In the dock

July 31, 2008

Vernon Small puts the case for the prosecution in the trial of Peters vs the public.

Winston Raymond Peters, 63, a parliamentarian of Auckland, has appeared in the dock of public opinion demanding proof of illegality beyond reasonable doubt.

It is a standard of proof that might be appropriate in the criminal court, or perhaps he would prefer to civilly demand a standard based on the balance of probabilities. It is a standard now set by Prime Minister Helen Clark, too. Without it (or proof she has been misled) she accepts the word of “honourable members” – actually the parliamentary benchmark, which was never the political benchmark, unless it suits.

“Allegations swirling around” was once the standard by which ministers were judged and which had Dover Samuels sacked, and saw David Parker prematurely fall on his sword.

Miss Clark’s defence of inaction now must be that any hypocrisy on Mr Peters’ part relates to his role as NZ First leader, not his role as foreign affairs, racing and associate senior citizens minister, because it is impossible to believe that, say, Mr Parker, as Energy Minister, would survive if he claimed the legal right to have his lights blazing all night while calling for others to save power.

But because of MMP and the need for his support, Peters will not be treated as the other Minsiters were.

But “nothing illegal” is not a standard of accountability the media, the public or other politicians have ever set for politicians anywhere, particularly those who, like Mr Peters, will not address serious and specific questions as openly as they can.

It is as if he will not face accountability for himself – or apology, or contrition, or just putting the record straight, even when it is damaging his reputation as the scourge of the unaccountable.

But perhaps Miss Clark is waiting and biding her time. Waiting for the various estimates votes to pass this week and next. As money supply issues they are the last implied confidence and supply votes this side of the election. Biding her time to judge whether she is better to go into the election having disciplined Mr Peters, or as the defender of her deal with him. (Yes, National has not ruled out a deal with him, either, but Mr Key’s party also voted en masse for the so-called anti-smacking bill. And guess who is getting all the public backlash?)

But what if the public has been misled by believing a politician who claimed one set of rules for others over donations and disclosure and use of secret trusts, and has another for himself?

In other words, who is now saying: “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.”

MPs are not allowed to utter the ‘h’ word in the house but this is hypocrisy.

Now, I should say I have never taken it personally when Mr Peters has attacked the media, and I have always been treated courteously and fairly by him – though often frustratingly evasively, too.

However, on this occasion, abusing the media for raising substantive questions – which only Mr Peters can answer or cause to be answered – just does not cut it.

Nor does a favourite tactic of Mr Peters: elevating valid questions to the level of accusations and allegations and then demanding they be “proved”…

When it comes to avoiding answers, the man is a legend.

There are signs in his behaviour in the past week that he is beginning to believe his own legend, that all he has to do is bluster, attack the messenger and flash his smile to rise above any and all allegations, even those of hypocrisy. He cannot and he has not…

Of course, the trust fund, and Mr Peters’ refusal to engage with any questions about it, is not an issue of ministerial responsibility but is one of his own credibility with his supporters – but still an area of legitimate interest to the media.

Not accusations, but legitimate questions that deserve answers from an elected representative so the jury in the court of public opinion can come to a verdict.

Until he does the verdict is guilty of both arrogance and hypocriy, neither of which is a crime but nor are they acceptable behaviour for a Minister.

[Keeping Stock gives the verdict from another court of public opinion here]


System not meter readers at fault?

July 31, 2008

On Sunday I wrote about the shocked customers  who received power bills for much larger sums than usual and then blamed meter readers for misreading the figures. 

However, it might be the system, not the meter readers, that’s at fault because rural meters are read only every three months and it is possible that estimates made in the other two months were well below actual usage so there was a huge jump when the actual usage was measured.

The Southland Times says the system needs to improve:

Contact Energy is not necessarily to blame if power bills are big and people have trouble paying them. But it is very much to blame if it is operating an estimates-reliant billing system that is needlessly blowing the budgets of southern households to bits by building up ridiculous log-jams of bad news that explode in a huge catch-up bill…

Actual readings, rather than estimates, occur every two months in urban residential areas and every three months in rural areas. The estimates are based on historical usage. The suspicion is now acute that the system is in sore need of recalibration because it is proving a budgeting nightmare…

Meantime, common sense cries out for consumers to read their own meters and phone through the results so that their bills do regularly and accurately reflect the actual consumption. Frankly, it’s easy to learn, easy to do and it saves a whole heap of budgeting trouble.

