As we all try to make sense of pressuring emails and undeclared shares, can't we agree that it's time for some real transparency?
I must admit it is surprising to hear Gerry Brownlee as point man for National's attacks on Winston Peters and Helen Clark today. Brownlee says the emails further discredit New Zealand First and Labour, and he has a point that they don't reflect well on Winston Peters; but nothing I've read today confirms corruption as Rodney Hide alleges.
The crux seems to be in an April 17, 2007 memo from Ministry of Foreign Affairs Chief Executive Simon Murdoch to Peter's advisers, in which Murdoch said Mr Peters "wants to appoint an honorary consul in Monaco. It is a distinguished expat of his choice."
It's those words "wants" and "of his choice" that are most significant. Given that Peters had received a $100,000 donation from Glenn back at the end of 2005, he should not have been advocating – or even have been seen to be advocating – for someone who had helped him financially. Of course Peters still denies knowing about the donation and insists the money was "legal expenses" not his personal gain, but the privileges committee found otherwise, saying he had "some knowledge" of the donation.
Given that Peters had pushed for Glenn and knew about the donation, there is a conflict of interest and Peters was out of bounds. But as long as he denies knowledge of the donation, he retains wriggle room. And to be fair to him it must be noted that once MFAT officials decided there was no need for a consul in Monaco, he let the matter rest. If he had tried to urge the officials to change their minds or over-ridden them, the case would be much more damning. But these papers don't show that. If Glenn was looking for a favour, he didn't get one; at least, not the result he was wanting.
All of this though reflects as badly on Glenn as it does on Peters. The men who were at each other's throats weeks ago now have the same vested interest of denying any link between the donation and the Monaco appointment. But those who are damning Peters must surely do the same to Glenn. If the combination of the donation and pushing for the appointment together amount to unethical behaviour by Peters, don't they amount to the same by Glenn?
Peters claims he was simply trying to hurry along tardy ministry officials. That could explain some of the pressure mentioned in the emails, but the point that he was said to "want" Glenn appointed undermines that.
So yes, what these emails appear to tell us is that Peters asked questions on behalf of a major donor and went further, encouraging his appointment. But it is still second-hand information and the context needs to be explained. While public servants don't like to get drawn into politics, the only way to be clear about whether these were words pressuring officials to choose Glenn or merely pressure to hurry up, is to hear from Simon Murdoch. They are his words that are hanging Peters today and only his explanation can clarify the situation.
I don't see huge trouble for Clark in this. The attacks in her direction seem to be based more on politics than fact. She has said that she was in no position to chastise Peters in February because of conflicting information over the donation. Glenn told her he had made a donation, Peters said not. It seems now that she knew, and was concerned, about Peters' lobbying on Glenn's behalf. But that fact doesn't seem to add anything to what we already knew. Clark had concerns in February, raised it personally with both men, and got conflicting information. What I've never understood from people criticising her is what they think she should have done next. Accuse one of them of lying? Go public with no clear evidence? Get someone to spy into New Zealand First's bank accounts? Come on... She seems to have taken a watching brief. A passive approach, sure, but hardly unethical. If Peters had acted to appoint Glenn, I'm sure we all hope that she would have stepped in. But given MFAT stopped the appointment dead in its tracks, she was never tested.
It's remarkable, though, that Gerry Brownlee is trying to take the high moral ground on this. Yesterday The Standard broke the news that he had asked questions about Contact Energy in the House while he held shares in the company. Brownlee has brushed the story aside, saying he only had a few hundred shares. But size isn't the point here. He asked questions about Contact when he was a shareholder and did not declare his conflict of interest.
According to Parliament's Standing Orders, he should have declared his interest.
166 Declaration of financial interest
(1) A member must, before participating in the consideration of any
item of business, declare any financial interest that the member
has in that business.
Now, there's no evidence of nefarious intent by Brownlee or of profit from his questions. As with Peters, there's no evidence of corruption. But there is evidence that he broke Parliament's rules, as Peters' did. Is Brownlee really one to condemn then?
And why is it so hard for politicians to keep to the rules, minimal as they are? All he had to do was say, "I own some Contact shares, but I'd still like to know why...". Or to get one of his colleagues to ask the Contact questions. Or sell them. It's easy. Here, I'll do it. I own some Contact shares. I do, really. Easy, huh?
We really do need some new rules requiring full disclosure of MPs' financial interests. If they seek to serve and to control taxpayer funds, they need to be transparent with us all.