Ardern’s positive ‘Pacific reset’ tour

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, along with Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters, have been on a tour of Pacific Islands this week. This is an annual tour, but this year Ardern says the aim is ‘a Pacific reset’.

As well as good PR for Ardern with a daily dose of ‘photo opportunities’, this looks like positive engagement with New Zealand’s Pacific neighbours.

RNZ (Monday):  PM’s Pacific tour begins ‘Pacific reset’

The government has kicked off what it calls the “Pacific reset”, with Jacinda Ardern beginning her first trip to the region as Prime Minister.

It comes after Foreign Minister Winston Peters promised to boost aid and embark on a new strategy with New Zealand’s Pacific neighbours.

Mr Peters will accompany Ms Ardern for the week-long trip, which will stop in Samoa, Niue, Tonga and the Cook Islands.

It will also give the Prime Minister a chance to meet the heads of the countries one-on-one before the Pacific Islands Forum later in the year.

This year’s annual Pacific Mission will focus on recovery and resilience, especially for Tonga, which was badly hit by Cyclone Gita last month.

The Council for International Development welcomed the so-called Pacific reset.

Director of the Council for International Development, Josie Pagani, said the move “signals a massive boost of energy for our work in the Pacific”.

“Improved conditions mean greater independence for the Pacific, and that’s the ultimate goal of any aid budget.”

Last year New Zealand committed over $4 million to solar panels in Niue, greatly increasing its renewable energy generation.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw, who will also be on the trip, said New Zealand would continue to invest in green initiatives like that.

“[Winston Peters] is taking the lead on the Pacific strategy, but climate change is a central part of that strategy that is emerging,” Mr Shaw said.

“I don’t want to say we did everything wrong [because] we have a pretty good track record, but we want to build on that, and to broaden it and deepen it.”

A small business delegation will also be on the Pacific Mission trip as well as other Ministers including Carmel Sepuloni, Aupito William Sio, Fletcher Tabuteau, and National MPs Gerry Brownlee and Alfred Ngaro.

It is normal for a cross-party delegation to do the tour.

RNZ (Friday): PM’s breakneck tour a hit with islands

Jacinda Ardern has completed a whirlwind trip of the Pacific Islands, stopping in Samoa, Niue, Tonga and the Cook Islands.

It was her first trip as Prime Minister, where she took the chance to meet with all the heads of the countries.

The tone for the Pacific Mission was set by foreign minister Winston Peter’s speech last week, when he said a “Pacific reset” was needed.

Jacinda Ardern referred to this ‘reset’ several times on the trip and said it was about shifting from a donor-aid relationship to a partnership.

Money was given to Samoa and Tonga for cyclone recovery, more help is on its way for Niue’s renewable energy projects, and there’s been a shift in pension rules for Niueans and Cook Islanders.

But in the words of Mr Peters, these islands are now “attracting an increasing number of external actors and interests”.

That could mean many more trips of the like to ensure New Zealand keeps up its presence in the Pacific Islands.

Peter Dunne Speaks:

Every year the Prime Minister leads a delegation of senior politicians from all parties and business leaders on a Pacific Islands tour. This week’s Prime Ministerial visit to Samoa, Niue, Tonga and the Cook Islands is the 2018 version. Inevitably, there will be those who will dismiss such tours as little more than a junket, a description which is unfair.

Having taken part in a number of them over the years, I can confirm that they are a valuable way of strengthening our relationships with the various Pacific Island states, as well as creating mutual business and trade opportunities.

However, this year’s visits have the potential to break the mould, especially if the Government’s rhetoric of the “Pacific Reset” is to be believed.  Such a reset is certainly overdue.

The goodwill towards New Zealand, and the close bonds of connection are strong, right across the Pacific. For its part, New Zealand needs to be seen to be working closely with its Pacific partners to achieve mutual social and economic progress. New Zealand’s response to the threat climate change poses to low-lying islands and their peoples will be an early test. But, so far, the first signs from this week’s visit are that the Pacific Reset is going to be positive all round.

Newsroom (Friday): Pacific trip provides shape of challenges to come

A trip to the Pacific must be a political propagandist’s dream.

The colourful clothing, beautiful backdrops and warmth of the locals meant Jacinda Ardern’s five-day visit was almost guaranteed to be a success before she landed.

That is not to do her a disservice: Ardern made the most of her stay, greeting as many locals as she could, speaking in the native language where possible and offering both aid and assurances about the region’s importance to New Zealand.

