Labour's Political Scandals
I'm regularly asked whether there are precedents for the large number of scandals this Prime Minister experiences with her cabinet and MPs. The answer is no. Occasional problems occurred. Seddon's treasurer, Joseph Ward, was forced to resign in 1896 when his personal finances made it impossible to remain. He bounced back and was still a minister when he died 34 years later. Peter Fraser briefly shifted Bob Semple from the Ministry of Works in 1941 when he was accused of kickbacks. Sid Holland pushed his Minister of Industries and Commerce aside because of conflicts of interest. However, Walter Nash's minister Phil Holloway won big money in 1959 when accused of "fixing" import licences. Robert Muldoon's deputy became embroiled in the Marginal Lands Board affair. Tuku Morgan and Donna Awatere-Huata are recent occurrences. But there has never been a government where so much impropriety has dogged so many people. Why is this? Some answers reflect on individuals, others on society as a whole.
The media would like to claim it is better at exposing scandals, but nothing supports this. Journalists have belatedly tagged along, reporting problems, rather than uncovering them. Nor has the National Opposition done super detective work. Their capacity for coordinated attack seems ordinary at best, despite the infusion of new blood in 2005.
Are we dealing with more accident-prone ministers than usual? Well, er, partly. This stems from the fact that over a twenty year period, Labour presidents, from Margaret Wilson onwards, pushed merit and constituency opinion aside, preferring to select candidates who were sure votes for their agendas and their favoured leadership candidate. Regular downgrading of Labour's collective caucus ability was able to occur because deregulation and pro-market reforms in the 1980s appeared to reduce the importance of central government. Consequently sector groups took less interest in the calibre of MPs being selected. As a result, at least five of Helen Clark's problem ministers wouldn't have made it into earlier cabinets. Chickens are coming home to roost as a collection of ministers find they can't handle their responsibilities. This is serious now that central government is trying to crank up a regulatory regime once more. Too many ministers are outside their knowledge zones. But don't let's get sidetracked.
Surely the most significant factor behind Helen Clark's scandals is a national fall-off in standards of political propriety? The rigorous Westminster principles that have always underpinned Parliament's Standing Orders and the Cabinet Manual aren't understood, let alone valued, by growing numbers of New Zealanders. The fallacy that all cultures are equal has meant that many Maori, Asians and Pacific Islanders thumb their noses at what they regard as Pakeha rules. Even after bucketfuls of sleaze emerged around Phillip Field, Pacific Island spokespeople wanted him back as a minister, and couldn't perceive any transgressions. Donna Awatere Huata, Hone Harawira and Peter Sharples show no signs of remorse for their conduct. Weak academics support them. Many educational institutions have downgraded the core curriculum, fostering "cultural" activities instead. This elevates values that aren't based on centuries of Westminster tradition, promoting instead a world where what is acceptable behaviour is what you can get away with. A sense of entitlement replaces personal responsibility. Amongst our Muslim community too there is a trend to lecture us on standards New Zealanders should adopt towards them, not what behaviour their hosts can reasonably expect of them.
What I find most disturbing about the party funding and Field scandals is that Labour MPs and trade unionists have taken the better part of a year to arrive at the conclusion that anything is wrong. They still don't concede that tickling the taxpayers' till for election purposes is indefensible. No startling new revelations about Field have appeared recently. It was clear last September that he had broken rules and benefited personally. However, getting ministers to acknowledge wrong-doing has been like drawing elephants' teeth. And where was our newly sanctimonious union leader, Andrew Little, a year ago?
The trend away from the fundamental principles of democracy was apparent in a recent column by self-styled lefty, Chris Trotter. He argued in the Sunday Star-Times that breaking laws was OK to defeat National. Hitler and Stalin used similar arguments against enemies. Educated white liberals are losing the standards they were brought up with. Trotter, like the government he backs, reflects the "whatever it takes" mentality that is the left's new-found morality. Like Gresham's law about money, such attitudes are gradually corrupting standards of public conduct.