Rogues' Gallery

by Jane Clifton / 30 December, 2006
We were suddenly in a new era of journalism and politics, when a vast pit of sleaze, scandal and exotica opened up under this Parliament.

The political year 2006 dawned harmlessly enough. The usual auspices of trouble were dormant. There was no bashing or splashing at Waitangi. Don Brash's Orewa speech, far from being the gut-busting call to arms of its predecessors, proved but a mild collection of bric-à-Brash. And in most of her early public appearances for the year, the Prime Minister found the time to urge New Zealanders to avoid getting sunburnt.

There was a bit of handwringing about Harmeet Sooden's kidnapping in Iraq, still some rumblings about David Benson-Pope's teaching days, more bickering over tax and the collapse of the government's Kyoto plans, but nothing to suggest that a vast pit of sleaze, scandal and sheer exotica was about to open up under this Parliament.

We were about to begin a messy re-evaluation of what was fit and proper news, who was fair game, what the boundaries were in terms of acquiring dirt on politicians.

To the disgruntlement of those of us inside the beltway, it took two outriders on the fringes of politics and the media to pitch us into this new era. It's still unclear whether we should thank them or seek their deportation.

The first of these was Ian Wishart - breaker of other stories harmful to the government. His first scandal for the year briefly claimed the scalp of new minister David Parker. A disgruntled former business partner made a string of allegations about Parker's conduct in a property-development deal in the previous decade.

In the wash-up, Parker proved to have done nothing wrong - save the regrettably common byproduct of business deals, that one party is left feeling had-over. But the combination of Parker's having been a lawyer, a property developer and a hard-headed wheeler-dealer in his past was, at the time, pretty damaging, for all that he had played things by the book. Parker - one of Labour's few bright new hopes - quickly got his steep workload back and has performed conspicuously well. But, though MPs didn't know it, the gods of political scandal had merely sent them a pebble, in advance of the rocks that were to come.

Wishart's next outing was to give ink to some extraordinary rumours that Helen Clark's husband Peter Davis had found himself in some difficulty on an overseas trip. To this day, no corroboration of any of the myriad lurid accounts of Davis's alleged adventure has been secured. There is not even a consensus over where "it" happened.

But it was not so much the rumour that was so astonishing. Urban legends about politicians are common. It was the effect they had on the media. Most political journalists had been under pressure from news editors for months to break something on this "story", because it was circulating with absolute conviction from one end of the country to another. That nothing had been in the news about it was fuelling a subordinate beloved rumour that the media were actively covering it up, because they were in bed with the government.

Wishart's tack was to announce that his magazine, Investigate, had been investigating these allegations and wanted more information. It also ran a picture of Davis embracing a man - who, deflatingly, turned out to be a well-known gay identity, a friend of both Clark and Davis, who had simply planted a (probably unwelcome) smacker on Davis on the night of Labour's last election victory.

The story grew scuttling, spidery legs, however, when a Sunday paper promptly front-paged the Investigate story, using a slightly tut-tutty account of Wishart's account to run a series of denials. One of them was a headline to the effect that the Prime Minister's husband "is not gay".

We were suddenly in a new era of journalism and politics, and the way forward - and more compellingly, the way back - was not clear. The public both punished and rewarded - by buying newspapers - these stories. Clark called Brash cancerous. Judith Collins called Benson-Pope a pervert. There was an undoubted public appetite to believe some version of the Davis rumour, as well as a countering tide of revulsion that such sleaze should be given any air time. Rarking it all up: that irreducible pressure of competitive media.

What few people knew was that while this saga was being defused by the dignified - if mystified - public appearances of Davis, another ethically bewildering storm was brewing.

For much of Brash's tenure, government MPs have sporadically barracked comments at him in Parliament, clearly designed to suggest he was having affairs. Following the Investigate uproar, Benson-Pope and Trevor Mallard redoubled this code-wording, to the point where another sleaze tipping-point seemed to have been reached.

To everyone's astonishment, the tipper was Brash's own backbencher, the outspoken and therefore unpromoted Brian Connell, who point-blank asked Brash in a caucus meeting whether he had been having an affair with Business Roundtable maven Diane Foreman. Brash has to this day refused to answer this allegation - a position for which, the polls attested strongly, there was much public support.

However, inside the hour - and possibly even in advance - the story reached a weekly business paper, and was therefore, like the Davis rumour, public fodder.

Again we were in new territory. If Brash was having an affair, that was arguably not fit public information. But if he was having an affair with an influential member of an influential right-wing organisation, then perhaps it was.

The matter roiled in the public domain, with Brash repairing to his Auckland family home to work on his troubled marriage - now officially fixed. Though it afforded Brash and National a distinctive poll lift, the sympathy vote did not stem his leadership wobbles. Disgruntlement that Brash was accident-prone, too apt to listen to advisers outside the caucus and party, and had, through his Orewa specials on race and welfare, done the party some damage, grew. The media regularly symbolised Brash's iffy status, through his muffed photo opportunities, which this year included walking a plank to inspect a racing boat, and being filmed inspecting some jaunty wicker coffins.

