Friday, September 23, 2022

The Mahuta saga: shameful not just for the government, but for the media too

Five months after details began emerging online, the mainstream media were finally forced this week to report conflict of interest allegations swirling around Nanaia Mahuta and her husband.

I don’t think I’ve ever known the New Zealand media to so resolutely ignore an obvious political scandal. It made a striking contrast with their saturation coverage of National’s problems with Sam Uffindell. But ask yourself: which of those two controversies raised more disturbing questions about integrity in politics?

A New Zealand journalist friend of mine who has spent most of his long working life in Australia was astonished that the Mahuta story didn’t provoke an immediate and explosive reaction when it first surfaced. He remarked that even in New South Wales, “where corruption is expected at all levels of government”, the awarding of lucrative contracts and appointments to Mahuta’s husband, Gannin Ormsby, and other members of their whanau would have led to heads rolling.

The aggressive Australian media, despite their leftist leanings, would have been all over the story. But here only one mainstream news outlet, the New Zealand Herald – and more specifically its reporter Kate MacNamara – doggedly pursued the issue and extracted, bit by bit, damning details of what appeared to be flagrant favouritism in the way lucrative work was dished out to Mahuta’s family connections.

Other news organisations mostly maintained a resounding silence. It wasn’t until this week that the steadily mounting pile of allegations finally reached the point where the government was forced to act, though it did so in the gentlest possible manner by announcing a Public Service Commission “review”. By this time Labour was not only enmeshed in allegations of nepotism, but the even more serious C-word was being mentioned: corruption.

Labour had the audacity to spin the review as being motivated by its own virtuous concerns about propriety, but it wasn’t fooling anyone. Any self-respecting government would have cringed with embarrassment and shame from the outset, but Labour presumably feels cocky because it largely enjoys immunity from rigorous media scrutiny. Not only is the prime minister deferentially treated in media stand-ups (even Robert Muldoon got a tougher time in press conferences), but questions and exchanges in the House that reflect badly on the government – including attempts by Opposition MPs to extract information about Ormsby’s government contracts – are routinely ignored by the press gallery.

The announcement of the Public Service Commission review meant that the media could no longer ignore the issue, but even then you had to dig deep on Stuff’s website to find any mention of it. And on Newshub’s 6pm News, the tone of political editor Jenna Lynch’s coverage – in which she referred to the story surfacing in “nasty corners of the internet” – appeared grudging, implying that she had to report it but didn’t think we should give it much credibility.

Inevitably, sceptics will wonder whether news organisations’ reluctance to report the scandal is connected with their acceptance of taxpayers’ money from the Public Interest Journalism Fund. Of course it may not be, but media recipients of funds from the Pravda Project, as I call it, are now stuck with the suspicion that they are ethically compromised and that every story they cover (or more importantly, as in this case, don’t cover) is likely to be treated as potentially tainted by political influence. Perhaps media bosses should have thought of that risk before they signed up to the fund.

There’s another possible explanation for the media’s hands-off approach, and that’s their terror of being labelled as racist. Mahuta is protected by virtue of being the government’s most senior Maori minister and a highly placed member of the powerful Tainui tribal hierarchy. Shane Te Pou, a commentator much favoured by news organisations despite his Labour Party connections (which are almost never acknowledged), was certainly quick off the mark in dismissing scrutiny of Ormsby’s affairs as racist.

For her part, Mahuta pretends that technically adhering to Cabinet Manual guidelines on conflicts of interest absolves her of any fault. It doesn’t, and as a seasoned politician she must know it. Simply declaring a conflict doesn’t magically make it acceptable. A comparison has been drawn with dangerous goods on an aircraft; you don’t get to board the plane just because you’ve declared you’re in possession of them. Besides, there’s the tricky issue of public perception, which the Cabinet Manual warns should be considered in situations where any suspicion might arise. Clearly that didn’t happen when contracts were being showered on Ormsby like confetti, apparently with no contestability and in one instance even without a written contract.

Meanwhile senior ministers Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins continue to spin the feeble line that conflicts of interest are inevitable in a small place like New Zealand. Really? Are they seriously suggesting that in a country awash with Maori consultancies, Mahuta’s tight little family circle was the only source of expertise on a range of Maori issues that extended across youth suicide, waste management, housing, hui facilitation and conservation? Pull the other one.