Mercifully, it also looks like the meter reader has a finite future in any case. Electricity companies, including Contact and Meridian, are installing smart meters nationwide — technology that allows meters to be read remotely. Roll on the day that this chore becomes automated.

For that matter, who among us wouldn’t welcome an environment when there was more widespread competition between electricity retailers outside the major cities, and more use of comparative tools like the PowerSwitch online calculator which, since 2002, has been helping consumers shopping around for the best electricity deal.

A recent Electricity Commission survey found just 13 percent of respondents had even heard of it.

You can find it here.


Rodney’s the winner

July 31, 2008

Colin Espiner reckons the real winner in the Peters/ NZ First donation debacle is Rodney Hide.

There’s one politician who has emerged from the disgraceful episode involving the hypocritical Winston Peters and his wealthy donor mates head and shoulders above the rest…

It’s ACT leader Rodney Hide. The perk-buster from Epsom has recovered his sense of purpose over the donations scandal, and he is the only politician who has been pushing Peters for answers both inside the House and out.

OK, he looks like Ted Bovis from Maplins Holiday Camp in the old BBC telly show Hi-de-Hi!, in his silly yellow jacket that his staff can’t persuade him to remove. But he’s talking a lot more sense.

I had begun to worry that Hide had become so narcissistic over his weight loss and various stage performances that he had disappeared up his own ego. The excruciating appearances on TVNZ’s Good Morning programme, the dancing, the Pollyanna-ish reinvented “let’s not be so beastly to each other” Rodney saw him lose his mana and his political nous along with the kilograms.

But in the past two weeks he has gone a long way to redemption. It was Hide who demanded that the Speaker consider a breach of privilege case against Peters. And Hide who, in a stroke of genius, yesterday complained to the Serious Fraud Office, thereby ensuring the story will live on for a few more days…

Of course it’s easy for ACT to criticise when it does not have its future at stake. But that is the role of the smaller parties, and one that until recently Hide seemed to have forgotten.

There may be another reason why the Yellow Coat of Epsom has a spring back in his step. National is giving Hide plenty of room to play on the centre-Right at the moment. The Working for Families announcement was an absolute gift. Judging by some of the comments on this blog, there will be a few disgusted National voters heading ACT’s way over the decision to continue to deliver welfare to upper-middle-income earners.

It will be very interesting to see whether ACT receives a boost in its polling over this. Hide has been in the news nightly. It’s sometimes difficult to pick up rises in very small sample sizes, of course, but I think ACT is still likely to register an increase…

The ultimate irony for Peters would be if it is his nemesis who ends up around the Cabinet table and not him. At least Hide could say he’d earned it.

The leaders of the wee parties do have more leeway than those of the major ones and Hide has made the most of it. Even without the yellow jacket, no-one would have been in any doubt about where he was standing in the past week.


It’s raining, it’s pouring …

July 31, 2008

Just a week ago I mentioned that we were nearly at the end of the seventh month but had had only six inches (about 150mms) of rain. That’s less than a third of our annual 20 inch average.

We had about an inch and a half (40mms) in the next couple of days and it continued drizzling off and on until yesterday when it started raining properly. We had another inch (24mms) overnight and as it’s been pouring all day we’ll have had at least that much again.

Irrigation means the water table is higher than it used to be so we’re getting more run off. Calving is underway, the paddocks are soggy and the tracks are muddy.

We don’t usually say we’ve had too much rain here, but we’ve definitely had enough for now.


They’ve kept the wrong half of the promise

July 31, 2008

A Tuatapere courier driver has become blind in one eye while waiting for cataract surgery.

 John Harvey, 70, has been waiting for the surgery on his right eye since having the procedure done to his left eye in March 2005 at Dunedin Hospital.

And now he’s been told Southland Hospital’s ophthalmology department is accepting only sight-threatening referrals until further notice.

Remember how Labour promised in 1999 that if we paid a little more tax they’d fix health?

In spite of taking a lot more tax the health system is ailing which means they’ve kept the wrong half of the promise.


Why has this slipped under the radar?

July 31, 2008

Sunday Star Times journalist Tony Wall wrote about the links between New Zealand First and the racing industry on Sunday.

Michael Basset says:

On the face of it, this looks like a scandal that dwarfs the Winebox. It’s time Tony Wall received a bit more encouragement from the mainstream media. He must surely be the best investigative journalist in the country? What he has told us appears to amount to corruption on a grand scale.

