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.


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