Maurice Williamson

Donghua Liu – clearer than mud

So, just yesterday the NZ Herald were reporting that Donghua Liu would not be commenting further on his political donations and would not be supplying any affidavits regarding dollar amounts, and I was calling for Mr Liu to come clean.

Well, whaddaya know? This morning the Herald has suddenly obtained a signed statement from Donghua Liu dated 3 May 2014, two days after Maurice Williamson resigned as a Minister. I’m interested in where it came from. Stuff.co.nz had previously reported that Mr Liu was poring over an affidavit with his lawyers, who were concerned about the lack of documentation. The statement obtained by the Herald apparently isn’t a sworn affidavit, but it is signed by Mr Liu. One wonders who’s slipped it to the Herald… And is there another draft affidavit out there, lurking in a lawyer’s office, never to see the light of day?

Regardless, this signed statement is hugely embarrassing for the Labour Party, given their “cash for access” attacks on National. The Herald reports the statement as saying:

• Liu paid “close to $100,000” for wine at a 2007 Labour Party fundraiser;

• That he spent $50-60,000 hosting then-labour minister Rick Barker on a cruise on the Yangtze River in China in 2007; and

• That Liu visited Barker in Hawke’s Bay in 2006, having dinner with him at an exclusive lodge and then meeting for breakfast the next morning. Liu said he made a donation to Hawke’s Bay Rowing, which Barker was associated with.

Rick Barker, after challenging Mr Liu to put specific allegations in writing, may now be wishing he’d kept his mouth shut. The contents of the statement mean that Mr Barker has some serious explaining to do. A $50,000 to $60,000 cruise on the Yangtze River is something that should have been disclosed, so will Mr Barker now rely on “brain fade” or will he call Mr Liu a liar?

And of course there’s the big question of what happened to the “close to $100,000” donated to the Labour Party. Many of my questions from yesterday remain.  Why does no one in Labour seem to know anything about this (apart from the Herald’s two un-named Labour sources)? Wouldn’t an almost $100,000 winning bid for a bottle of wine have turned a few heads at the time? Who in Labour received the donation, or was it an electronic transaction? If it wasn’t an electronic transaction, was it cash or a cheque? Did it go to Head Office or to one of the electorate committees?

Over at the Pundit site, Professor Andrew Geddis focuses on donations to Labour from law firms on behalf of undisclosed clients. Labour received three such donations – one of $150,000 from Palmer Theron, one of $50,000 from Simpson Grierson, and one of $30,000 from Morrison Kent. Professor Geddis focusses on the $150,000 donation, suggesting that it might have come from Mr Liu, and noting that if Liu doesn’t confirm or deny it, we’ll never know. However, Liu’s statement refers to a donation “close to $100,000”. That’s a more than $50,000 shortfall between what Liu says he donated and the Palmer Theron donation.

Lynn Prentice yesterday referred me to a 2010 blog post by Professor Bryce Edwards, “Pansy Wong’s dubious solicitation of political funding“. It refers to a fundraising event held by Pansy Wong in 2007, at which $200,000 was raised, including $50,000 paid by a Chinese businessman for one of John Key’s ties. The money didn’t appear to have been declared by National in 2008, and Professor Edwards discusses various reasons why that might have occurred. One of those reasons is the then practice (apparently illegal now) of treating a fundraising event as a “bogus business venture”, with all money raised classed as “business transactions” rather than donations. Thus, in terms of the $50,000 tie, the party could argue that the business valued the tie at $50,000 and it was therefore a valid “business transaction”. It’s entirely possible that Labour has adopted the same approach in the Donghua Liu situation.

Professor Edwards has called for a police or parliamentary enquiry. As Professor Geddis has pointed out, “[t]he Electoral Act in 2007 contained a six-month time limit on any prosecutions for filing a false electoral return”. That’s a time limit that has long since expired… The court of public opinion is the only court that Labour will be tried in, which may be damaging enough, given how soon the election is.

Cunliffe’s credibility – parcel delivered to National, tied up with string

David Cunliffe has just been stitched up – caught in a trap he should have seen coming a mile off.

