Gordon Campbell on what John Banks and Nick Smith have in common

The defence that John Banks has been offering to the charges of electoral fraud – that he didn’t read the document he signed, and therefore lacked the necessary criminal intent – is a fairly standard example of political business as usual. At a time when political power is being centralised downtown in the Executive, responsibility is being re-located to the suburbs. The Beehive seeks to operate as a blame free, shame free environment. At all times, plausible deniability is to be maintained. Being able to put distance between the Minister and the actions/outcomes/political fallout of policy is not simply the last desperate resort of scoundrels, but the first resort of the foot soldiers in ministerial service – who routinely congratulate themselves and each other on how cleverly they and their Minister have managed to get around the intention of the law without being proven to have breached its black and white letter. Morality is for saps, and would cost you your job. When senior politicians hold the law in such contempt – and actively seek wiggle room to get around it – they can hardly wonder why they are held in contempt by the public.

John Banks is a special case, of course. Where others may have at least an inkling about the nature of the survivalist politics they are playing, Banks gives every appearance of truly, deeply believing that his own self-serving actions are entirely righteous. According to this mindset, what’s good for John Banks is by definition, good for the country and therefore, a good and noble endeavour per se. The man is the Old Faithful of self justification, a veritable geyser of autohyped sincerity. This time though – over the large donations by Kim Dotcom and SkyCity to his mayoral campaign in 2010 – the court hasn’t bought it. “I am satisfied that sufficient evidence has been presented to commit the defendant for trial and he will be committed for trial accordingly,” Judge Gittos said yesterday….”This evidence clearly shows that Mr Banks was aware of the source of both donations and must therefore have known that they could not properly have been characterised as coming from anonymous sources. ” Which does make one wonder why the Police did not reach the same conclusion when they reviewed much the same evidence last year, and declined to press charges against the former ‘hard line’ Police Minister.

No real surprise about that. The Police – and the system – certainly know how to look after their own, even when Police behaviour is as outrageous as in this incredible case, where ACC chimed in and denied compensation to a man rendered a life-long invalid by improper Police action, until the court ordered otherwise.

Banks, thanks entirely to a legal action mounted by a member of the public, will now have to stand trial, unless he can overturn the decision of Judge Gittos on appeal. Reportedly, such a route would seem unlikely to be successful. Right now, Conservation Minister Nick Smith is the other senior Minister in the Key government who is actively seeking wiggle room, albeit on a less serious point – namely, that he allegedly misled Parliament over his knowledge of the contents of a draft DOC submission on the Ruataniwha dam project. In this case, the nuances will turn on whether Smith may have known of the existence of such a document, may have discussed the contents of such a document, but did not actually see the document itself – and so therefore ( he says) he could credibly deny all knowledge of it in Parliament.

Safe to say that at this point, Smith’s protestations of innocence somewhat resemble Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman” claim, where the truth (or otherwise) of the statement depend on what, exactly, you define as “sex.” Smith did not have sex with that document, but he does seem to have known its likely contents rather intimately.

China Syndrome

For reasons that remain unfathomable, the Key government seems determined to upset the inscrutable mien of our trading partners in Asia. First we had the Fonterra botulism scare, where, according to the government, we have actually won brownie points in Asia by the way we have handled this affair. It may have been an own goal, but how they admire the finesse with which we administered it! Then this week, we had Finance Minister Bill English (a) claiming that all parties, including key lenders were aboard the Solid Energy re-financing plan, then (b) finding that the Bank of Tokyo, the second biggest lender in the plan was going to court to challenge it, then (c) saying he knew all along they might do that, but fat chance they’d have of success. Question: what is this circus doing to our credibility in banking circles in Japan? Anyone think that there could be reputational risk involved….?

Not to be outdone in this weird process of public self flagellation, Trade Minister Tim Groser told the China Business Summit in Auckland this week that it was cutbacks at our own Ministry of Primary Industry that were largely to blame for our bio-security trade problems in Asia – and boy, had he told them, but had they listened to him? No, they had not.

He said the ministry is under-resourced and was unable to respond effectively to the recent Fonterra botulism scare and other food safety crises. “Clearly, we did not have enough resources in MPI and, I know this is a little bit unusual, but whenever I’ve raised this issue the response is, ‘Well, this is an operational matter minister, don’t worry your little head about it’. And I’ve been saying this for a long time in private and now there’s no place to hide.”

So, let’s see. Those cutbacks to MPI were made by the Key government, and a senior minister involved is now loudly complaining about their impact, and saying he had warned against the wisdom of them? The illogic of the short term savings/ longer term costs involved is set out here:

The Government took a scalpel to the Ministry for Primary Industries in 2011 and 2012 – getting more than rid of 200 positions – to save $18 million. Its director general at the time Wayne McNee said the redesigned ministry would be strongly placed to support the success of the primary sectors. New Zealand’s infant formula exporters estimate the botulism botch up alone may have cost the country more than $100 million in lost business. And meat trade certification hiccups in China have cost millions more.

This MPI case is a classic example of the government choosing to sacrifice capability and damage our trading interests via the pursuit of short term savings. We only compound the problem by having a senior Minister in the government giving every indication that he is living in denial about who was responsible for the relevant decisions. (Ummm…that would be the Cabinet to which Minister Groser belongs.) Highly amusing no doubt, to our trading partners in Asia…who must be wondering about what those chumps in New Zealand will come up with next.