Gordon Campbell on Judith Collins’ milking of the system

Column – Gordon Campbell

The Cabinet manual not only forbids actual conflicts of interest when Ministers are performing public duties from which they or their family members and close associates might derive private gain – it also puts the onus on the Minister to actively avoid …

Gordon Campbell on Judith Collins’ alleged milking of the system

by Gordon Campbell

The Cabinet manual not only forbids actual conflicts of interest when Ministers are performing public duties from which they or their family members and close associates might derive private gain – it also puts the onus on the Minister to actively avoid even a perception that such a conflict might exist. In the case of Justice Minister Judith Collins, she used a taxpayer funded trip to China to visit a milk company in China on whose board her husband serves as a director, sampled the company’s product, declared it to be “nice” and allowed herself to be photographed. Not surprisingly, the Chinese company then posted the Minister’s photo and positive comments on its website – at least, until asked to take down the apparent endorsement. The same company also donated $55,000 to the National Party before the 2011 election, and Ms Collins opened the company’s new office in Auckland last year.

A reasonable person would probably conclude there was at least a perception of a conflict of interest in that chain of events. Not so, according to Prime Minister John Key; apparently, the the Cabinet Office “unequivocally said no, there’s no breach.” In which case, it would be very helpful if the Cabinet Office released the reasoning by which it reached that conclusion. It would help others to avoid similar gaffes or near gaffes, in future. In the meantime, it would also be far more re-assuring if the Justice Minister showed any sign that she recognised the potential for her actions to raise concern. No such luck. Instead, Collins has gone on the attack and ridiculed the very idea that her actions might be perceived as inappropriate, and the very notion that such rules should even exist, or be applied to her. Given the chance, she told RNZ this morning, she’d do it all over again.

When overseas, Collins asked mockingly, was she supposed to visit only those businesses owned by complete strangers ? How many MPs, she added, were shareholders in Fonterra – and were their offices to be similarly avoided in future? Any distinction between promoting the likes of Fonterra and her husband’s private business seemed lost on her.

Imagine if the shoe was on the other foot. Imagine the hue and cry if a Labour gpvernment minister was caught out apparently endorsing the wares of a Chinese company (a) on whose board the Minister’s spouse was a director, and (b) and which was a major donor to Labour’s re-election campaign. Judith Collins, one could readily imagine, would be leading the pack howling in protest at the payback this would seem to represent. However, one could also just as readily imagine the same feeble rationalisations and snorts of “ridiculous” emerging from the mouth of a Labour government minister as well.

That‘s the wider problem. Across the board, the rules that are supposed to govern the behaviour of those in power now tend to interpreted purely in terms of political advantage. Labour’s Grant Robertson is right on that point at least; we expect more, and especially for goodness sake, from a Minister who holds down the Justice portfolio. Unfortunately, the public perception also exists that both parties would be just as willing to bend the relevant rules, and be equally reluctant to admit any wrong-doing, if and when they were caught out. That’s the real corruption. It’s not that we expect better from the likes of Judith Collins; it’s that her behaviour is what we’ve come to expect from all of them.

Elections and the Left
Interesting piece by Adolph Reed in the latest issue of Harpers magazine. In it, Reed traces the history of the left’s willing capitulation to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – and the disaster this has been – and paints a gloomy picture of the prospects of electoral politics (as currently constituted) ever being able to offer any genuine solutions for the left. Here’s a key part of Reed’s diagnosis:

But if the left is tied to a Democratic strategy that, at least since the Clinton Administration, tries to win elections by absorbing much of the right’s social vision and agenda, before long the notion of a political left will have no meaning. For all intents and purposes, that is what has occurred. If the right sets the terms of debate for the Democrats, and the Democrats set the terms of debate for the left, then what can it mean to be on the political left? The terms “left” and “progressive” — and in practical usage the latter is only a milquetoast version of the former — now signify a cultural sensibility rather than a reasoned critique of the existing social order. Because only the right proceeds from a clear, practical utopian vision, “left” has come to mean little more than “not right.”