After Maurice Williamson’s fall from grace over his interference in a police investigation on behalf of Donghua Liu, Labour have been having a field day accusing National of accepting “cash for access”. Earlier this week, somewhat awkwardly for Labour, someone in the party revealed that Donghua Liu had donated $15,000 to Labour back in 2007. Not only did this undermine Labour’s attack on National, the $15,000 donation doesn’t appear to have ever been disclosed. (I’m making the assumption that because the anonymous source was correct about Rick Barker’s meeting with Mr Liu in China, they’re also correct about the $15,000 donation.)

So when the NZ Herald yesterday asked David Cunliffe a series of questions about his personal association with Mr Liu, alarm bells should have been going off in Mr Cunliffe’s head. Here’s the Herald questions to Cunliffe:

Q: Do you recall ever meeting Liu?
A: I don’t recall ever meeting him, no.

Q: Did you have anything to do with the granting of his permanent residency?
A: No, I did not.

Q: Did you advocate on his behalf at all?
A: Nope.

Q:Were you aware of any advice against granting him permanent residency?
A: Not to my recollection.

Cunliffe should have known that he was being set up. Rather than an outright denial of ever advocating for Mr Liu, he should have been hedging his bets, saying that he had no recollection of doing so, just as he did with most of the Herald’s questions. Once they had the denial, it was always going to be open season on him once the letter from Cunliffe’s office turned up (copy of the letter attached here).

Over at the Standard, Lynn Prentice makes an interesting point as to whether David Cunliffe ever met Donghua Liu:

The letter was signed by him back in 2003 – more than 11 years ago. He was a busy backbencher with a large constituency workload. Dozens of similar letters would have been sent each week. The vast majority would have been prepared by his staff, shoved in front of him, and signed. In all likelihood he never met Donghua Liu.

Electorate MPs always have a great deal of trust in their electorate staff. They really don’t have any choice. They have competently handled thousands of individual constituency cases of which this looks like only one. In all likelihood David never met the guy, and only saw the form letter to sign.

On 3News this evening, Patrick Gower stated that the letter proved that Cunliffe had met Liu. Frankly, I agree with Mr Prentice. The letter proves nothing of the sort. It proves that Liu approached Cunliffe’s office, nothing more. I’m no expert in how MPs run their constituency offices, but from the examples I’ve seen, you don’t need to have actually met with the MP for them to advocate on your behalf. The phrase “I have been approached by my constituent…” does not necessarily mean “I have met my constituent…”. It means their office has been approached. An MP can sign a form letter, advocating for a constituent who has approached their office, without ever having physically met that constituent.

I’d have to say though, that’s beside the point. As much as I may feel sorry for Mr Cunliffe for failing to recollect a letter signed for a constituent eleven years ago, who he might not have even met at the time, the sin is the lack of political nous – not comprehending the coming storm when the signs became obvious. National has spent countless months painting Cunilffe as “tricky”. It’s a catch cry utilised with monotonous regularity. Cunliffe, to Labour’s detriment, continues to keep the “tricky” campaign alive.

Ninety-five days out from an election, and struggling with terrible party and personal poll ratings, it’s one hell of a trap for Cunliffe to have fallen into.

Poll of Polls update – 7 May 2014

There’s a new Roy Morgan poll out, and the results are like a pinball machine. Last Roy Morgan was a crushing blow to the left; this time round it’s a sledgehammer to National (just like two Roy Morgans ago!). National drops a massive 6% to 42.5%, Labour climbs back into the 30s with 31%, while the Greens hit their high of the year with 14.5%.

Other interesting results from the Roy Morgan are the disintegration of the Conservative Party vote (their worst poll of the year – and that includes all polls from all major polling companies – down from 2% to just 0.5%) coupled with the rise of the Internet Party to 1.5%.

The plunge in National’s support is likely to be largely attributed to the ongoing Judith Collins saga and the recent resignation of Maurice Williamson. Certainly, that’s how Gary Morgan explains his company’s poll result. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that Mr Williamson’s resignation occurred on 1 May 2014, with the Roy Morgan polling period occurring from 12 April to 4 May. With Mr Williamson’s plight covering just four days of the two week polling period, and the Collins debacle really only reigniting properly following Williamson’s resignation, the dramatic drop in National’s fortunes should give National pause for thought.

