Friday, October 7, 2022

Is this what we've come to?

What sort of country have we become?

The New Zealand Herald broke the news this week that former cabinet minister Kris Faafoi, who resigned only 12 weeks ago, has set himself up as a lobbyist. It’s already an overcrowded field, but he should have a distinct advantage over all the other political hustlers who infest Wellington because of his inside knowledge and contacts. “We know how the government works at the highest level,” his company’s website boasts. Translation: Faafoi’s mates in the cabinet and his former underlings in the bureaucracy are only a phone call away.

The pseudonymous Thomas Cranmer – the same blogger who blew open the Nanaia Mahuta nepotism scandal – points out that Faafoi’s new gig wouldn’t be allowed in most comparable democracies. Australia, Britain and Canada all impose stand-down periods before former ministers and other public figures can profit as lobbyists from their connections and inside knowledge. In Canada it’s five years.

But here? Go for your life, mate. Fill your boots. We’re cool with it. No worries.

And it gets worse. Cranmer reveals that Faafoi will be working for Dialogue 22, a company set up by an Auckland ad man named Greg Partington. Dialogue 22 will presumably come under the umbrella of Partington’s Waitapu Group, which also includes the “cultural consultancy” Tatou. And Tatou’s CEO is Skye Kimura, who just happens to be the wife of Faafoi’s former cabinet colleague Peeni Henare, the Minister of Defence.

It all starts to look uncomfortably cosy. In fact cosyism is the word used by leftist commentator Max Rashbrooke, in a courageous column last week, to describe what he called a chronic problem in New Zealand public life. Rashbrooke wrote: “We are largely spared, thankfully, the envelopes-stuffed with-cash-corruption that infects other countries. [Editor’s note: Not necessarily, but we’ll come to that shortly.] But we’re suffused with overly close relationships: nepotism, jobs for the boys, all that jazz.”

He described cosyism as “those insidious processes by which public positions, jobs and contracts sometimes go not to the best-qualified applicants but to the friends, contacts and family members of people in power”. A cosy society, he went on, “tolerates the most colossal conflicts of interest”.

Rashbrooke cited several examples, but it seemed that what finally prodded him to sound the alarm was the Mahuta-Gannin Ormsby affair – a seething morass of nepotism and conflicting interests that Mahuta herself seemed to think was magically rendered acceptable because she met technical disclosure requirements so wide open you could paddle a double-hulled waka through them.

When even Labour’s friends start spitting the dummy – and I don’t think I’m wrong in assuming that Rashbrooke’s natural inclination would be to support a social-democratic party such as Labour – then you know Jacinda Ardern has a serious integrity issue on her hands, even if she won’t admit it.

Cosyism is an appropriate word to describe relationships between people in power which, while not necessarily breaking any rules, nonetheless cause unease about the possibility of improper influence being brought to bear behind the scenes. Another example was back in the public spotlight recently when Justice Minister Kiri Allan and RNZ presenter Mani Dunlop proudly announced their engagement.

When I wrote about their relationship in June, I said many people would feel uncomfortable that a senior government politician was in an intimate relationship with RNZ’s director of Maori news, but I could put it no more strongly than that. I’ve had a rethink since then and come to a more emphatic position. I think it’s plain wrong that the partner of a minister holds a key editorial position – and a politically sensitive one at that – in a major state-owned news organisation. The only honourable remedy, though I don’t expect it to happen, would be for Dunlop to stand down and take another job within RNZ where there could be no suspicion of improper influence being exercised on news and current affairs.

Nepotism and cosyism, however, are not the only threats to the integrity of public life in New Zealand, nor are they necessarily the most worrying ones. We were reminded of another this week by the guilty verdicts in the trial of three Chinese businessmen charged with fraud in relation to political donations.

For me, by far the most significant revelation from the trial was the degree to which some New Zealand party officials seemed prepared to ingratiate themselves with potential foreign donors whose generosity, we can safely assume, wasn’t motivated by an altruistic desire to enhance New Zealand democracy.

