An MP judged corrupt

New Zealand's first Pacific Island MP, Phillip Field, held the Mangere seat once represented by David Lange, and did so with the Labour Party's largest majority.

But at last year's election, as the tide retreated carrying Labour's hopes of a fourth term in power with it, the voters chose Su'a William Sio to be their MP, with a reduced majority for Labour.

Field, having formed his New Zealand Pacific Party following his departure from the Labour Party in the wake of fraud allegations and charges on which at the time he had yet to be tried, discovered the hard way that the basis for his personal following had vanished.

Where did that vote go, and why? Some 40% of Pacific Islanders who registered in 2005 did not cast votes, and the electorate has a reputation for disinterest in politics, but that cannot be the only explanation.

Mangere's core constituency is made up of a large cross-section of Pacific Islanders - Tongans, Samoans, Cook Islanders, Fijians and others - and was the recipient of frequent visits by the former Labour Party leader, Helen Clark, who sought to build long-term Pasifika support for her party.

Field was, however, a conservative who campaigned against Labour's "ungodly" policies in what is claimed to be the most Christian electorate in the country, and was generally hostile to the Clark government's perceived departure from "family values" - voting against its prostitution law reform, laws against smacking children, and the recognition of homosexual unions.

Many Pacific Islanders are conservative and share the same values Field campaigned upon, but he was also able to gain political advantage from Labour's cheaper doctor's visits, its income-related rents, the job creation during the economic boom, and the improvements to the minimum wage among a people largely used as factory labour in an electorate notorious also for its endless serious crime, and with major alcohol and drug abuse problems among its youth.

Field's supporters have argued strongly for his innocence on the basis that the actions which led to his trial were, in fact, simply matters of Samoan culture, the dutiful concept of lafo, or donation, where if you do a favour for someone, they must repay you in some way, even if you refuse their gift.

In this view, Field is portrayed as a victim of his own generosity and desire to fulfil his electorate expectations.

He was certainly a popular MP, and a very busy one, in an electorate dominated by the twin problems of immigration and poverty.

His "clinics" had queues of supplicants week after week seeking his help on a range of problems, and when he became under Miss Clark a minister outside Cabinet in 2002, as parliamentary undersecretary for Pacific island affairs, the ministry of justice, and the ministry of social development and employment, the demands on him became heavy.

He also became wealthy by dealing in property, and in 2005 was accused of getting overstayers to work for him on several of his properties in return for his assistance in getting them visas.

An inquiry ordered by Miss Clark, but with ludicrously narrow terms of reference, found he had exercised poor judgement but was not guilty of criminal misconduct.

However, more allegations followed, including that he had falsified information given to the inquiry, and a police investigation led to his trial in the High Court.

By then, the Mangere electorate had already made its decision about Field and his political future, which suggests that at the very least his supporters' claims that he was the victim of cultural misunderstanding did not convince voters.

Nor was his High Court jury convinced.

They found him guilty, after long and careful deliberation, on 11 of 12 charges of accepting bribes in return for immigration services, and guilty of 15 of 23 obstruction of justice charges.

Thus was the great political hope of Pacific Islanders - and of the Labour Party in 1993 when he was first elected - brought down to the level of common criminal, the first New Zealand politician to be convicted of corruption, now facing possibly a lengthy jail term.

There can be little sympathy for Field.

However much it might be argued that he was a victim of cultural difference, as an MP he swore an oath to uphold New Zealand law.

He therefore knew the rules and the borders that cannot be crossed.

His peers have judged that he knowingly broke those rules and crossed those borders: if he is a victim, it is of his own arrogance, his own greed and his own lust for status.

 

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