So how does the Poll of Polls look now?

National: 46.4% (-0.3%)

Labour: 31.4% (nc)

Greens: 12.0% (+0.6%)

NZ First: 4.9% (-0.1%)

Maori: 1.2 (nc)

United Future: 0.3% (+0.1%)

ACT: 0.6% (nc)

Mana: 0.6% (+0.1%)

Conservative: 1.7% (-0.3%)

Internet Party: 0.4% (+0.1%)

Based on those percentages, the new seat predictions are:

National: 60 (+2)

Labour: 41 (+2)

Greens: 15 (+1)

NZ First: 0 (-6)

Maori: 2 (nc)

United Future: 1 (nc)

ACT: 1 (nc)

Mana: 1 (nc)

The big movement in National and Labour’s respective tally of seats is due to NZ First dropping 0.1% to fall back under the 5% threshold. Despite NZ First polling above 5% in four of the last five polls released (three Roy Morgans and the last Colmar Brunton poll), several of the party’s most successful poll results have decreased in weighting recently, with this latest Roy Morgan not quite enough to drag it back over the line. However, it’s fair to say that the Poll of Polls is probably currently slightly understating NZ First’s share of the vote.

Nonetheless, the calculations are made based on what the Poll of Polls currently says, and with a one seat overhang, the centre-right bloc of National, United Future and ACT have a total of 62 seats, one more than the minimum required to govern.

For the centre-left, Labour, the Greens and Mana have 57 seats, well short of a governing majority.

However, if one takes 0.1% from National and gifts it to NZ First, thereby lifting them to 5.0%, things look a little different. The centre-right bloc would then have 59 seats, requiring the Maori Party’s two seats to govern. The centre-left bloc, with 55 seats, would require both the Maori Party and NZ First to govern. The Maori Party would therefore be the kingmakers.

Colin Craig, Jamie Whyte and Pakuranga

Following Maurice Williamson’s fall from grace, the sharks immediately began circling around his electorate seat of Pakuranga. First up was Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, telling Radio NZ:

“I haven’t ruled out standing there myself. I did grow up in Howick and Pakuranga, I played cricket for Howick-Pakuranga, my father taught at Pakuranga College so there are ties to that electorate. It’s an area that I know, an area that I grew up in and then from there it’s a genuine area that I could represent.”

Over at Pundit, Tim Watkins laughs off Mr Craig’s musings on standing in Pakuranga as being nothing but publicity seeking. I’m not sure that’s entirely correct. Here’s my reasoning:

Colin Craig must surely know by now that it’s going to take a miracle to get his Conservative Party over the 5% threshold. His only realistic possibility of making it into Parliament is if National gift him an electorate seat (and the voters play ball). (I’ve blogged about the Conservative Party’s polling issues here, and I note that this site’s Poll of Polls currently has the Conservatives on just 2.0%, hardly lighting the world on fire).

After initially trying to pin his name to the new seat of Upper Harbour, Mr Craig had his hopes firmly dashed by Paula Bennett, who had no intention of going gently into reliance on the lottery of list rankings. Murray McCully’s seat of East Coast Bays then beckoned, with the punditry predicting that McCully would fall on his sword if called upon by John Key. The likelihood of Craig standing there only increased when it was revealed that his father, Ross Craig, had managed to have the electorate boundaries redrawn in order to get Ross Craig and his wife and an additional 120 neighbouring voters into the electorate.

The issue for Mr Craig is that his success in East Coast Bays relies on National throwing one of their long-time stalwart MPs under the bus. John Key isn’t going to want to make that call unless he thinks he really needs Mr Craig, which is why Mr Key is attending ACT party fundraisers in Epsom, and Mr Craig is getting nothing.