The next shock to the political system came with the publication of the Nicky Hager book The Hollow Men. Through a series of leaked, and possibly stolen, emails, this chronicled Brash's extensive dealings with right-wing figures, from Foreman and the Roundtable through Act identities to a serrated-toothed overseas political campaign strategist. It also detailed squabbling in his office between caucus members and the outsiders, and most spicily, among themselves. Perhaps most damagingly, the email traffic showed that Brash did, despite previous disavowals of memory, know about the Exclusive Brethren's plan to spent more than $1 million stealthily promoting National last election.

Though Brash's dependency on outsiders was no secret, and the intra-office squabbles hardly that either - or indeed novel - the extent of it all was a big surprise. Most stunning was a bid by wealthy businessmen to fund for Brash a private alternative advisory and strategy team, designed to cut the caucus right out. This never went ahead, but there was a worrying lack of expression of disgust at the idea.

Borrowing an ingenious technique from Winston Peters, Hager kept back a specially damaging email concerning the Brethren, so he was armed to counter doubters after the book's publication.

Within days, Brash resigned. But the political firmament is still enthusiastically divided about the book's fairness. On the one hand, Woodward and Bernstein never gave Richard Nixon a right of reply, either. On the other, we may never know what emails, and other source material that might have given a fuller picture, were left out. Was Hollow Men or Investigate a fair cop? This is going to be a trickier legacy to analyse than Brash's own. His legacy is in the process of being shoved aside, as new leader John Key moves the party to the centre.

The Hollow Men furore did Labour the great service of finally overshadowing the focus on its own shame, the illicit spending of taxpayers' money on campaign items, notably the pledge card. Labour spent much of the year in the dog box on that issue, a situation underscored by its extraordinary decision to publicly criticise the Auditor-General and, by extension, challenge the opinions of the Chief Electoral Officer and the Solicitor-General. That Speaker Margaret Wilson obtained a legal opinion dissenting from the Solicitor-General's seemed further to underline Labour's desperate fight-back.

Though in the wash-up, the Brethren ructions and National's embarrassing failure to pay its campaign broadcasting GST made it seem as guilty as Labour, the long focus on the pledge card proved corrosive to Labour's polling and its morale.

An earlier shock this year was Beehive ambivalence about the future of Finance Minister Michael Cullen. Clark hinted to the Listener that he might not continue - a possibility swiftly denied. But this highlighted both Cullen's indispensability - he is generally regarded to be irreplaceable, even by several ministers - and his increasing irascibility around the Beehive. His TV-broadcast tantrum against tax cuts gave a glimpse of an autocratic and stubborn operator.

Also continuing public feuds with the media was Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, who marred a triumphant dialogue breakthrough in Washington by tangling with the media in front of American bigwigs. Although the jury is still out on whether Peters or the media was the ruder, the luxury of public brawling is one that Peters's supporters wish he would give up.

However, he finished the year in full statesman's regalia after his efforts to prevent the coup in Fiji. Peters's undoubted ability to connect personally with Pacific leaders - even highly erratic ones like Commodore Bainimarama - is proving an asset to the government.

The year's most enduring scandal has been that surrounding Mangere MP Taito Phillip Field, who is on indefinite leave from Parliament as the police investigate whether he erred in paying a Thai tiler (not very much) to work on his homes, while the man and his partner and child were desperate to get immigration clearance. The whiff that a Labour MP might, even well-meaningly, take advantage of that most desperate category of person, the illegal immigrant, and that the government might deliberately have short-sheeted the terms of reference for the initial inquiry into the affair, has kept Parliament simmering all year.

More exotically, a massive chunk was wiped off Telecom shares when news was leaked that the government was going to break its monopoly. The leak witch-hunt led not to any usual suspect but to a cycling-mad Beehive messenger, who intercepted a key document on its way to the shredder and took it home to Khandallah to show his fellow cyclist, a Telecom executive.

The minor parties had a mixed year. Hone Harawira emerged as the surprise standout of the strongly performing Maori Party; Rodney Hide was away a lot dancing, and subsequently maintaining his newfound fame and fitness; Peter Dunne broke Cullen's refusnik stance on tax cuts by announcing in his newsletter that there would be some, and they would be big. (Cullen has still not confirmed this, but then, it would probably kill him.)

The Greens drew strength from their quasi-governmental role in climate change policy, rebuilding after the tragic death of co-leader Rod Donald.

National's year was harrowing, despite its continued poll lead over Labour. Leadership speculation sapped its policy momentum, and four years' policy work is now back on the whiteboard. Ambivalence about Key's leadership heft and unease about the even more centrist ambitions of its deputy Bill English remain to be resolved.

Conversely, the government had the worst year of its life, but remains buoyant. A judicious backdown on its riskiest move - proposing a drop-dead eye-smacker of a sports stadi-um for the Auckland waterfront - probably saved it a few percentage points. It's been much less loved and respected this year, but it has remained emphatically in control.

The sleaze squall has passed. But the wreckage of political personae has been immense.

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