Strike two

Act New Zealand leader Rodney Hide is quite correct when he suggests, apropos his colleague David Garrett, that they both belong to a house of representatives - not a choir of angels.

We do need people from all walks at the high table of government, the better to represent the habitues of life's many and varied pathways.

Mr Hide is also right to point out we have all made mistakes in our lives, and it would be unreasonable to continue to punish a person for long-distant indiscretions; further, that people are capable of "turning their lives around" as Mr Garrett has apparently done.

Indeed, a case could be made that the furore which has erupted as a result of revelations concerning the past misdemeanours and criminal convictions of Mr Garrett is a sideshow and a "beat-up" - a case now being forcefully prosecuted by Mr Hide.

But that case is weak. The matter is of considerable public interest for a number of overlapping reasons.

First, there is the question of the actual convictions and the implications of the way in which they have come to light; there is the issue of judgement on the part of both Mr Garrett and Mr Hide; there is what might be labelled the cumulative effect of Act's recent reversals; and there is the "political" dimension.

Mr Garrett is the law and order spokesman for the Act party. He has spearheaded the coalition's punitive "three strikes" legislation.

On Monday this week, he admitted he had a criminal conviction for assault dating from a 2002 nightclub incident in Tonga. Different accounts have been aired as to what happened on this occasion - as a result of which Mr Garrett received a broken jaw and a $10 fine. He has maintained that he has, ever since, been attempting to appeal the case, but has been unable to secure a hearing.

On Wednesday, he admitted he had, as a 26-year-old in 1984, stolen the identity of a dead child to procure a false passport. The crime came to light in 2005 when, as part of an investigation into passport fraud committed by two Israeli citizens thought to have been Mossad spies, others were prosecuted. Mr Garrett was discharged without conviction and granted permanent name suppression.

A lawyer for the Sensible Sentencing Trust, he informed Mr Hide of these transgressions prior to the 2008 general election. Mr Hide may now be wishing they had contrived a way in which similarly to inform the general voting public - particularly in light of Mr Garrett's high-profile law and order role.

Neither of his crimes in themselves are hanging offences - or ordinarily career-ending misdemeanours - but when attached to the leading proponent of "getting tough on crime" in a party that has always set great store by transparency in politics, there emanates an inevitable whiff of hypocrisy.

It leaves Mr Garrett vulnerable to the charge by opponents that whereas his leader is now arguing the case for an MP having turned his life around, the party's law and order spokesman's predominant legislative thrust has been to deny that possibility in others. Had the convictions not been kept secret, such an indictment would carry much less weight.

The imbroglio does not reflect well on Mr Hide's judgement or political acumen, and adds to a corrosive list of party political faux pas: to wit, himself, the great perk-buster, taking his partner on various jaunts around the world at the taxpayer's expense; Sir Roger Douglas, likewise, benefiting from public largesse.

A case of "Act as I say, not as I do"? Then there are the other matters that have kept the party in the limelight for the wrong reasons: Mr Garrett being hauled up for sexual harassment of a parliamentary office worker; and the recent Heather Roy demotion.

If the destructive battle over the deputy leadership revealed deep rifts in the party of five, this latest matter suggests that far from being healed, they may have got worse.

It is suggested that the information concerning Mr Garrett was leaked from within the party itself. If this is correct, with Mr Garrett being so tightly aligned with Mr Hide, it must be construed there has been a further attempt to undermine his leadership.

While keeping tightlipped over the affair, Prime Minister John Key and National will be watching keenly from the sidelines.

As Labour found to its cost with Winston Peters, the major party in government can eventually be tainted by the antics of its smaller affiliates and, given Act exists primarily because of Mr Hide's free run in Epsom, Mr Key and his strategists may find their patience running thin.

It would be no surprise if, with the Marine and Coastal Area legislation in train and Maori Party support locked in, National cut Act loose and stood a strong candidate in Epsom next year.

This could, of course, invite the prospect of a split in the centre-right vote - leaving the way open for a maverick centrist beloved of the electorate's well-heeled blue-rinse brigade. Now, did someone mention Winston Peters?

 

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