(As a side note, those carping about a waste of taxpayer money should note both John Key and Bill English made regular trips to the Pacific and partook in their fair share of photo opportunities.)

Ardern’s deputy and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters says the region is his top priority, and laid out plans for more political engagement, greater funding and a closer relationship during a “Pacific reset” speech.

Speaking to media on the final day of her visit, Ardern expressed contentment with what she and her ministers had achieved.

“I’d rate this mission highly, off the back of the fact that so many of the leaders have remarked on the repositioning that this government has focused on in the Pacific that was set out by the Minister of Foreign Affairs which says, ‘Look, actually we do a lot of work across the globe but actually our relationships here in the Pacific are key, they’re increasingly important, we need to move to a partnership’, and that has been incredibly well received wherever we’ve gone.”

Peters was even more effusive: “The Prime Minister’s being extremely modest about this trip because she’s leading it, but I’ve been on a lot of Pacific trips, this has been the most successful by a long long way.”

Talk of a partnership of equals has been well received, with good reason: as Ardern pointed out, many of the Pacific nations are longstanding democracies with sophisticated leaders, some approaching developed nation status.

Writing for the Samoa Planet, Lani Wendt Young said Ardern’s remarks about the Pacific “joining” New Zealand in this generation’s nuclear-free moment were “a tad bit condescending, considering how long Pacific Island nations and advocacy groups have been championing this issue on the world stage and in the region”.

It’s always going to be difficult to get the right balance, but Ardern should learn from this – as one of a number of leaders in the region she is not going to create a revolution on her own.

The warmth of the Pacific welcome will stay with Ardern for some time, but genuine progress may prove a higher hurdle.

It always will be, but Ardern has got off to a promising start in the Pacific.

 

 

Avoiding defamation: lessons for Little

Andrew Little began as Leader of the Opposition in Parliament by saying “Cut the crap!”. He has tried to present himself as a decent honest politician who would do things differently.

Instead he copied the dirty attack tactics of Winston Peters, except that he left himself open to being sued for defamation. And when he was threatened with exactly that he took far too long to back down and half apologise.

So he got dragged into court when his late offer of a settlement and half apology was turned down.

This case has been costly, ikt’s just not yet clear who has to pay all the costs, which amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

It is important that opposition MPs and especially the Leader of the Opposition holds the Government to account and questions issues of democratic and public concern.

Members of Parliament have special legal protections because of this – they can claim qualified privilege.

But this also should raise their levels of responsibility.

Little could have handled this much better if he really wants to be a more honourable but effective leader.

Here is the media statement from Little that started this expensive and inconclusive political and legal exercise: Auditor-General must investigate Niue deal for donor

It is loaded with political insinuations that associate Earl Hagaman and his Scenic Circle company.

Here’s a suggestion as to how Little could have done it better:

Auditor-General must investigate Niue deal for donor

The public have a right to know if there is any connection between a donation of   $100,000 to the National Party and the tender process and awarding of a hotel management contract which led to a Government-funded, $7.5million upgrade to a Niue resort, Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little says.

“Today it was revealed that owner of the Scenic Hotel Group, Earl Hagaman made a substantial donation not long before his company was awarded the contract.”

“It is why I have today written to the Auditor-General asking her to investigate whether there was any connection between the two. I have no evidence of impropriety, but it is important that this is checked out.”

“We must have questions answered on how the tender process worked, who if anyone knew about links between donations and the tenderer, and whether Niuean people will ultimately benefit from the resort’s funding. The perception of propriety is key” Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little says.

Little should have responded to any follow up media questions by saying that it was now up to the Auditor General and he would not comment any more until the results of any investigation were known.

This would make it clear that it was holding the government to account and not an attempted political hit job.

It should have avoided any media mayhem or threats of defamation.

Earl Hagaman or Scenic Circle could have released a statement denying anything improper had occurred.

A few people on Twitter and at The Standard would have still ranted about rich pricks getting political favours but that’s normal and would have been of little consequence.

Then when the Auditor General released her finding that there was nothing to indicate any connection between the donation and the awarding of the contract Little could have said something like this:

No problem found with Niue contract

I accept the finding by the Auditor General that there was no link found between a personal donation by Earl Hagaman to the National Party and the awarding of a hotel management contract to his Scenic Circle Company.

