INDEPENDENT NEWS

On Blurring The Lines Around Political Corruption

Published: Fri 24 May 2024 01:40 PM
It may be a relic of a previous era of egalitarianism, but many of us like to think that, in general, most New Zealanders are as honest as the day is long. We’re good like that, and smart as. If we’re not punching above our weight on the world stage, we’re coming up with ingenious number 8 wire solutions to complex problems. Oh, we may have a few wide boys in our midst - who doesn’t? - but a culture of political corruption is something held to be more typical of other nationalities or other races. Like say, the wily Oriental, or the cunning traders from the Levant. Not us though, surely.
It has been quite a difficult month for anyone still holding those perceptions. The I am Hope charity whose chair donated $27,000 to the National Party over two elections has seen its Gumboot Friday initiative awarded a $24 million contract to provide mental health services. Going by the LinkedIn page of the I am Hope Foundation, and other online evidence, former National MP and National Party leader Todd Muller is listed as an employee, and has been a board trustee.
Obviously, extra funding for counselling youth with mild to moderate mental health problems is welcome news - provided the procurement process, the quality of the counselling, and the research evidence of its efficacy are all available, and above board. Surely, these checks have to be even more transparent and rigorous, given the proximity of the I Am Hope Foundation to the current government. But checks, balances and reliable research evidence? No, evidently not :
Three Government ministers have repeatedly cited a figure that the Gumboot Friday charity provides a “social return on investment” of $5.70 for every $1 invested. The figure comes from a report commissioned by the charity itself, by Impact Lab, a company co-founded and chaired by former National leader Bill English.
Significantly, a similarly speedy allocation of funding to specialist services treating people with more severe mental health problems has not happened. This has to put further question marks over why Gumboot Friday has been prioritised and gifted with so much money, so readily. No conflict of interest exists here, PM Christopher Luxon
insists.But wait, there’s more
Moving right along...The ACT MP formulating the party’s stance on pharmaceutical policy holds shares in drug companies. Again, no conflict of interest exists, says ACT leader David Seymour, because... the shares have been declared. (But not sold.) Reportedly, New Plymouth MP David MacLeod omitted to inform the Electoral Commission of $180,000 in donations he had received, with this failure being treated as an honest mistake. “He stuffed up big time,” said Luxon, adding that he felt “disappointed” with his colleague, who had ‘disappointed himself.” It had been a “boo boo,” one TV channel helpfully suggested.Blurring the Boundaries
While deliberate wrong-doing is not being alleged in these cases, the blurring of boundaries has to be of concern. Public perceptions are supposed to matter. MacLeod is likely to face further investigation. Initially, he declared $29,268 in donations, a figure that has now been adjusted upwards over sevenfold, to $207, 662, with most of the difference having accrued in 2022. MacLeod has professed himself unaware that those 2022 donations had to be declared, and/or he assumed that they had been. In addition, McLeod’s official return had also omitted a $10,000 donation received in 2023.
Inevitably, questions have arisen about MacLeod’s campaign spending, which officially amounted to only $22,826. As Stuff reported six months before the election, there had been an unprecedented “tsunami” of MacLeod advertising across the electorate: “From the exit of Airport Drive, to the western entrance of Surf Highway 45, the southern entry to New Plymouth and just about every suburb of the city, MacLeod’s image can be seen on billboards, buses, electronic signage, fences, flyers, social media, magazines and newspaper adverts.”
The loophole being: campaign spending is capped at $30,600 only during the three month period before election day. The vast bulk of that MacLeod spending “tsunami” seems to have occurred - quite
legally – before the regulated period kicked in. The Electoral Commission may need to address this loophole in future.
The readiness (so far) to accept the “honest mistake” explanation for the MacLeod affair has been in contrast to the Michael Wood episode last year, where Wood’s failure to rid himself of some airport shares ended his political career. Wood’s transgression had been that while he had declared those holdings on the public register of pecuniary interests in 2022, he had not retrospectively corrected his omission to do so in previous years, or taken the further step of divesting those shares. In his case, the perception of a possible conflict of interest was deemed to be intolerable. Evidently, times have changed.
In the MacLeod case, the New Plymouth MP was also chairing the select committee conducting hearings on the fast track legislation, via which one of his donors was seeking fast track approval for a business venture. MacLeod has now been removed from that post. With hindsight, it would have been advisable for MacLeod to have investigated whether any potential conflicts of interest existed, and then recused himself. Did anyone in the party hierarchy ask him if there might be a problem, before appointing him to such a sensitive post?Double standards
Unfortunately, such incidents can only further the public’s already low trust in politicians. Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer has pointed to the apparent double standard: “When the brown party is late to file a disclosure, we’re referred to the Police and Serious Fraud Office. When the National Party doesn’t disclose, it’s a ‘mistake’ and ‘poor error of judgement’. This is not one law for all.”
Footnote: Further to that “independent” review of Kāinga Ora by Bill English whose departing record in his final year in office ( o.e. minus 1500 state houses) somehow qualified him to damn Kāinga Ora, which was well on track to build 4,800 to 6,000 state houses a year. Despite its allegedly “unsustainable”forecast debt of $9 billion debt, Kāinga Ora was actually building up housing assets worth tens of
billions of dollars, had an income stream from rents, access to cheap borrowing, and (previously) the certainty of state funding. Its debt was “unsustainable” only if the current government refused to fund it.
Thanks to Newsroom’s Tim Murphy, we now also know that English was paid for his review services out of funds allocated for urgent housing needs. Yep, some of the money allocated to house needy people in motels and elsewhere was diverted into paying $274,000 to three contractors – English and two associates – to produce a very slim review document of text, minus the footnotes and tables. Reportedly, English billed for 26 days work at a rate of $2,500 a day, or nearly $65,000 in all.Lip Critical Mass
In the video for this pop punk ear worm, the New York band Lip Critic cast themselves as being on the run from greedy music industry types in hot pursuit of them after the band stole back its music masters, and (eventually) torched them.... a better option evidently, than a life of servitude to the record industry. All in all, this is a pretty funny take on the old punk ethos, as re-imagined in the style of a Guy Ritchie movie:

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