Searching for political scandals in a scandal-starved country

by Jane Clifton / 26 July, 2018
Winston Peters: blunt words on China are a test for the relationship. Photo/Getty Images

Winston Peters: blunt words on China are a test for the relationship. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Political scandals nz

Sometimes the political issues we get our knickers in a twist about seem a little quaint compared with the scandals in other countries.

We’re no longer, if we ever were, quite the innocent backwater The Clive James Show used to make fun of on 1980s TV, where the theft of an elderly Ford Escort (beige, manual) was considered national news.

But sometimes the political issues we get our knickers in a twist about, compared with the threshold for scandal in other countries, makes the nicked motor seem smoking-hot news.

When we recently clutched our chops in horror at National’s Nicky Wagner calling Labour’s Deborah Russell a bitch in Parliament, a colleague sent me a clip from a recent debate on Australian telly. One politico began by telling another he was “even more stew-pid than yew look”, and went on to accuse him of taking money from a known crook. The other politico replied indignantly that he had stopped taking money from the crook. “I only took money from ‘ees brother!” To a further goading about money-laundering via a welding business that employed the politico’s wife, he further protested, “I never had a Sweeess bank account. That’s been prew-ven!”

Without knowing anything about either politician’s background, the viewer could conclude that one was bloody rude and considered himself immune from defamation, and the other had been investigated by authorities about the location of certain illicit monies – and that from the unflinching demeanour of the debate’s host, this was just A’strayn poleeteecal bees-ness as ew-sual.

Back in New Zealand, Health Minister David Clark stood accused of … taking his family on holiday. Not with money bunged through the books of a dodgy panelbeater or Panamanian trust; or even with that common accessory of the scandalising foreign politician, an illegal immigrant au pair.

Hell, it was even with his own wife and his own children, so less than zero on the Barnaby Joyce scandal index.

Clark’s sin was to go during a nurses’ strike. “A bad look!” said pretty much everybody.

But what did everybody expect him to do? It was a strike he no longer had power to prevent, the Government having now made its final offer in the pay round.

His doctorate not being in medicine, he would have been no use in any hands-on capacity, either. It was the school holidays and he’d long planned to help his wife take their three young children on the trip and come straight back himself, rather than stay for the actual holiday.

But we’re so blessedly scandal-starved in this country that the fact he blatantly ducked his duty to be seen to be impotently wringing his hands here at home led to baying for his resignation. (Some might reflect on whether leaving his wife on her own to wrangle three young children on a long plane trip would have merited the bigger scandal.)

Defying all evidence

Let’s hope even Clark’s perfidy will fade now Donald Trump has made what is surely his most telling and shocking political faux pas. He told Russia’s Vladimir Putin he took his word for it that Russia didn’t interfere in the US election.

Put another way, he sided with another country’s leader against the evidence of his own officials, despite the fact that those officials were acting in protection of Trump’s own, precious democracy – and that that leader’s country doesn’t even have a functional democracy or even the rule of law.

Trump later tried to fudge matters, saying he’d meant to say if anyone did interfere, it might have been Russia or some other country.

As an Aussie might say, if he thinks we believe that, he’s stew-pider than he looks. Even for a man who retains top officials for less time than most of us hang on to a wet-wipe, this was a staggering dismissal of one’s own national interests. Trump has been prepared to start a globally destabilising trade war in the name of America’s sovereign interests, yet because it’s just possible his own election wasn’t entirely by the book, he’s all To Russia with Love. That’s after trash-talking Nato, mocking Britain’s Brexit woes and characterising Europe as America’s enemy.

Diplomatic risk

In this foreign-policy-by-toddler-tantrum era, it seems a bit Ford Escortish to fret over our own comparatively measured, if potentially momentous shift in foreign policy towards China. But even our foreign-policy wonks, whose metabolisms are conditioned to near-stasis by the glacial pace of most international diplomacy, are pretty aerated about what Foreign Minister (and Acting Prime Minister) Winston Peters has said lately.

His bluntness in challenging Chinese aggression and suggestions we’ll use new sub-spotting technology to look for Chinese spying ops in the Pacific have greatly amplified what started as a reasonably nuanced view of China in the Government’s new defence strategy.

Peters’ clear message is, we officially don’t take China on trust any more. Let’s not be twee; we unofficially never did. Anyone who doubts that China spies not just on other countries (as we do) but also on their businesses and technologies is probably still waiting for the deed of title to the bridge a terribly polite Nigerian gentleman sold them over the phone.

What seems to be behind this new charmless offensive is a strong view, at least in Peters’ New Zealand First, that the previous administration was overly obsequious towards bigger powers, and that we have more headroom to take others to task.

Diplomacy usually works best by approaching other countries on workable terms. For instance, years of telling Japan and Norway they were utter bastards for killing whales achieved nothing. It can seem a bit weasily, but foreign policy strives to give the errant some blush-saving figleaf options.

Some China-watchers say Beijing’s affronted response is cause for concern that our world-leading trade relationship is in jeopardy – especially given China just growled at Australia for making plain its lack of trust.

Others read the diplomatic China tealeaves as merely pro-forma comeback, saying China can distinguish between fair criticism and hostility.

We should know one way or another pretty quickly. If China starts holding up our exports and discouraging its students and tourists from coming here, that will be a hint Peters went too far.

It will also be time to find that Escort and see if we can get it going again, because lean times will be coming our way.

This article was first published in the July 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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