Perception matters immensely when it comes to politics, but reality matters even more. So let's talk about realities
Relationship management is a tough part of being a politician, but gee whizz everyone in parliament seems to be falling over themselves to stuff it up this week, from Judith Collins to Shane Jones and beyond.
Whether it's because of the potential for favourtism that comes with power or the potntial shape of the next government, all the big stories at the moment seems to come back to relationships, and the politicians involved don't seem to get why it matters.
Judith Collins' travails this weekare of her own making, due to a carelessness that we've hardly seen in her disciplined rise up the political ladder. But the strong character and sheer bloody-mindedness that have served her so well have exposed her this week. Following her instincts, she's tried to barge and bluster her way through questions around her visit to the Oravida offices in China, but has come a cropper as a result.
Collins has repeatedly insisted that it's her job to back New Zealand companies overseas and to champion – but somehow not "endorse" – their work. And of course we do want ministers helping New Zealand companies around the world, where appropriate. What Collins refuses to accept is that her championing of Oravida, given her husband's place on the board and her close personal friensdhip with others leading the business crosses a line. And it's not just a perception line.
The Prime Minister at the weekend was saying Collins had not made a mistake, but that she had to be careful of perceptions. Even last night, Collins was on Campbell Live defending the perceptions around the revelation yesterday that she didn't only have a cup of tea at Oravida's offices in Beijing, but had dinner with the bosses as well.
Collins asked if it was wrong of her to visit Oravida, would it also be wrong to visit Fonterra's outposts around the world. The answer, of course, is no. But she didn't just visit Oravida, she appeared in a photo "full of praise" for their product. So the real question is – should she appear in a photo endorsing Fonterra products? That's debateable, as the cabinet manual raises pretty clear questions about endorsements. But in most cases it's probably OK. The difference here though is that her family doesn't profit directly if Fonterra does well from such promotions. If Oravida does better, so does her family.
The other distinction Collins seems determined to overlook is that there are hundreds of New Zealand businesses in China which would love the boost a ministerial visit gives. But instead of visit one of them, she visited the one her husband helps direct and her friends run. Why did she visit that one and not another? Because she knows all about that company and because of the family and friends connection. Because knowing them means she can just squeeze them in at the end of a busy day, as a favour.
And that's the problem. It's not just a perception, it's a reality. Whatever boost a New Zealand firm in China might get from a ministerial visit, Oravida got it because of its specific access to a minister.
You can make a similar point with the newly revealed dinner. Is there "a perception of conflict of interest" because she attended a dinner with a senior Chinese border agency official present? Again, it's more than perception. If getting product through customs is crucial to your business and impressing border control agencies helps that, then a dinner with a minister of course offers an actual – not just perceived – benefit.
Again, presumably there are other New Zealand companies who would appreciate such help in their relationship management. But the one that got the help was the one Collins' husband directs.
These are not really subtle distinctions and – for all that it's a small country and negotiating these lines can be fraught – the obvious answer for politicians is to leave the visits and praise to colleagues who aren't directly related to or close friends of those involved in the company.
On the other side of aisle, Labour and the Greens have struggled to manage their relationships. Well, David Cunliffe and co have struggled to hide the fact that the Greens aren't as indispensable to them as we've been led to believe.
As I posted a week and a half ago, Cunliffe was shown up on The Nation saying that a Labour-Greens deal was by no means a guarantee despite months of assumptions that the two parties are effectively a centre-left bloc. This week that relationship has been strained further by Cunliffe still failing to show the Greens the love they expect and Shane Jones taking repeated shots across their bows.
The uncomfortable truth is that Cunliffe's Labour could well do what Clark's Labour did in the past and opt for New Zealand First as a preferred partner. Sure, Cunliffe has finally found the language he needed weeks ago and said he'd talk to his biggest potential coalition partner first – presumably the Greens. But that is no guarantee of a coalition depsite their policy compatability. Cunliffe's first, uncertain answers were the most honest ones.
Why? Winston Peters prefers fewer parties in a coalition. If Labour can somehow get to the high 30s in the polls and Peters get his party back into parliament with something over five percent, have no doubt that New Zealand First will be the first cab off the rank.
If Peters is kingmaker, well, the kings (National and Labour) have to deal and the Greens are just another card to be played and sacrificed. Now you might say that Labour's hopes of getting enough votes to need only New Zealand First as a partner are slim. and you might argue that Peters will be looking at multi-party coalitions whether he looks right or left. But these are the equations being done behind the scenes.
Again, forget the perception of partnership between green and red. Oh, many in Labour would love to be part of a Labour-Greens government. And sure, they genuinely work together on all sorts of things. But the reality is numbers and if Winston has them, he holds all the cards.
(Which is why Winston Peters is on The Nation this Saturday at 9.30am / Sunday 10:10a, on TV3).