Candour in politics

Like a shooting star, the testimony of Owen Glenn to Parliament's privileges committee hearing into the Winston Peters' donation affair flamed brightly in the darkness before disappearing, leaving only a trail of scattered debris.

Mr Glenn, of whom few New Zealanders would have known until his name became public following his $500,000 gift to the Labour Party several years ago, has now left the country in apparent high dudgeon, having discovered that politics is a brutal game and even the most generous donors to a cause may be sacrificed when ego and personal ambitions are involved.

But among the debris Mr Glenn left behind was this remark, which can be judged the most pertinent to the whole business: " . . . who do you believe and where are the real issues in governing this country of ours? Not these sort of school yard squabbles."

The affair revolves around the first phrase.

Do we believe Mr Glenn or do we believe Mr Peters, for they cannot both be right.

A jury might think the altruistic Mr Glenn has no reason to invent his account since he does not live in this country, is not seeking political office, has no political reputation to defend, and he was able to support his testimony with something of a paper trail which reinforced, but did not prove, it.

It might also be supposed his great wealth and his anger insulated any desire for economy with his recollections, to judge by his later remarks.

And, while Mr Glenn's parting shots were assuredly those of a man much aggrieved by the manner in which he perceived he had been let down by Labour and New Zealand First's leaders, the issue of malice cannot arise retrospectively, as it were.

In the context of his motive for giving money to both parties, he clearly thought a quid pro quo was in the offing. (How was that prospect raised in his mind?)Mr Peters' position, on the other hand, is wholly a defensive one.

His attitude from the time the press published documents seeming to confirm a donation to him from Mr Glenn has been one of denial, semantic argument, and obscurity.

His explanation about when he found out about Mr Glenn's $100,000 gift, supposedly to meet the legal costs of the MP's Tauranga electoral petition, mentions July this year, but does not explain why his lawyer sent an email of his bank account details to Mr Glenn within minutes of Mr Glenn and Mr Peters speaking by telephone in December 2005.

Obviously someone asked Mr Glenn for a donation; Mr Peters says he has no memory of doing so, while remembering other details of the conversation.

It would be unusual, surely, for the leader of a small political party not to recall asking for such a donation, or to forget receiving one of such size.

Mr Peters further argues the donation was not received by him or NZ First, but by his lawyer, and therefore he did not breach any electoral rules.

As to a motive to conceal the truth, Mr Peters has plenty - for example, he sought and his party got funding from Sir Bob Jones, among other wealthy men - while Mr Glenn would appear to have none.

As to the second phrase in Mr Glenn's statement - "where are the real issues in governing this country of ours?" - we take it as read that this is a criticism of parts of the news media which have turned a sideshow into an event of preposterous importance.

It is relevant, certainly, because truth in politics is reinforcing of democracy, but alone is not as significant as the accumulation of issues and policies upon which the November 8 election will be fought.

One of these will certainly be integrity, and some voters will ask themselves why not one of the issues that have emerged in this affair was first made public by Mr Peters, NZ First or Labour; rather, investigative journalism by the much-despised fourth estate performed that duty.

Mr Peters talks of conspiracies to bring him down, but was there a conspiracy to bring him up? In other words, did Labour's leaders think it would be in their political interest to ensure his path to power-sharing, at a time of coalition negotiation, was made as smooth as possible, and did they act accordingly?Mr Glenn's final phrase, in which he referred to "school yard squabbles", is on the mark in the broader context of what really is important when the confidence of the voting public is sought.

Such "squabbles" feed scepticism about governance in voters' minds.

The likely outcome is that everyone seeking representative office is blackened by association, and the participation of citizens in politics is greatly weakened.

The lifeblood of politics is not the favours solicited from a parade of sugar daddies, individual and collective, looking to buy influence or reward from those who would conceal or stretch the truth in pursuit of power.

It is not cash, easy to acquire.

It is that commodity beyond price, honesty.

Mr Peters has failed that test, and most regrettably for the future of this nation, he has not been alone.



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