As Leader of the Opposition it is important that I hold the Government to account and that I question possible improprieties. I apologise if any impropriety was inferred or perceived in this case.

Little would have done his job effectively, in this case with no wrong doing found,and with no egg on his face.

No direct damage would have been done, nor any unintended collateral damage.

It is very unlikely there would have been any defamation threats or actions, therefore no large costs nor distractions from Little’s job as Leader of the Opposition.

It would have improved his chances of becoming Leader of the Government.

And he would have had more time to look for actual impropriety on the part of John Key and the National Party.

He may even been able to have some success in holding Murray McCully properly to account over the Saudi sheep deal.

Little picked the wrong target – that will happen sometimes – but in attacking too strongly without evidence, either targeting a National donor or being reckless about collateral damage, failing to back off and apologise in a timely fashion, he distracted attention from fights that should have been a priority.

I hope Little has learnt something from this, eventually.

Little “accepted…there was no impropriety”?

In Court yesterday in the defamation case taken against him by Earl and Lani Andrew Little said:

“…once the Auditor-General did her inquiry, I accepted her conclusion there was no impropriety and I was happy to give them a public apology”.

However he didn’t attempt a public apology until two weeks ago, and Lani Hagaman has said in courth that the first she knew about it was being asked for a response to it by journalists.

And I don’t recall Little saying that he “accepted her conclusion there was no impropriety”.

Back in September when the report was released from Stuff: AG clears contract at centre of political donations row

The Auditor General has found there was nothing unusual about the selection of Scenic Hotel Group as the operator of a Niue tourism resort at the centre of a political row over a six figure donation to National.

Auditor General Lyn Provost said from the available information her office had found there was a standard procurement process with reasoned and documented analysis for the selection of Scenic Hotel Group to operate the resort, and for the subsequent investment of New Zealand international development assistance funds in expanding the resort.

The contract was referred to Provost by Labour leader Andrew Little after he questioned the company’s links to National.

Little is now being sued for defamation by the Hagaman’s after refusing to apologise and retract a statement that the deal “stunk to high heaven”.

Little said in a statement the limits to Provost’s mandate meant she was unable to address the key issues he had raised.

“I have a duty as Leader of the Opposition to raise questions in the public interest and respond to media stories on the use of public funds.

“Taking the issue to the Auditor-General was the right thing to do.”

He would not comment further as the matter was before the courts.

That seems to be at odds with what he said in court yesterday.

RNZ reports on yesterday in court: Andrew Little defends efforts to settle defamation case

Mr Little told the court he accepted the Hagamans were entitled to an apology, and letters were exchanged between his lawyers and the Hagamans about that.

“As I’ve said, once the Auditor-General did her inquiry, I accepted her conclusion there was no impropriety and I was happy to give them a public apology.

“The frustration was trying to get form of apology that would be acceptable [to the Hagamans].”

Mr Little said he was sorry for any hurt he had caused the Hagamans, and apologised to Lani Hagaman in person in court today.

“I apologise for the words … causing you hurt and I stand by the efforts I’ve made to resolve this matter,” he said.

He still seems to be struggling with how to do an appropriate apology.

The Hagamans’ lawyer, Richard Fowler QC, questioned him closely about his claim that the couple appeared not to want to reach a resolution.

Mr Little conceded there had been an offer, but his letter in reply said while he would make an apology he did not agree to pay the costs sought or damages.

He said he thought the proposal from the Hagamans was just an opening gambit and he expected further negotiations, but the amount they claimed kept rising.

“They said $100,000, then $215,000. I thought the legal costs were excessive.”

“It included $17,000 to a PR firm, which I understood is not recoverable in court … and I wouldn’t meet that cost.”

A sensible opening gambit could have been a comprehensive apology?

Mr Fowler asked Mr Little whether it would not have been wise to check details before ruining someone’s reputation, but Mr Little disputed that.

“Given the track record of the government I thought what I was doing was right and proper.”

But instead Little is still trying to defend making accusations against the Government (part of his defence is qualified privilege, doing his job as Leader of the Opposition) and by association against the Hagamans and their company.

The case continues today. It seems to be progressing quite quickly with the cross-examination of Little starting yesterday. It has been set down for five days and so far looks likely to fit in that time frame.

 

Little’s statement/apology

I’m trying to understand what Andrew Little is trying to achieve with his ‘apology’ to Earl and Lani Hagaman.