I get the feeling that Mr Craig would have looked at Mr Williamson’s blood on the floor and made a calculation or two. Sure, Mr Williamson is another long-time National party stalwart, but he’s also just been sacked as a Minister and may be viewed as expendable. He’s past his prime and has proven himself in the past to be a bit of a loose cannon. If National has to throw a long-serving MP under a bus, wouldn’t it be better to do it to one who’s already a political corpse? Even better, it’s a safe National seat – National won 62.8% of the party vote there in 2011. And to top it all off, the Conservative candidate in 2011 came in third with 5.2% – a good base to start from!

I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr Craig’s expression of interest involved a testing of the waters to check National’s reaction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, National’s public reaction was non-existent, although it may have provoked some discussion in various party back rooms.

The Conservative’s are hoping to finalise their candidates by the end of the month, and I would predict that one further calculation will result in Mr Craig throwing his hat into East Coast Bays. That calculation is Mr Williamson’s reliance on Pakuranga as an insurance policy. He’s been a pariah before, back in 2002 when he was hammered for criticising National’s then-leader Bill English and disappeared from the party list. On that occasion he basically campaigned solely on the electorate vote, gaining a 43.94% personal vote compared to a 26.09% party vote for National in the electorate (although that party vote was still ahead of the nation-wide average). If Williamson wants to stick around as an MP, he’ll be determined to hold Pakuranga to the bitter end, despite whatever the party might want of him.

But Colin Craig wasn’t the only shark circling. ACTs leader, Jamie Whyte, also popped his hand up as a possible contender to take the seat. Mr Whyte’s bid Pakuranga didn’t last long. He soon decided that he didn’t want to end up splitting the anti-Colin Craig vote between he and Mr Williamson, a somewhat laughable proposition.

The odd thing about Mr Whyte’s bid though was that it makes no sense at all for him to make a tilt for a seat he has no chance of winning. National will be gifting ACT Epsom; they’re certainly not going to hand ACT two seats, and Whyte’s individual profile is hardly such that he’d be in a position to take out a sitting MP without National’s help. The only way that Whyte will be making it into Parliament is for ACT to get enough party votes to bring in an additional list MP. The last thing Mr Whyte should be contemplating is the pouring of his energies into an electorate campaign, when his only hope of success is in broadening ACTs nationwide appeal.

Which means, all in all, that Maurice Williamson will remain safe in Pakuranga.

Judith Collins goes nuclear

Judith Collins has evidently had one allegation too many levelled at her and, tired perhaps of the holier-than-thou attitude of her Labour counterparts and the media, she’s hit back. Inquiries to police aren’t rare, she says, and indeed other MPs and even journalists have asked for her help on police matters. And she’s naming names.

First up was retiring Labour MP, Ross Robertson. As reported in the NZ Herald:

Collins said Robertson asked for advice about leave entitlements for his daughter Lisa, then a police officer and aspiring Olympic runner, who wanted more time for training.

Collins, who was Police Minister at the time, said she then asked police officers visiting her office what Lisa Robertson should do. Officers responded by telling her the information was available online — a fact she passed on to Robertson.

“I didn’t interfere. It just goes to show there are plenty of times people contact the minister [for help].”

Collins said she thought his request was “unusual” but said it was “better to contact the minister than go straight to the police”.

Then she attacked TVNZ reporter, Katie Bradford, for discussing with Collins back in 2010 the possible difficulties Bradford’s then-partner might have in getting into police training college (presumably because of Miss Bradford’s mother, the oft-arrested Sue Bradford). Miss Bradford completely denied ever asking Collins for a favour or intervention (in fact, Bradford’s then-partner never even applied for police college), and Collins last night apologised.

Until Collins turned feral against Miss Bradford, Labour might have been goaded to return fire and name examples of National MPs seeking help from Labour ministers in times past. To return fire though would surely have resulted in Mutually Assured Destruction, with the Greens being the only winners. As it turned out though, Ms Collins’ meltdown over Miss Bradford will undoubtedly have resulted in cooler heads in Labour prevailing. With the media well and truly gunning for Collins’ scalp, all Labour now have to do is sit back and watch the show, popcorn in hand.

Together, Ms Collins and Maurice Williamson have been an absolute disaster for National this past week, and the flow on consequences for National may be serious.