Simon Bridges and the disgraced Jami-Lee Ross were both implicated in this scandal. Bridges was not charged with any offence and Ross was found not guilty, but both were tainted by their apparent eagerness to court potential foreign donors about whom they apparently knew little.

The groveller-in-chief, however, appears to have been former National Party president Peter Goodfellow, whose hunger for donations was such that he wrote a glowing testimonial for one of the defendants, Yikun Zhang, whom Tim Murphy of Newsroom has identified as a key figure in organisations that serve as a front for the Chinese Communist Party.

In a reference written on National Party note paper, Goodfellow wrote: “It gives me great pleasure to support the nomination of Yikun Zhang for a New Zealand royal honour, in respect of business, philanthropy, community services and NZ-China relations.”

Goodfellow went on: “Throughout the time I have known him, Yikun has been one of the most highly regarded members of the Chinese community in New Zealand, or in China. Yikun is well known for his genuineness, aptitude and generosity.”

The extravagant endorsement appears to have worked. Zhang was subsequently made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours. Now he’s a convicted criminal facing a possible prison term of seven years.

Was it pure gullibility, desperation for funds or a combination of the two that persuaded Goodfellow – who was reportedly admired by some within National for his fund-raising ability, though no other talent was publicly evident – to compromise his party by seeking Zhang’s patronage?

Whatever the explanation, the donations scandal - even though it was exposed - is a hugely damaging blow to New Zealand’s reputation as a country immune from the curses of bribery and corruption. The apparent readiness of New Zealand political parties - Labour as well as National - to snuggle up (almost literally) to donors of dubious repute was a signal that we’re available to the highest bidders, no questions asked (other than a polite request to break the money down into small amounts so they don't have to be disclosed).

Is this what we’ve come to?

Footnote: As an afterthought, I've inserted a link to the Waitapu Group. Readers can form their own conclusions about what sort of organisation it is.

 

 

20 comments:

David said...

I think it’s plain wrong that the partner of a minister holds a key editorial position – and a politically sensitive one at that – in a major state-owned news organisation.

It's not often I would disagree with you very strongly on something, Karl, but I do on this one.

I do not believe that anyone should lose their job or not get a job on the basis of whom they live with.

Māni Dunlop is a senior journalist with RNZ and holds the position she does on her own merits, IMO. I have not seen the remotest suggestion Dunlop holds or got that job because her partner is Kiri Alan. Dunlop joined RNZ in 2011 -- years before she became an item with Alan -- and worked her way up to her present presenter role. I often hear Midday Report, and IMO her presenting of it is in keeping with RNZ presenting.

Just by comparison, for many years, Jane Clifton's intimate partner was the National MP and cabinet minister Murray McCully. Despite this, Jane wrote daily and weekly stories and columns about politics for the Dominion and the Listener. I never saw it suggested Jane slanted her writing to favour National, nor that she should step aside from her influential journalism role and sit on the subs' bench or suchlike. Several years ago, Jane left McCully and moved in with Trevor Mallard, eventually marrying him. I have not seen it suggested she has since slanted her writing to favour Labour.

People whatever their jobs should be employed on their merits and their work judged on its merits, no matter with whom they live. I would not want to lose my job because someone objected to what my partner does for her living, nor should she get or lose a job because of someone liking or disliking what I do.

I agree with you, of course and unreservedly, that it is not a good look that contractors related to cabinet ministers can get numerous un-tendered government contracts in a minister's portfolio area; and I look forward to the outcome of the welcome inquiry into that.

Karl du Fresne said...

