Odour of hypocrisy offends all sensibilities

The thing about hypocrisy is that its unmistakable odour offends the most disparate of sensibilities, political and otherwise. Only the blindly devoted supporters of David Garrett and Rodney Hide cannot see how they have hoisted themselves with their own petard.

If you make a career out of condemning in the most splenetic fashion those who accept "perks", then it is almost a law of nature that universal condemnation will come your way when you avail yourself of those selfsame perks. Thus it came to pass with Mr Hide, taking his girlfriend on a jaunt overseas at the taxpayer's expense.

In fact he was only doing what he was arguably entitled to, but that fact is consigned to irrelevance by his prior self-righteous position on the matter.

So it is too with Mr Garrett, who has made his brief public career to date on the back of vociferous get-tough-on-crime campaigns, first as a lawyer for the Sensible Sentencing Trust, then as a Johnny-come-lately Act New Zealand MP.

When people heard Mr Hide making his pleading on behalf of Mr Garrett along the well-travelled path of redemption, many will have found it stomach-churningly disingenuous.

Mr Garrett, backed by Mr Hide, led the charge on the three-strikes legislation - a piece of populist law that does not give a fig about redemption. In fact it positively seems to abhor it.

The legislation also flies in the face of voluminous evidence, not to mention certain well-rehearsed economic realities - $90,000 per annum to house a prisoner, second-highest imprisonment rate in the developed world, the vast cost of building more and more prisons - that point to its wrong-headedness and ineffectiveness.

The pair were intimately associated with calls for ending name suppression while taking advantage of the very same with respect to Mr Garrett's colourful past. Arguably, the latter owes his parliamentary career to the rules of suppression.

We have not seen such rank hypocrisy in our elected officials for a good long while and the disdain now being heaped upon those at the centre of this fiasco has been well-earned. But we should not get too carried away over what is essentially a sideshow. There are bigger fish to fry.

To wit: the inevitable, casually rehearsed but probably carefully scripted, suggestion by Prime Minister John Key that the debacle could sway voters against MMP and into thinking that the system "fundamentally isn't working so well".

"I think it will increase the likelihood that people will vote MMP out," he said this week. He added the rider, naturally, that he wasn't saying "they should or shouldn't take that view", but for many the voice of reason, Mr Middle New Zealand, has spoken.

He might well have said that aspects of MMP are not working well; and, indeed, they are not. But neither, as Mr Key and the National Party might want us to believe, are they terminal faults.

The Government has made no secret of the fact it would like to see the back of a democratic system that enfranchises voices from outside the traditional major parties, regardless of the fact that minor tinkering will resolve its most blatantly undemocratic flaws: such as the rules that allow a number of a party's candidates to enter Parliament on the back of a win in one electorate seat.

Mr Hide won Epsom, with nods and winks from National, and with only 3.65% of the popular vote brought four others into the House. Better constitutional brains than mine will have more precise prescriptions for ironing out the potentially disproportionate political influence wielded as a result, but such fixes do exist.

So we should not be sidetracked by pessimistic gloom over MMP. Now that we've all had our fix of the all-too-apparent hypocrisy we should be digging down into the matter of how narrow interest groups with very specific agendas are able to find a way into the beating heart of the body politic.

The questions we need to be asking are: what were the mechanics by which a lobby group such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust was able to parachute its man into the heart of the Government? How did Mr Garrett come from nowhere to a number five place on the Act party list? Did money change hands and if so how much?

If this did indeed happen, is this a form of "gaming" MMP; what is the difference between this, again, if it did happen, and paying someone to promote a law on your behalf? Oh, yes, and while we are about it, who funds the ubiquitous, well-organised Sensible Sentencing Trust?

Granted, none of these questions carries quite the emotive freight of indignation occasioned by the more visible behaviour and lack of judgement of Messrs Hide and Garrett, but if we care about our democracy, they are certainly issues we should be grappling with.

• Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.

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