National held its northern conference in Auckland over the weekend, but you wouldn’t know, unless you were there. The media coverage of National has been solely devoted to allegations of corruption against Collins and Williamson, and their respective reactions. In fact, the sole focus the conference received was Jamie Lee Ross having to take over from Williamson on a conference seminar, and Bill English telling the party faithful that Labour could still win the upcoming election.

Then there’s issue of Ms Collins picking a personal fight with the media, less than five months out from the election. Miss Bradford is from TVNZ, and Collins has told Brook Sabin of TV3:

“You might just find I get recall on all sorts of things. We’ll just wait and see. I think it is very important when the media want to raise issues about behaviours, they need to understand that they sometimes can be very inappropriate as well.”

and:

“Let’s see if you hold your own people to account after you’ve done what you’ve done to Maurice.”

Ms Collins can be thankful that Maurice Williamson has already gone as a Minister. If he hadn’t, her behaviour over the last few days would surely have forced John Key’s hand. Certainly, the tide of public opinion would appear to be going out on Collins. However, as it now stands, the last thing Key wants is two Ministerial resignations/firings in a short space of time, both over allegations of corrupt practices. Key will be hoping like the blazes that nothing further comes out about Collins.

Maurice Williamson bites the dust

Maurice Williamson has resigned, following news that he called police in December 2013 to discuss the arrest of Donghua Liu on assault charges. (You may recall Mr Liu from this post, following news that Mr Williamson and Nathan Guy granting citizenship to Mr Liu against the advice of the DIA, after which Mr Liu donated significant funds to the National party).

Mr Williamson has said:

“When I made inquiries with associates, it became clear that there was confusion about whether a prosecution would proceed. I offered to call police and clarify the matter.”

However, the officer who handled Mr Williamson’s inquiry, Inspector Gary Davey, said the following in an email his colleagues:

“He started by saying that in no way was he looking to interfere with the process, he just wanted to make sure somebody had reviewed the matter to ensure we were on solid ground as Mr Liu is investing a lot of money in New Zealand.” [Emphasis added]

Let’s get this straight. A Minister who rubber stamped Mr Liu’s citizenship against official advice (with Mr Liu then donating $22,000 to the National party via his company, Roncon Pacific Hotel Management), calls police when Mr Liu is arrested, and let’s it drop into the conversation that somebody needed to review the matter because “Mr Liu is investing a lot of money in New Zealand”.

That’s a hell of a statement to make if you’re “in no way looking to interfere with the process”. Police make their own decisions about whether to lay charges and whether to proceed to prosecution with those charges. One of the factors that should certainly not be taken into account when police make such decisions is whether that person is splashing around a lot of money.

One can be charitable to Mr Williamson and assume that it was just something that slipped out accidentally; that he honestly had no intention of trying to influence police decision making. However, Mr Williamson’s words had enough of an effect for them to be mentioned in Inspector Davey’s email to his colleagues, and Willimson’s intervention certainly resulted in a police review of the matter (even if – and full credit to police – they pressed ahead with the charge anyway, and have now secured a guilty plea).

Whatever Mr Williamson’s intentions, this is bad news for the National party. Just as it seemed that the Judith Collins saga had died a death in the public mind, along comes a new allegation of corruption against another government minister. The narrative that money buys you ministerial influence gains another thread.

Whether it’s good news for Labour is a different story. Sure, it gives them a new attack line against the government, but it blunts the extensive coverage they had been getting due to their new “Kiwisaver as a monetary policy tool” policy. David Parker won’t be best pleased that all of the political journos will now switch focus to Mr Williamson’s political corpse.

Transparency and perception – four easy pieces

Political figures (and those in the public service who might wish to become political figures) appear to have a real problem with making judgement calls on how their actions will be perceived by the public. Let’s take a look at four recent examples – for no reason other than that we can!

Example the First: Shane Taurima

A good journalist should appear to be impartial. A good journalist employed by the state broadcaster, TVNZ, should be doubly so. That’s not to say that they can’t have their own political beliefs, but the public shouldn’t see those beliefs as colouring editorial decision or journalistic content.*

One may very well think that it would be obvious to a good journalist that if they held Labour party meetings on TVNZ property, and that if someone were to leak that information to a rival channel, that the public may very well hold the perception that there was and had been a left-wing bias to said journalist’s content and said TV station’s Maori-Pacifica unit.