I blogged on the story on Sunday and included a summary  from the print edition which isn’t on line but I haven’t seen any other references to the story until today. 

Given the attention on donations to NZ First and its leader I would have thought the story might have got much more attention than it has. Now the blogosphere is on to it, perhaps it will.

Hat tip: No Minister, Keeping Stock,


State funding problem, not solution

July 31, 2008

Brian Rudman thinks the solution to the Peters debacle would be state funding of political parties.

What does it say about our democracy when the big two political parties – and some of the minnows – are dependent for much of their funding on private handouts from a few rich, anonymous businessmen. ..

Last year’s Electoral Finance Act has done away with the secret slush funds. Its big shortcoming is it failed to provide the political parties with an alternative source of funding.

But it hasn’t stopped parties getting money from their members which is the best way to ensure they stay in touch with their supporters.

Democracy is surely the loser if parties don’t have the money to develop and promote new policy. And be able to critique others.

The problem this year is not that parties have no money, it’s that the EFA prevents them from using it.

In 1986, the Royal Commission on the Electoral System recommended a form of state funding very similar to that already in existence in Australia.

Noting the increasing cost of the political process, the commission said “too great a reliance” on outside funders like trade unions and corporations would “be detrimental to our democracy and might … lead to corruption of our political process … ” Nothing’s changed.

In Australia, any political donation over $10,500 has to be declared by donor and receiver. State funding is provided based on votes cast. At last year’s federal election the payout was $2.70 a vote cast. It’s a cheap price to pay to keep the millionaires at bay, and democracy working.

But rather than being the solution, state funding would create a problem by distancing politicians from their supporters.

Democracy requires participation of the people and that would be handicapped if we hand over  responsibility for funding parties to the taxpayer.


13,600 EFA breaches

July 31, 2008

An investigation by the State Services Commission has found 13,600 references to the Labour-led Government which must be removed from government websites because of the Electoral Finance Act.

National deputy leader Bill English said the SSC had sent out a memo to 120 state agencies saying “Labour-led government” was not appropriate under the EFA.

A search by the SSC had found the offending phrase 13,600 times on taxpayer funded websites, Mr English said.

Cabinet Minister Pete Hodgson said the SSC had advised departments of their obligations under the EFA and he hoped they were well followed. He said as time went by the references would be removed.

As time went by? Would any of us be able to attend to matters which breached the law “as time went by”?

Mr English also claimed that a Labour MP was distributing stickers with the phrase “Labour-led Government” and featuring two ticks. These were funded by the Prime Minister’s office and in clear breach of the EFA, he said.

Mr Hodgson did not respond to the substance of Mr English’s allegation.

Why would he when the EFA was supposed to stop National spending its own money not hamper Labour in spending the taxpayers’?


Conduct unbecoming

July 31, 2008

Is this appropriate conduct for a Minister of Foreign Affairs?

Contacted for comment yesterday, the party leader, Winston Peters, said: “Phil, I told you I’m not talking to a lying wanker like you. See you.” He then hung up.

That was his response to questions from Dominion post journalist Phil Kitchen about a deposit slip showing $19,998 was deposited into NZ First’s bank account from one or more cheques in December 1999.


Publication part of punishment

July 31, 2008

Publication of some offenders’ photos could be a more powerful deterrent than a sentence according to Distirct Court Judge Stephen O’Driscoll.

He was ruling on an application by the ODT to publish a photo of a man who admitted downloading images showing sexual exploitation of children.

Granting the application, Judge O’Driscoll said the basic principle of an open court meant the media, which had an obligation to be fair and balanced, was “the eyes and ears of the public” and always entitled to be in court.

… Judge O’Driscoll said the publication of the defendant’s name and photograph could be a powerful deterrent to both those already involved in such offending and those considering it.

The defendent’s counsel opposed the application for lifting name suppression noting the impact on the defendent’s wife and elderly mother. But the judge said it was a sad consequence of offending that there were always innocent family members who suffered.

And of course the innocent children who are exploited by pornographers.


Winston in Wonderland

July 30, 2008

Winston Peters attacked journalists today and said the media, like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, believed impossible things.

His reference to the Mad Hatters’ Tea Party today reminded me he is like another Lewis Carol character who delights in obfuscation:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs: they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

‘Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’

‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, …

Update: The transcript of Peters’ speech in parliament yesterday is here.


Paua project waits five years for funds

July 30, 2008

An East Coast paua hatchery was forced to wait five years for a grant from the Ministry of Agriculture’s Sustainable Farming Fund.

