Gordon Campbell on the cash for access scandals

If nothing else, the rash of stories about cash-for-access (to the National Party) and cash-for-exit (from New Zealand First) are giving us a clear sense of the current market value of our democracy. It opens up all sorts of possibilities. If $300,000 is the cost of one New Zealand First MP leaving the party, maybe $2.1 million would be enough to purchase the exit of all seven of the current NZF caucus… although, anything to do with Winston Peters would probably involve an added premium. Prospective buyers can examine the entire job lot here.

More seriously, the Cabinet Club fundraising mechanism within the National Party – whereby lobbyists and corporate chieftains pay up to $10,000 annually personal access to Ministers (and extra bucks for personal access to the Prime Minister) will be abhorrent to most voters. It re-inforces the already widespread sense that Cabinet has become little more an executive committee for managing the affairs of the ruling class. The fact Labour has done much the same in the recent past also re-inforces the need to change the rules of access by lobbyists and ( ultimately) the rules for how political parties get funded. The Cabinet Club is only the formalisation of a rot that set in long ago – and in other, related democracies as well. Tony Blair’s Labour Party for instance began to finesse the process, almost as soon as it was elected:

The former prime minister faced his first sleaze scandal five months after his 1997 election victory. Blair defended himself on television as a “pretty straight sort of guy” after the government announced proposals to exempt Formula One [racing] from the ban on tobacco advertising on November 5 – three weeks after Blair met Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), in Downing Street on October 16. Ecclestone had donated £1m to Labour in January of that year.

This stuff is not rocket science. Donors are not paying to enjoy the giddy ambience, or to collect autographs for their kids. They expect results, or the tap will be turned off. When it comes to the meeting between Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse and Donghua Liu – the Chinese business migrant at the heart of the Maurice Williamson resignation – Liu’s aim was clear. As someone for whom the English language requirement for a business visa had been waived by his friends in government – a $22,000 donation to the National Party gratefully received – Liu now wants his exception to become the rule, with bells on:

[Woodhouse said] : “We traversed a range of … issues about how the investor category could be improved, and I took on board those issues.” Mr Liu was seeking a new immigration category in which non-English speakers could pay less than the $10 million threshold. The minister told reporters that while the investment categories were under review, he had no plans to lower the threshold of the Investor Plus scheme.

We shall see. As this column mentioned last Friday, the South China Morning Post has just run a story about New Zealand picking up the kind of Chinese business migrant scheme that Canada has just closed down – mainly because the Canadians felt it had been abused so much and had rarely delivered the promised investments in Canada. In the SCMP story, lobbyists repeat the same line Liu was taking with Woodhouse: :

Lobbyists for a relaxation in policy say New Zealand is missing out on a large pool of investors: those who have between NZ$1.5 million and NZ$10 million, but who have no English skills…

Unequal access to those in power not only offends our sense of fairness. The growth of income inequality and unequal access to those who control the levers of political power go hand in hand. Especially in a society where more and more of the public goods – in health, education, affordable housing etc – are being commodified. The sense that a different set of rules apply to the wealthy and to their enablers in Parliament crops up in all sorts of ways, big and small. This week for instance, Speaker David Carter found that even though New Zealand First MP Denis O’Rourke (a) lives at the same address and (b) has employed Stephen James at Parliament, and (c) they have been in the same wedding car hire business together, Carter feels obliged to simply take O’Rourke’s word that they are not in a personal relationship. Therefore O’Rourke can’t be found to have broken the rules against employing one’s spouse or partner at Parliament.

Needless to say, if O’Rourke had been a beneficiary in similar circumstances, WINZ would not have felt duty bound to take his word that no personal relationship existed. (Quite the contrary. The professions of innocence would have been taken as compounding the offence.) Different rules exist for those in power, and differential access to the powerful exists for those willing to pay for it. It is synthetic democracy, and it should be taken off the shelf ASAP, even if the only viable alternative is taxpayer funding of political parties. If money buys leverage, that may be the only way that ordinary voters can get some traction with politicians, between elections.
Alpoko Don Today’s music clip shows it is still possible to leap the chasm between old chain gang work songs into modern hip hop in a single bound. Alpoko Don ( aka DonDada) is a guy from Greenville, South Carolina who has just spent eight years in prison for dealing dope. Watching him bang out this song – while providing his own percussion by hammering on the wooden rail of his verandah – is not only amazing to watch, but a reminder of how categories can be totally meaningless. I mean, we think there’s been a linear progression over the years – country blues to Chicago blues to rhythm and blues to soul to funk to hip hop – but this guy conveys all of it, at once. He hammers it out like someone from Parchman Farm, sings and hums like Howling Wolf, rhymes like any modern conscious rapper – and on a gospel theme to boot. Plus, I liked his argument about how can I have faith in something I can’t see…? Well you can’t see oxygen, but believe you can breathe…

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