has no record of it, and hasn't reported any donations from Liu.

But it's quite possible that everyone is telling the truth. The money could have been stolen. That would mean Liu gave the money but Labour never received it. Charity auctions and the like are often chaotic and it is too easy to have no one properly in charge of recording and receipting all payments and donations. This is especially so in political events. Volunteers are enthusiastic but not necessarily experienced and politicians are anxious to stay well away from money changing hands.

Indeed, a big part of Cunliffe's problem - and Banks' and Williamson's - is that politicians shy away from fundraising details precisely to avoid the perception that cash influences decision-making.

The safer course of action for the Labour Party would be to say it was treating the matter seriously. That would mean thanking Liu for coming forward with his information and inviting the police to investigate. The police could try to trace the money, letting Cunliffe off the hook. He would have done everything by the book. He would be open and upfront. It would also kill the story. He couldn't comment while police were investigating.

But Labour didn't do that. It denied and attacked.

There's a reason politicians do the things they do. Cunliffe couldn't be sure what the police would find. Calling in the police runs the risk of finding out more than Cunliffe wants to know.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Herald on Sunday

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