A defamation case that the Hagamans are taking against Little is due to proceed in the Wellington High Court on 3 April.

The apology is just a part of a media statement Little issued yesterday. He has done it as a Labour Party statement as Leader of the Opposition so it seems to be a political statement more so than a personal apology.

LittleStatementHagaman

This was also issued as a press release via Scoop:

Statement re Earl Hagaman

Andrew Little
Leader of the Opposition

MEDIA STATEMENT

24 March 2017

So it is a Labour Party press release from Little as Leader of the Opposition. It is a political statement rather than a court statement or a personal statement and apology to the Hagamans, although an apology of sorts is included in it.

In June last year, Mr Earl and Mrs Lani Hagaman issued defamation proceedings over media statements I made about the award in September 2014 of a hotel management contract in Niue to the Scenic Hotel Group (in which they were shareholders and directors) followed by a $7 million upgrade.

It was a matter of public record that Mr Hagaman had donated $101,000 to the National Party in that same month. This generated considerable media interest.

Little tried to generate public interest in it with this statement on 18 April 2016.

LittleStatementAuditorGeneral

The accusations in that generated media interest, and it generated objections from the Hagamans.

As Leader of the Opposition, I considered I had an obligation to respond to media questions on the issues which related to government actions.

He also has an obligation to base any serious accusations against political opponents and against private persons on facts.

I referred the matter to the Auditor-General because I believed the public was entitled to be reassured.

It appeared that Little referred the matter to the Auditor General to try to get the AG to find evidence to support his accusations.

My focus was, and has always been, on holding the Government to account.

It looked more like he was trying to smear the Government, Ministers and the Hagamans with no evidence. Little had said that the timing of the donation “stinks to high heaven”.

Throughout, the Hagamans have vigorously maintained there was no connection between the award of the contract to Scenic and Mr Hagaman’s donation.

By April 21 “Scenic Hotel Group founders Earl and Lani Hagaman are considering legal action over Mr Little’s claims about the timing of a donation from Mr Hagaman to the National Party a month before the hotel group was awarded a contract in Niue.” NZ Herald.

The Auditor-General did not establish any connection.

From a letter from the Auditor General to Little dated 7 September 2016:

LittleAGLetter

Letter: Response to request for inquiry into awarding a management contract for a hotel in Niue

So despite “The information you subsequently provided to my Office on 27 July and 2 September has been considered as part of preparing this response” the Auditor-General found no problems.

In those circumstances, I thought the matter should be resolved. Over the last three months, I have made a serious effort to do that. Today I want to publicly apologise unreservedly to Mr Hagaman for any hurt, embarrassment or adverse reflection on his reputation which may have resulted from my various media statements. I have offered that apology to the Hagamans.

There is no retraction there, and no apology for getting things wrong. Just ‘sorry if you were upset about my various media statements’. If Little’s “serious effort” to resolve things have been anything like this then it’s no wonder it is scheduled for Court.

I have also offered to make a substantial contribution towards the Hagamans’ costs; an amount I am advised, was greater than would likely have been awarded by the Court.

Little is trying to defend his attempts at negotiating an out of court settlement in public.

He has conceded that a “substantial contribution towards costs” is appropriate. The way things are going those costs will be mounting – in a statement yesterday the Hagamans claimed “we’ve spent more than $200,000 in legal fees in preparing for this case”.

My offers of an apology and redress have been rejected and the matter will now have to be resolved in court. That is unfortunate.

Unfortunate for Little. It sounds like he is trying to portray himself as a victim of misfortune.

I strongly believe everybody’s time, not least the Court’s, could be better used.

A remarkable comment given Little’s initial and subsequent actions, including his latest statement. The Auditor-General’s time could have been better used than on a politically motivated smear attempt.

I want to make it clear that the object of the criticism was the actions of the National government and that I intended to reflect no impropriety on the part of Mr Hagaman.

No reference there to Mrs Hagaman, or to their company.

The Hagamans and Scenic Circle were just some collateral damage in a political hit? He may not have intended to reflect on their impropriety or otherwise but you would have to be a fool to not see that naming them would reflect on them.

I accept that no connection has been established between the donation and the award of the management contract and the hotel upgrade.

He is not admitting he got it wrong so his apology is hollow. All he is doing is saying he has established no connection and the Auditor-General found no connection. He is implying that he could have been right but there is no evidence to support his accusations.