The left has no particular place it wants to go. And, to rehash an old quip, if you have no destination, any direction can seem as good as any other. The left careens from this oppressed group or crisis moment to that one, from one magical or morally pristine constituency or source of political agency (youth/students; undocumented immigrants; the Iraqi labor movement; the Zapatistas; the urban “precariat”; green whatever; the black/Latino/LGBT “community”; the grassroots, the netroots, and the blogosphere; this season’s worthless Democrat; Occupy; a “Trotskyist” software engineer elected to the Seattle City Council) to another. It lacks focus and stability; its métier is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to “send messages” to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed.

This dilettantish politics is partly the heritage of a generation of defeat and marginalization, of decades without any possibility of challenging power or influencing policy. So the left operates with no learning curve and is therefore always vulnerable to the new enthusiasm. It long ago lost the ability to move forward under its own steam. Far from being avant-garde, the self-styled left in the United States seems content to draw its inspiration, hopefulness, and confidence from outside its own ranks, and lives only on the outer fringes of American politics, as congeries of individuals in the interstices of more mainstream institutions.

With the two parties converging in policy, the areas of fundamental disagreement that separate them become too arcane and too remote from most people’s experience to inspire any commitment, much less popular action. Strategies and allegiances become mercurial and opportunistic, and politics becomes ever more candidate-centered and driven by worshipful exuberance about individuals or, more accurately, the idealized and evanescent personae — the political holograms — their packagers project……Obama is the pure product of this hollowed-out politics. He is a triumph of image and identity over content; indeed, he is the triumph of identity as content.

None of this is entirely new, however well said. Reed’s diagnosis of the roots of pessimism is accurate, and his “cure” is the same old call to a long hard slog to build a new progressive moment from a base in the trade union movement. Yet in commenting on Reed’s piece, Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect came to the conclusion that (a) progressives are already engaged in and succeeding (in some cases) at what Reed is urging them to do and (b) when faced with the choice of a right winger pledged at gutting labour rights and social programmes and a nominal progressive with dubious left wing credentials (e.g. David Cunliffe) then the choice is obvious; you still have to support the nominal progressive. Here’s Meyerson: note the reference to the TPP, which he sees as being doomed:

Reed’s characterization of the Democrats as neo-liberal NAFTA-ites seems frozen in time, that time being the 1990s. As Bill Moyers pointed out to Reed when he hosted him on his show in February, both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have ruled out any support for Obama’s bid to resurrect fast-track—in essence, killing any chance for passing the latest iteration of corporate-backed trade agreements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Reed’s view of the Democrats takes no account of the popularity of Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio within the Democratic base, of the movement of fast-food workers and the spillover effect their campaign has had on efforts to raise the minimum wage. He didn’t get the news that Senate Democrats rejected Obama’s effort to make Larry Summers the chairman of the Fed precisely because of Summers’s role in deregulating finance. He seems not to have heard of the successes of groups like New York’s Working Families Party, which has built an electoral left in New York, or the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which has won higher wages, union recognition and environmental victories by uniting labor and enviro groups in L.A. He seems, in short, to have missed the rise of a left that is doing pretty much what Reed says a left should be doing…

…Perhaps the biggest hole in Reed’s argument is that concerning labor and politics. Reed acknowledges that building a serious left requires a labor movement. But with the Republican Party fairly brimming with Scott Walkers and Bob Corkers—with politicos whose very mission is to stamp out what’s left of the labor movement—the unions lack the luxury of downgrading their electoral work. Wherever they can, labor, liberals, and the left should favor candidates and campaigns devoted to working people’s interests and power. But if the choice is between a Scott Walker Republican and a Democrat of limited virtues who nonetheless will support unions’ right to exist, labor, liberals and the left still have to mobilize for that Democrat.

In a New Zealand context, one of the interesting things about Reed’s critique is that it works precisely against Cunliffe’s avowed intention to mobilise Labour non-voters. Reed’s hard-earned pessimism would say otherwise:

Finally, admitting our absolute impotence can be politically liberating; acknowledging that as a left we have no influence on who gets nominated or elected, or what they do in office, should reduce the frenzied self-delusion that rivets attention to the quadrennial, biennial, and now seemingly permanent horse races.

What Cunliffe has to do – if and when the gaffes ever cease – is to offer to those 800,000 non-voters a believable, achievable change in their circumstances. And also convince them that he would actually deliver – and not once in office, trade way their issues as being just, but politically unaffordable.


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