Parliament buffeted by scandal allegations
By Richard Harman (author)
It took the flamboyant rhetoric of Shane Jones yesterday to make the link--- but both the Government and the Opposition are now being buffeted by claims that each is bogged down in political scandals.
Jones is the subject of allegations that he had a conflict of interest when he approved a $4.5 million grant to a Northland tourism and education venture.
And National is now being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office over allegations it accepted an illegal political donation.
Obviously, the Jones allegations have the potential to damage only him; there are claims that he misled Parliament over the allegations and if it were found that he had done so intentionally, then he would probably face a Breach of Privilege charge.
But even if he did, the Government has a majority of the Privileges’ Committee and could protect him.
However, the damage to his political reputation could be more important.
He is, though, at this stage, a long way from appearing before the Committee.
National, on the other hand, is in more serious trouble.
The SFO investigation followed one of Jami-Lee Ross’s secret recordings from last year which purported to show that a donation from a Chinese businessman of $100,000 had been made up of a series of donations from "multiple people".
Because those individual donations did not each exceed $15,000, there was no need to disclose them under the Electoral Act.
But if the SFO finds that more than $15,000 came from any one individual, then the party or individuals reponsible could be prosecuted and fined up to $40,000 on conviction.
The National Party pollster, David Farrar, on his Kiwiblog says: “Whether or not there has been a breach depends on if the individual donors were donating their own money, or donating on behalf of someone else.”
In other words, was all the money actually from one person but parcelled out to a number of individuals to keep the totals under $15,000.
Jones wasted no time during the General Debate in Parliament yesterday highlighting National’s predicament.
“What do we find, but not only the police but the Serious Fraud Office is now possessed with information relating to people possibly on the other side of the House,” he said.
“Has the Leader of the Opposition yet been interviewed by the Serious Fraud Office? Was the Leader of the Opposition interviewed by the police; more to the point, will he declare to the New Zealand public that he has been; and if that is the case, will he stand down?”
That underlines National’s problem. It is a perception problem and a political party being investigated by the Police or the Serious Fraud Office is not a good look.
One National official told POLITIK that it could not have come at a worse time; just as the party felt it was winning the Capital Gains Tax debate.
But Jones was talking about National because they have been talking about him and the Provincial Growth Fund.
There are clearly process problems with the administration of the fund and Lambton Quay has been full of stories about Jones’ frustration with the bureaucratic accountability process in getting the money out of his $1 billion into the provinces.
Jones is under fire because he had a personal involvement while he was out of Parliament with a group seeking to establish a centre on the Hokianga Harbour to promote the story of Kupe.
The group, according to an OIA document released by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment had widespread support from the tourism sector.
ACT MP David Seymour had called for the Auditor General to investigate Jones role in attending a meeting which approved $4.6 million in funding for the centre but a briefing paper released under the Official Information Act by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment noted that Jones had declared a conflict of interest and would not receive the project for consideration.
So Jones would appear to off the hook though there are remaining questions about how he answered questions in Parliament about his previous association with the Manea project people.
The bigger issue though is that New Zealand is a small place and many of the people on the fringes of this project will be known to Jones.
For example, to help alleviate some concerns from Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, about how the project would be run it was decided to involve the development arm of the Far North District Council, Far North Holdings.
That is chaired by Bill Birnie (a friend of Jones) and includes on its board Murray McCully (also a friend of Jones and the person who appointed him Pacific Fisheries Ambassador.)
At this stage, neither "scandal" looks likely to claim any victims but what they will do -- and Jones' speech yesterday underlined this -- is raise the political temperature in Parliament.