The SFF approved the $230,500 grant in 2002 but the money wasn’t paid over until November last year.

National’s agriculture spokesman David Carter  attributes the delay to “bureaucratic ineptness”.

The grant was for the development of a commercially viable paua production system. The project was to study yellow-foot and virgin paua so seed stock production methods could be developed; to develop a selective breeding system across these two species and common paua to provide superior stock; and to test and develop a recirculating sea water system.

The applicant, Te Runanga o Turanganui a Kiwa, wrote to MAF, MAF’s director general, the Minsiter of Maori Affairs and Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton seeking answers.

Carter has obtained an internal memo  which states:

” ‘all failings – and there has [sic]been many of them – were at MAF’s end’ and that it was ‘extremely embarrassing’ for MAF.”

The Minister should also be embarrassed but as Phillipa Stevenson points out at Dig ‘n’ Stir he avoided the issue when Carter questioned  him in parliament this week.

Five years of ineptness deserves more than obfuscation. Does nobody in government know how to say, “sorry we stuffed up”?

Hat tip: Dig ‘n’ Stir


Yule wins Local Govt Presidency

July 30, 2008

Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule has been elected president of Local Government New Zealand.

Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast, who contested the presidency too, is the new deputy.

Bob Harvey, Waitakere mayor had earlier criticised local bodies supporting Yule’s nomination:

“It’s a brainless stand as the largest urban authority in New Zealand to not think through what the job entails and I’m surprised and amazed at their decision. Local government will be in serious trouble if they don’t come to their sense and realise that the job is beyond the mayor of a small rural district.”

Obviously enough of those who voted realise that size doesn’t matter and a president with an understanding of provincial issues and a deputy who knows about urban issues should ensure the views of all local authorities are understood and represented.

Update: I stand to be corrected on this but I think Yule was electorate chair for Michael Laws when he (Laws) was a National MP. The skills he’d need for that job will be very useful in his new role :)



Mainland betters NZX-50

July 30, 2008

We call it the Mainland with our tongues in our cheeks but now we have the numbers to prove we’re weathering economic tough times better than the north.

The Deloitte South Island Index measures the market capitalisation of 33 companies with head offices or the majority of their business in the South Island and puts them into an index relative to their size.

For the first six months of this year, the index was down by 8.5 per cent, beating New Zealand’s benchmark NZX-50 index which fell 21 per cent. Over the last quarter (April to June) it has risen into positive territory, growing 3 per cent versus the NZX-50′s drop of 8 per cent.

However, doing better isn’t the same as doing well as Deloitte partner Paul Munro points out:

At a headline level it shows South Island companies are doing better than the rest of the country, but we need to balance that out with the fact that of the 33 companies measured 61 per cent saw a drop in their market capitalisation.”

Munro said the strong performance over the last quarter had been boosted by larger companies like PGG Wrightson and NZ Farming Systems Uruguay.

PGG Wrightson, the second largest company on the index, grew its market cap by $127 million, boosted by a higher share price and $5 million in bonus shares being issued, while NZ Farming Systems Uruguay saw its market cap increase by $83 million on the back of a rising share price driven by predicted increased earnings. Munro said their strength followed the boom in the dairy sector with record milk solid payouts.

He said this sector was having a positive impact on other businesses and because a greater proportion of business in the South Island was linked to dairying it was helping to hold up the economy.

It’s not all down to dairying, but the record payout from Fonterra and the continuation of conversions from sheep to dairy farms are pouring money into rural communities. That in turn is insulating the provinces from the worst effects of the recession.


WTO talks fail again

July 30, 2008

The latest Doha Round  of trade negotiations have failed which deals a blow to New Zealand’s hopes for better access to overseas markets.

Charles Finny of the Wellington Regional Chamber of Commerce said the deal on the table at the WTO wasn’t perfect but everyone would have been better off with it than without it.

“For New Zealand it offered the end of agricultural export subsidies, caps on domestic agricultural subsidies, and improved market access for agriculture, fisheries, forestry and manufactures. More work was needed on services but signs there were positive that some forward movement could be achieved also. It is therefore a tragedy that a small number of WTO members were trying to unpick elements of this package.”

The New Zealand International Business Forum also expressed its deep disappointment that the WTO meeting had failed to agree on a way forward for the Doha negotiations.

“Failure in Geneva is bad news for everyone” said NZIBF executive director Stephen Jacobi. “Bad for New Zealand because the opportunity to reduce tariffs and export subsidies once again eludes us.

