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.