David,
Call me a coward, but one of the many reasons I was happy to resign as editor of The Dominion in 1992 is that it saved me the trouble of having to decide what to do (if anything) about the relationship between Jane Clifton - then one of the Dom's political reporters - and Murray McCully. I left that issue to my successor Richard Long, who apparently felt no need to do anything about it.
I regarded it then as ethically compromising to the paper. In saying this I'm not criticising Jane, whom I've always respected and admired. I agree with you that she never showed any sign of being influenced by the relationship with McCully, just as she didn't with Mallard (much as you might scratch your head over her choice in both cases, but that was entirely Jane's business). However there was always the risk that readers who knew of the relationship/s might wonder whether Jane was compromised, even if there was no evidence of it, and I thought that situation would have been better avoided. But I accept that some people would see that as a nit-pickingly purist attitude.
An important factor, and one that I think distinguishes Jane from Mani Dunlop, is that Mani Dunlop works for a state-owned media organisation. The Dominion and the Listener, being privately owned, were arguably free to make their own decisions about whether to accept any risk in keeping Jane on as a political commentator. I think being a publicly owned entity requires a more stringent test.

David said...

Thanks for your comments above, Karl. Much appreciated.

I left that issue to my successor Richard Long, who apparently felt no need to do anything about it.

Richard Long (the editor after you who hired me) told me on at least one occasion he was concerned about the Clifton/McCully relationship. He told me he had set up an alert in the computer system to flag if Jane ever mentioned McCully in anything she wrote. She never did. He didn't want to lose such a great writer.

hughvane said...

Not that I bother to listen to it any more, I gave up that when the Tower of Babel environment which I find patronising and insulting was imposed on listeners without any consultation whatsoever.

Mani Dunlop unashamedly (mis)uses her position in Radio NZ's current affairs department to further her own, plus that of several others who conveniently lurk in the background, agenda.

I remember a presenter named Geoff Robinson, born in England, of Morning Report who went through the jaw-breaking pronunciation correctness process to - in my words - hang on to his job. I wonder how much of what he said/had to say on radio was continued after 9 am weekdays in the studio, or thereafter in his private life. Big fat 0 anyone?

Trev1 said...

This really is deeply depressing. Our system of government appears to be easily manipulated and very vulnerable. What can ordinary citizens do? Every three years we elect an oligarchy who face minimal checks and balances, especially when the media have been paid to keep their moutts shut or, conversely, to run smear campaigns against those who challenge government diktat. Has New Zealand's governance ever been In a darker place than now ?



Alex said...

It's going to get to the point where, to do business in this country, you will have to participate in the corruption otherwise the nepotists and the "cosyists" won't trust you.
Forget calling it Aotearoa, lets go straight to New Kraine and get it over with.

Unknown said...

Isn't it as simple as they feel untouchable. There are no real consequences for anything they do, or don't do as promised to their electors. Time to clean all of this up. Time to introducr Reversible Ballots if we are genuinely serious about corruption, percieved or otherwise.

hughvane said...

Ex ministers of the Crown going private with the knowledge they gained from their time in Office is nothing new. Try Arthur Kinsella for starters.

In apologia, I would argue that it may prove exceedingly difficult for an ex-Minister to refuse a business (= money-making) enterprise/venture purely because it may be seen as unethical.

I am unashamedly one of those whom you refer to as head scratchers, dear Jane Clifton must be a tigress for punishment. I recall however the line about the look Cherie Blair, herself a successful barrister, was beaming toward her just-elected PM husband as “power is very sexy”. Hmmm. Perhaps it should be remembered that Mr Blair was one of our Great Leader’s idol/role models.

Kiwiwit said...

Note sure why you’re using the euphemism “cosyism” or even the slightly less delicate “nepotism”. What you are talking about is corruption, pure and simple.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, money talks. And for good reason, when there's corruption afoot, the old saying about following the money is so apt. I agree wholeheartedly with you Karl, about Faafoi, Rashbrooke and Allan et al. One and two degrees of separation is not enough and we are overdue for some clear directives as to what is, and is not, acceptable. Hopefully, the various Mahuta/ Ormsby/ Mahuta engagements will go fully under the spotlight and we'll have an answer, although, I suspect like you, I'm not holding my breath. And while our PM is off espousing about free speech and the undermining of our democracies to the UN, how about she first drains the swamp' at home.