R Singers said...

Oddly Stuff did cover this

Gary Peters said...

My thought is the media are happy to ignore labour's failings because that is their political persuasion, falling over themselves to virtue signal as "true blue ardernistas", although probably red is a more appropriate colour and the PGIF is merely a bonus for doing "god's work".

David said...

In reply to R Singers, I believe Hipkins only apologized because the original slur was not adequately reported. Stuff was then able to report the exchange as "Seymour accused Labour of nepotism but Hipkins interjected saying what about Bill English's brother". In other words, both sides playing politics, nothing to see here.

Odysseus said...

There is no Fourth Estate in New Zealand, the media act shamelessly as the propaganda arm of the Labour Party. I am afraid the Public Service Commission will serve up a whitewash; at the most one or two public servants may be rebuked for failures of process. These matters require a truly independent investigation by the Auditor-General. The Auditor-General should also inquire into the appointment of Mahuta's sister, Tipa, to the powerful position of Chair of the Maori Advisory Group of Taumata Arowai, a key part of the emerging Three waters "co-governance" architecture.

It took a correspondent on Twitter who goes by the name Thomas Cranmer to begin flagging these issues. He did so in a thoroughly professional manner providing detailed records he had found to support his concerns. We owe him our gratitude.

ihcpcoro said...

The swamp desperately needs draining, but who has the courage to do it? It will have to be one of those 'useless Maoris' as Willie calls them. Corruption is rife at all levels - public service, academia, justice, education, health. A misplaced self belief in entitlement drives much of it imho.

Rob said...

Exactly this "Simply declaring a conflict doesn’t magically make it acceptable" and I would add that following "a process" is only acceptable if the process effectively negates a potential conflict. It is not enough to simply re-arrange the deckchairs.

Anonymous said...

As Odysseus has mentioned, the scope of the inquiry needs to go much further than her husband/cousin Gannin and those other family commissions, for it absolutely needs to look into the appointment of her sister, Tipa Mahuta. Her appointment to that Maori Advisory Group mentioned wields very significant power and while that little side-step engineered with, Kelvin Davis may, prima facie, provide a shallow defence against the claim of nepotism, it does not adequately cover off the very significant conflict of interest that prevails with her role now that the Minister herself has reclaimed the Local Government portfolio. The other issues can be easily quantified in monetary terms, this latter conflict could be of far greater significance and concern.

Alex said...

I'd like to see the purchase orders, requests for service, the invoices and also evidence of what work was actually done and, most importantly, the results of the work.
Ghost invoices are a common method of extracting money without supplying goods or services. Corruption. Theft.
This isn't government money, it is public money. We have a right to know who gets it and why.
If CuzzieCorp is legit then justifying their invoices, and how they became eligible to invoice, won't be an issue.

Anonymous said...

Very good points. It is necessary to account properly for public money and nepotism risks failures in trust.

Brendan McNeill said...

This morning Jane Fenwick, Stuff’s deputy editor describes getting hate mail most days. That is regrettable of course, but she goes on to say:

“Stuff’s company mission is to make Aotearoa a better place. That’s not a lofty ideal, it’s a kaupapa that we believe and deliver on every day.”

I would have thought the mission of any newspaper website was to report the news without bias, fear and favour, and that ‘making Aotearoa a better place’ was the role of Churches, service organisations, individuals and (arguably) politicians.
What if New Zealanders do not like the ‘better place’ Stuff’s editors and journalists have in mind? At least with politicians we can vote them out (albeit with MMP our ability is significantly diminished).

What can we do with Stuff?

We can defund them.

New Zealand already has a publicly funded broadcaster in RNZ. We don’t need two public broadcasters promoting the Government of the day. I suggest removing all state funding from media other than RNZ, and that includes advertising spend promoting Government programmes. Not a single government dollar is to be spent with private media companies. We have seen how Government funding has corrupted ‘private’ media, Stuff in particular. It just has to stop. The Government is able to proclaim its messaging through its own media channels. At least the public is alert to the fact that RNZ is our version of Pravda, and can have their radar tuned appropriately.

We cannot afford to have all of our media operating in Pravda lockstep which is the situation today. We have no social obligation to support ‘independent’ media companies. They should stand or fall on merit, just like any other business. If there is a commercial market for ‘woke’ they will survive, albeit in a much diminished state, and good luck to them.