Example the Second: Judith Collins

The Cabinet Office Manual is very specific about managing conflicts of interest and perceptions of conflicts of interest.

Thus, when one is a Minister of the Crown, and one’s husband is the director of a company that has given a lot of money to the National party to which one belongs, and one is very close friends with the company’s chairman, and one visits the company’s China office to have a glass of milk (I mean, seriously, who stops in for a glass of milk?) after having previously met the company’s chairman for dinner (at which was present a Chinese border control official), (pause for breath), SURELY one would consider that the public may very well perceive that one’s actions were intended to benefit the company and therefore indirectly benefit one’s husband and therefore oneself?

And would one not consider that initially hiding the fact that one had had dinner with the company’s chairman and a Chinese border control official might very well increase the perception that one’s actions had been designed to benefit the company, one’s husband and oneself?

But according to Ms Collins, that’s just rubbish. Self-awareness is not perhaps her strong suit.

Example the Third: Parmjeet Parmar

Stuff.co.nz reports that Parmjeet Parmar, a current commissioner with the Families Commission, was spotted at the Pasifika Festival sporting a blue National party rosette, campaigning with John Key.

If the allegation is correct (and Ms Parmar does not appear to have denied that she wore a blue rosette as a fashion accessory), one wonders how a supposedly politically-neutral state servant could possibly think that wearing a blue National party rosette and campaigning with the Prime Minister wouldn’t create the perception that the Families Commission was somewhat politicised…

And it really must said that the Social Development Minister, Paula Bennett, really didn’t help matters when she stated:

“I have known Dr Parmar for several years and I am well aware of her political views – she brings extensive knowledge and professionalism to her role in the Families Commission.”

Yes, Minister, of course you will speak favourably of her if you’re well aware of her political views – and they are aligned with your own.

Example the Fourth: Maurice Williamson, John Banks and Donghua Liu

And another citizenship scandal breaks involving a Mr Liu, albeit a different Mr Liu on this occasion to Shane Jones’ favourite Mr Liu of Auditor-General investigations past.

In brief:

– Mr Liu applies for NZ citizenship, but the DIA recommends his application be declined on the grounds that he doesn’t spend enough time in NZ and he can’t speak English to the requisite level.
– Mr Liu’s business partners approach Maurice Williamson (Minister of Building and Construction) and John Banks (then-Mayor of Auckland City), who write to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Nathan Guy, recommending that Mr Liu be granted citizenship regardless.
– Mr Liu is granted citizenship in 2010.
– Two years later, Mr Liu’s company, Roncon Pacific Hotel Management, makes a $22,000 donation to the National party.

The Auditor-General’s report into the first Mr Liu stated:

“[i]t is clear that the apparent links between different applicants and their agents, or supporters, coupled with strong support from various MPs and subsequent questions from the minister or ministerial officials caused disquiet among some citizenship officers.”

And that, although there was nothing wrong or improper with MPs advocating on behalf of constituents in citizenship cases:

“However, advocacy of this kind, in particular where the advocate is a fellow MP or known to the minister, clearly presents risks to the integrity of the decision-making system and to the reputations of those involved.”

Yup, it looks bad when a rich property developer’s rich mates go to their friends in Government, and suddenly the DIA’s recommendation is overturned. What could Mr Williamson and Mr Banks have said to Mr Guy that could not have been said by Mr Liu’s friends as part of his application for citizenship? That the rules about time spent in NZ were outdated? That submission could surely have been made directly to Mr Guy? The use of MPs and Mayors as go-betweens to the Minister of Internal Affairs invites the perception that all was not above board.

And did it not occur to Mr Liu that to then make a significant donation to the National party (albeit two years later) invites the perception that a favour has been paid for?

* At the time that the Taurima scandal and resignation unfolded, a number of left wing commentators held up the example of Paul Henry as a defence. Many other commentators have pointed out just why that example was flawed. I’d just like to note that surely no one actually considers Paul Henry to be a “good journalist”?