Matt said...

You have to wonder what it takes for NZ to get bumped from the top of those "transparency" country surveys. Perhaps it's all relative, and we are simply the best in a bad bunch.

Kyle Reese said...

@Matt

Perhaps "transparency" means something totally different to what the people who tout it mean by it, like "Open Government".

I note that the former head of the organisation here, an American, is an advisory group member of the Open Government Partnership, the most influential and undemocratically-ratified-by-Parliament set of principals hurtling the country, its banking and other systems, towards Digital ID and the "transparency" of data collected by the government by citizens rather than information held about politicians, officials, government departments - and as we saw with He Pua Pua - government strategy.

Even the politicians themselves seemed to believe what has come to be known as Open Government was about exactly that, with the appointment of a Minister for Open Government and the claim this government would be the most open and transparent government ever.

The stakeholder driven model. It needs to be examined because it is the new way of doing things. Note how Ardern always refers to "stakeholders" rather than citizens. If you want to know who the stakeholders are in respect of the OGP, I suggest you look it up.

It's all wrapped up in a lot of cant, of course: claims that it is about rights, responsibilities... safety. But it's what Mussolini called "corporatism". At least in fascist Italy, the citizenry had a leader who spoke relatively plainly about his conception of governance, not to defend ol' fish flakes Benito.

m dri said...

The corruption index we often place near the top of is actually the "Perception of Corruption Index"
I suggest that Kiwis are still fairly naiive about these things and there is a chasm between what we, for the most part, are aware of and what is actually goimg on.
Tribal influence, activist Judiciary, scetchy lobbies and looney journalism to sweep it all from public view.

Anonymous said...

Well put comments Alex. I believe NZ has some in positions of power who are so corrupt thet they don't recognise their actions as corruption, just their right do as they please. There needs to be checks and balances and proper governance of the trough sorters.

N Tantrum said...

Interesting - I wonder whether Waitapu Group asked Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra permission to use a publicity shot featuring Tim Sutton and Dianna Cochrane (APO members)on their home page. I doubt it is their intellectual property to use. Says a great deal, really.

Gary Peters said...

While this is shocking, it's small beer compared to the overall actions of this government.

If someone wrote all these actions/inactions down in a list I would imagine they would in line for a call from "cuddles'" team to discuss their thoughts!

Watch out Karl, if you become too vociferous you will become a target, if you're not already.

Alex said...

Faafoi isn't the problem.
The problem is the sitting MPs and cabinet ministers who are participating in the transaction for access. They won't be doing it for nothing, and certainly not for the love of Chris.
How do we know what verbal, or otherwise, agreements they enter into with third parties whilst they are in our employ for our benefit. Most government MPs will be looking for an alternative source of income in about a year and the ethically bereft among them will be only too happy to curry favour with a wealthy benefactor or two.
Anyone can meet with an MP at their local electorate office, why would it be necessary to employ an intermediary flunky such as Faafoi?

Anonymous said...

There is a stink in New Zealand as of something rotting. This week I read that when the Indian ambassador recently visited NZ our prime minister did not make a special meeting with him. When he mentioned "free trade agreement" our Foreign Affairs minister did not think it important.

And today I read a surveillance system which can secretly get information about citizens, devised by the Israel Defence force, has been in use by this Labour Govt.

The Prime Minister has neither morals nor interest in NZ's men, women, and children, to whom she has an obligations she swore to uphold. No interest whatever.

Karl du Fresne said...

Anonymous,
It was the Indian external affairs minister who visited New Zealand. The ambassador doesn't need to visit NZ because he/she is based here. But you're right that this high-level visitor from the world's second most populous country apparently wasn't impressed: https://mailchi.mp/democracyproject/political-roundup-new-zealands-relationship-with-india-is-in-trouble?e=6404224f45

Gary Peters said...

Karl I liked the last comment on that article you referenced.

"But a reset will take time – and it will need leadership."

Guess what's lacking here in NZ?