David Cunliffe has an unfortunate manner on the moral high ground. He adopts a tone of solemn, heavy-hearted condemnation befitting a preacher in hell. He ought to adopt the same tone when he apologises for a false denial of a dealing with wealthy business immigrant and political donor Donghua Liu. On Tuesday Mr Cunliffe baldly denied advocating for Mr Liu in the latter's residency application under the previous Labour Government. Yesterday the Herald disclosed that in 2003 Mr Cunliffe wrote a letter pressing immigration officials for a decision on Mr Liu's application.
If we give the Labour leader a benefit he seldom gives others, we can make a distinction between "advocating" and pressing for a decision.
He did not expressly endorse the application, though he did mention that Mr Liu hoped to set up a business exporting agricultural and horticultural products to China. If that was not "advocacy", what is?
But mainly Mr Cunliffe had wanted to know when Mr Liu could expect a decision, much as former National minister Maurice Williamson was not trying to influence the police on his behalf when Mr Williamson contacted a district commander about a domestic assault investigation. He said he just wanted to ensure the police were on solid ground.
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Mr Williamson had to resign from the ministry, with Mr Cunliffe of course pronouncing darkly on his misdeeds. Mr Cunliffe is not about to demand a similar sacrifice of himself. He makes a distinction between interfering in a police investigation and writing to immigration officials, as MPs seem to do all the time.
It is well past time to ask why they allow themselves to be used in this way. An MP is in no position to vouch for the character and credentials of somebody who has just arrived in the country with investment intentions for the purpose of residency rights. An industry of immigration consultants exists to guide applicants through the procedures.
The only reason to involve an MP would seem to be that the ultimate decision will be made by the Immigration Minister. And the only reason an MP would intercede for someone scarcely known, may be that a donation to the party's election fund might ensue.
Donghua Liu was given New Zealand residency in 2005 by Labour's minister Damien O'Connor against the advice of his officials. Five years later, he received citizenship from National's Nathan Guy against official advice. Mr Liu attended several National Party fundraisers and one of his companies donated $22,000 to the party in 2012. The Labour Party says it has no record of any contributions from him but there is more than one way to donate to a party. At a Labour fundraising auction in 2007 Mr Liu bought a book signed by Helen Clark for which, the Herald's sources say, he paid $15,000. The same year he paid an unknown large sum for a bottle of wine at a fundraiser.
Mr Cunliffe, who became Immigration Minister in 2006, claimed this week that not only had he never advocated for Mr Liu in an immigration application but had never met him. Now that the first claim has proven false, the second takes on a different hue. Sadly, it is all too likely that an MP could write in support of an application for an immigrant he had never met.
But none of this matters as much as the word of a party leader bidding to be Prime Minister in a few months. Mr Cunliffe cannot afford to fall from his high horse more than once. This denial might not force his resignation or ouster but it has done Labour no favours. Next time its leader puts on his scolding face, it will be less convincing. That is the price he has paid.
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