Thursday, May 8, 2014

Let's see what the opinion polls say

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 7.)
It is possible to be intelligent and a buffoon. Maurice Williamson is such a man.
He can’t be a complete thicko, because despite what people think about politicians, it’s hard to remain an MP for 27 years – and hold down several ministerial posts – without a modicum of intellect.

Besides, Williamson has a degree in computer science and applied mathematics. 
But there is intelligence and there is intelligence. There is the type of intelligence that enables people to get degrees in subjects that, to lesser beings like me, sound impossibly pointy-headed.

Then there is the type of intelligence that enables people to make sound judgments. It’s the type of intelligence that stops you from making a dick of yourself. It’s the little voice in your head that says, “Whoa! Don’t go there”.
There doesn’t seem to be any such voice in Williamson’s head. That makes him accident-prone – the type of politician who makes party leaders and whips feel nervous.

From time to time throughout his career, his propensity for saying things that were probably better left unsaid has got him into bother.
In 2003 he broke ranks by criticising the performance of the then National Party leader, Bill English. He may have been saying what other National MPs were thinking, but others held their tongues while Williamson sounded off. Predictably, he found himself isolated and was suspended from the party caucus.

In 2010 he made a lame, if harmless, after-dinner joke that offended Muslims. A more prudent politician, knowing how touchy religious minorities can be, would have resisted the temptation to play for a cheap laugh – especially when he represents a multicultural electorate such as Pakuranga, whose population is nearly 30 per cent Asian.
But that’s the sort of man Williamson is. He’s the class clown. He gives the impression that he just can’t help himself.

And sometimes, it must be said, this works to his advantage – never more so than when he gave his famous speech in Parliament ridiculing opponents of same-sex marriage.
That made him an unlikely international hero overnight, but to me it just confirmed that he can’t suppress the urge to show off. 

There was a less endearing side to that speech. Many of Williamson’s own constituents and party supporters would have opposed the same-sex marriage bill, for sincere and deeply felt reasons. But to Williamson, they were fair game for derision and mockery.
To me, that speech exposed him not only as someone who loves to be the centre of attention, but as a bigot in reverse – a man contemptuous of anyone who didn’t share his progressive views, and happy to have fun at their expense.

Given this background, it was no great surprise that Williamson had to resign his ministerial portfolios last week after he caused deep embarrassment to his party.
This was more than just another case of him shooting his mouth off. This time there was a serious moral dimension to his lack of judgment.

It’s hard to believe he could see nothing wrong in phoning a senior police officer about domestic violence charges faced by the wealthy businessman Donghua Liu, on whose behalf he had previously lobbied for citizenship.  
A drover’s dog could see that it screamed impropriety. Either Williamson’s political blind spot is even bigger than we imagined – so big, in fact, as to block out his vision entirely – or there was something more disturbing going on.

In an interview with TV3’s John Campbell, Williamson tried to distance himself from Liu but failed wretchedly. It turned out that Liu, on Williamson’s suggestion, had bought the house next door to his own holiday home at Pauanui, on the Coromandel Peninsula – and that Williamson had done work on the house for him and even used it himself.
Added to the revelation that Liu’s citizenship ceremony took place in Williamson’s electorate office, this made nonsense of his protestations that they weren’t really friends.

And the most damning aspect of all, of course, is that a company associated with Liu made a $22,000 donation to the National Party. 
Now, think about this. In the latest annual global corruption survey conducted by Transparency International, New Zealand and Denmark were rated the world’s most corruption-free countries.

That’s a status we should be proud of, and determined to protect. It sharply distinguishes us from Australia, where corruption is rampant. But I wonder how much longer we will be able to make that claim.
No one has alleged Williamson is corrupt, but appearances matter. It smells – there’s no other word for it – when a cabinet minister lobbies on behalf of a wealthy immigrant businessman and a generous donation subsequently turns up in party coffers.

The odour intensifies when the minister phones the police about their investigations into criminal charges against the businessman, pointing out to them that he’s an important investor in New Zealand.
This comes on top of the John Banks/Kim Dotcom scandal and the suspicions swirling around Justice Minister Judith Collins and her association with the Chinese company Oravida. Those controversies, too, involve wealthy business interests and generous donations.

I don’t accept that Collins has crossed the line in the way Williamson did, although there’s persuasive evidence of a conflict of interest. But the truly worrying thing is that there’s a pattern here.
In other countries, it has long been accepted that money is paid for political favours. In China, especially, corruption is part of the business and political landscape.

Now it’s starting to look as if that’s the way we do business here, too; that the government’s door is open to whoever produces a fat chequebook. But that’s not the New Zealand way, and nor do we want it to be.
This year’s election is National’s to lose. It’s said that elections are lost by governments rather than won by oppositions, and this government is looking increasingly tainted by its murky associations with wealthy business interests.

Prime minister John Key promptly cut Williamson loose, but I wonder if public distaste has passed the point where it can be neatly managed with the usual damage control strategies. The next opinion polls may tell us.

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