“Bad for the developing world because they need improved access to developed country markets to promote growth and address poverty.

“And bad for the global economy that desperately needs the boost in confidence that conclusion of the Doha round would bring”, said Jacobi.

Everyone gains from free trade and the ones who lose the most from trade restrictions are those who can least afford it.


Hide takes Peters’ complaint to SFO

July 30, 2008

Act leader Rodney Hide  has lodged a complaint about Winston Peters with the Serious Fraud Office.

Mr Hide said in a statement today: “It is my considered opinion that issues raised by the Dominion Post and the new Zealand Herald require proper and independent investigation.

“The Serious Fraud office is the appropriate Government department capable of carrying out an independent, thorough and competent investigation   more so with its current powers.

“It is vital that such an investigation be seen to be unfettered by any suggestion of political interference, real or imagined.”

Serious allegations require serious consideration.


Act with flaws replaced with flawed Act

July 30, 2008

Several commentators are using the NZ First funding debacle to defend the Electoral Finance Act.

I don’t recall anyone who attacked the EFA saying the previous Act was perfect. I twasn’t and a change was overdue. But replacing an Act with flaws with a badly flawed Act has created more problems than it solved.


Yes Minister approach to funding

July 30, 2008

Yes-Minister  approach to funding means Dunedin women are not getting treatment for post-natal depression.

Women with postnatal depression in Dunedin are missing out on support because a $140,000 service which should have gone ahead last September has not received Otago District Health Board funding, Plunket says.

Plunket Society operations manager for Otago-Southland Barb Long says lack of the service, which will proceed only in a limited way next year with private funding, is a huge gap in services.

She said the society, which had been identified by the board as the preferred provider for the service last July, was only advised in May that the board would not be funding it.

Board chairman Richard Thomson said while he understood Ms Long’s disappointment, it would have been irresponsible for the board to introduce services it could not fund in the long term.

He describes the board as being stuck in a “Yes, Minister” situation (a reference to a British television programme which highlighted the foibles of bureaucracy) where it may get money to start up a service but not be funded to sustain it.

This is not the only Yes-Minsiter aproach to funding in the region.

Oamaru Hospital bought a CT scanner last year but the ODHB which holds the contract for scans will not pass over payment for North Otago patients. This means North Otago patients who qualify for ACC are getting scans locally but other people have to travel to Dunedin Hospital for publicly funded scans or pay to have them in Oamaru.

This is a ridiculous situation when Oamaru has the equipment and the expertise to provide the service while Dunedin has a waiting list for scans and it is a three hour return journey from Oamaru to the city. 

If people require a scan funding shouldn’t be dependent on where they get it.


He never was the best man

July 30, 2008

The Listener  editorial gives us a timely reminder of how Winston Peters came to be Foreign Minsiter:

 … the knowledge that Peters was not necessarily the best man for the job, but rather had the right number of MPs to enable Labour to form an MMP government, remains a taint on his appointment.

Fears about how bad a job Peters might do as Foreign Minister haven’t been realised, but the events of the last couple of weeks show he’s still not the best man for it.

Peters’ image is affected, too, by revelations in the past fortnight of secret donations to his party. There are good reasons that donors to political parties should be able to remain anonymous in both their own interests, and to prevent corruption. But there are far too many unanswered questions around these particular donations for public comfort.

So far, Peters has maintained the cautious backing of Prime Minister Helen Clark, mostly because the pair have a mutually dependent political relationship. However difficult the current situation is, it is in both parties’ interests to keep going unless Clark decides Peters has become so much of a liability and distraction that Labour must cut its losses.

Even if the arrangement survives – and MMP makes such deals not only possible but often necessary – all political parties will be tarred by public distaste for what has been revealed. New Zealand First and its leader may have broken no rules, but the obfuscation, and Peters’ Muldoon-like accusatory, bullying and vindictive tactics against individual reporters and the media in general have done him no favours.

On occasions, Peters likes to give a cheeky grin, as though he and reporters know the interview process is little more than part of the great game of politics. But serious questions have been raised that demand answers. This is not a game. The unanswered questions go to the heart of public confidence in the integrity of the political process.

Peters would be the first to blame the media for the low opinion in which the public holds politicians. But his actions and his continued obfuscation only serve to prove that, in his case, that view is more than justified; and questions about the inegrity of an MP then leads to doubts about the integrity of the political system.


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