I was sitting in a car, stuck in Ponsonby traffic with my Mother, listening to National Radio, being bourgeois. My Mother and I do not share the same political affiliations, but we also aren’t at loggerheads with one another. Indeed, on some matters we agree completely, like the increasing irrelevance of the New Zealand Labour Party to the political scene. It was, then, quite interesting to find myself defending the idea that maybe, just maybe, David Cunliffe is being conspired against by elements of either his own party or the National Party (or both).
Let’s put all the cards on the table: it turns out that someone in David Cunliffe’s office (which includes the possibility it was Cunliffe) wrote a letter to Immigration in 2003 asking what the hold up was in processing Donghua Liu’s residency application. This turns out to be problem not necessarily because the letter was ill-advised or dodgy (we will come back to that) but rather because a few days earlier Cunliffe was asked whether he had any dealings with Liu and had said an unequivocal no. The letter showed that this wasn’t strictly true, and given that there was (and still is) a scandal brewing within Labour about donations Liu gave to the Labour Party, this made a bad situation even worse.
Now, for those of you who don’t know who Donghua Liu or David Cunliffe are, the facts are these: David Cunliffe is the leader of the major opposition party in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and wants to be PM come September. He has not exactly fired in the polls and the Labour Party seems to be losing rather than gaining votes at the moment, mostly because it seems quite content to fight with itself rather than with a government that it seems to only disagree within on the principle of being in opposition to it rather than because of principles which distinguish it from the government of the day. Donghua Liu, on the other hand, is a business person who donates money to all and sundry and also engages in assault. This latter characteristic of Liu ended the ministerial career of Maurice Williamson, who wrote to the police about Liu’s charges and insinuated that as Liu was rich and bringing money into the country, prosecuting him might be a bad idea.
People on the Left and the Right in New Zealand have been rightly worried that Williamson’s support of Liu looked like it was a case of money for favours; the revelation that Liu also donated to Labour whilst it was in government and Cunliffe’s office wrote a letter of support for Liu’s residency application which features the following:
Mr Liu wishes to set up a joint venture including Well Lee Ltd, Equus Hawk 08 Ltd and Tian long Property Development Co Ltd to export large quantities of agricultural and horticultural products to China.
It is hoped that products from the company will be available to the market in July 2003.
looks a little (and this is the topic of serious debate so it is not a settled issue) like “Well, he’s planning to grease the economic wheels of the nation, so can you rush things up a bit for him, please?” I.e. money for favours. Now that it turns out Liu also donated over $100000 to the Labour Party, this does make everything look quite suspicious.
Cunliffe’s reaction to the Liu story was first to make veiled threats against his own caucus and then accuse the government of a smear campaign. The former move was presumably to stop the faction in the Labour Party caucus who despises Cunliffe from moving against him whilst the latter… Well, it seems like a reasonable supposition: it turns out that the journalist who uncovered the letter from Cunliffe’s office had to wait a month for it while the Minister of the Crown who received the official information request sat on it. By “sitting on it” I mean that he didn’t release it in a timely fashion to the media but he happily told members of the government about it, including the Prime Minister. John Key has admitted to knowing about it for some weeks. Someone at the WhaleOil blog – which is rumoured to be basically fed information by the lackeys of a key, government minister – intimated that news damaging to Cunliffe would leak the day before the letter was released.1 In theory Cunliffe should have been notified about the release of the letter before the media got a hold of it, but that did not happen. All in all, it seems like it’s all kinds of dodgy, almost as if someone was waiting for just the right time to smear Cunliffe and bring the party he leads into further disrepute.
However, there is another issue. Cunliffe has an image problem which predates the revelations about Liu. Cunliffe was elected to rejuvenate the Labour Party and lead it to victory. However, he has presided over a party which continues to not do very well in the polls and he has scored no significant hits against the PM, who continues to be popular with the general public. Cunliffe also has a reputation for being arrogant, and he seems to be playing towards this weakness rather than against it. Rather than admitting “Yes, a mistake has been made: over ten years ago I signed a letter of support for Mr Liu!” he has gone on the attack. Now, Cunliffe may have done nothing wrong in writing that letter (although I, like some, worry about the whole “mentioning his business interests” thing) but by attacking his own caucus and then the government, Cunliffe looks like he is spinning when really he should be back-pedalling. It doesn’t help that Cunliffe is not a popular choice for a potential PM. The unpopular candidate shouting “Conspiracy!” and accusing the popular PM of being in on it does not exactly endear one to the general public.
Some might say this is a pathetic point to make: no matter what the PR value is in saying “It’s a smear/there’s a conspiracy!” surely we should assess the claim of conspiracy and not worry about the consequences of the claim? I agree entirely: indeed, I’ve written a book about that very fact. However, I can’t help but think that Cunliffe is making the job of investigating the claim of conspiracy harder on all of us by being so utterly unapologetic on what is, in the end, a stuff up by his office. After all, this is someone who wants to be PM and yet didn’t do the due diligence to see if he had ever had any dealings with Liu and answered a question with an unequivocal “No!” when a more circumspect “Not as far as I am aware!” would have been prudent. If he had said the latter and then a ten year-old letter had turned up he could have gone “Look, that was ten years ago, before anyone knew much about Mr. Liu: I think you can understand why this letter, out of the thousand of similar letters I have written, escaped my notice.”
Still, maybe this really is a pathetic point on my part and it’s possible I am not adhering to the standards I advocate in my own work. That might be because I think the Labour Party is essentially dead (a line which will probably come back to haunt me in a few years time, I am sure) and thus my lack of empathy to the fortunes of the party means I’m ignoring the very real issue here. Perhaps the best response here is that when someone who looks like they are covering up something complains about someone else being involved in duplicitous activity, it’s hard to take the first person seriously. That being said, it does look as if it’s entirely possible Cunliffe didn’t recall the letter and made a simple mistake (albeit one which is associated with a whole bunch of mistakes made by his associates in the Labour Party). He could have been wiser about it, but none of this should distract us from the more serious and quite well-evidenced claims that a) the government sat on this information and b) someone might have set Cunliffe up to fall. Unfortunately, the suspected culprits happen to be an increasingly popular government whilst the victim (such that he is) is an unpopular politician belonging to a party known more for factional infighting than anything else.
They say we get the politicians we deserve. The gods above and below help us if this is true.
- Although that might just be coincidence: just because Cameron Slater is this year’s award winning blogger does not make his blog a reliable source of news.↩