I propose to make no further statement until the proceedings are resolved.

That’s about the only sensible thing that Little has said in his statement.

Little is digging a deeper hole here, and he is flying the Labour flag over it.

Little’s response to Niue report

The Auditor General has not found anything of concern in the awarding Niue hotel management contract  after being asked to investigate by Andrew Littler after Little hasd said that it “stinks to high heaven”.

For now Little is not backing down.

Stuff: AG clears contract at centre of political donations row

The Auditor General has found there was nothing unusual about the selection of Scenic Hotel Group as the operator of a Niue tourism resort at the centre of a political row over a six figure donation to National.

Auditor General Lyn Provost said from the available information her office had found there was a standard procurement process with reasoned and documented analysis for the selection of Scenic Hotel Group to operate the resort, and for the subsequent investment of New Zealand international development assistance funds in expanding the resort.

The contract was referred to Provost by Labour leader Andrew Little after he questioned the company’s links to National.

Little is now being sued for defamation by the Hagaman’s after refusing to apologise and retract a statement that the deal “stunk to high heaven”.

Little said in a statement the limits to Provost’s mandate meant she was unable to address the key issues he had raised.

“I have a duty as Leader of the Opposition to raise questions in the public interest and respond to media stories on the use of public funds.

“Taking the issue to the Auditor-General was the right thing to do.”

He would not comment further as the matter was before the courts.

So at this stage Little intends to let the defamation action take it’s course.

See Inquiry into Niue Hotel management contract

Hide: “Niue deal squeaky clean”

Rodney Hide writes in the Herald that Niue deal squeaky clean.

He acknowledges that he has known the Hagamans for two decades.

I should say at the outset that I have known Earl Hagaman and his wife Lani for 20 years, that I greatly admire them for their business success, what they provide New Zealand, their philanthropy and their integrity.

The Electoral Commission shows that Lani Hagaman donated $35,000 to the Act Party in the year leading up to the 2014 election.

Hide points out that the donation to National (as for the ACT donation):

…the Hagaman donation was correctly registered and made public, as the law requires. There was nothing underhand or secret.

And Hide blasts Andrew Little.

Labour Leader Andrew Little this week got the political blunderbuss out and blew off both feet and then his arms. He never grazed his target.

In my view, his was a disgraceful display of nastiness and political incompetence not expected of a rookie opposition MP and gobsmackingly awful for a would-be Prime Minister.

He summarises the Niue deal:

The Government did the resort’s development to boost tourism to Niue, which has doubled. The project is regarded as a success. The development benefits the Niue Government and people, not Scenic Hotel or the Hagamans.

In 2013 Auckland firm Horwath HTL did an independent review for the board and, among other things, recommended the appointment of a hotel management company.

The following year, on behalf of the board, Horwath ran an Expressions of Interest and Request for Proposals process that culminated in the consideration of two proposals with the recommendation of Scenic Hotels. The board agreed.

Hide names the board members: Ian Fitzgerald (chair), Bill Wilkinson, Toke Talagi (Premier of Niue) and John Ingram.

So the Premier of Niue is implicated, along with three others.

The transaction was not just arm’s length, several oceans of separation lay between the political donation and the management contract. There is no evidence of impropriety. The process would appear a model of probity.

Hide thinks Little is not the same model of probity.

Meanwhile, Little has besmirched a successful and highly regarded business couple, a New Zealand business success story, senior government officials, his own MP’s dad, and the Premier of Niue.

Politics can be nasty. It’s often incompetent. Somehow Little has managed to plumb new depths.

Time will tell whether this latest strategy of leading attacks is going to turn around Little’s and Labour’s political fortunes or not.

Will Little score a hit by firing a blunderbuss of nails at the National Government’s coffin hoping one might find a target and stick? Or has he nailed his own?

“Dangerous territory for Little”

Andrew Little’s insinuations of impropriety that implicate the Scenic Hotels company and Niue resort trust and board members have ventured into dangerous territory according to Tracey Watkins in Smoke and fire or smoke and mirrors?

Little is right when he says that it is his role as Opposition leader to ask questions when a big political donor is awarded Government contracts.

But suggesting it “stinks to high heaven” takes things to a different level.

Even if there hadn’t been a number of steps between the minister and the decision to award the contract, Little’s claim appears to rest on the assumption that everyone involved in the process – from senior diplomats, to government agencies and senior politicians – was either swayed by the donation, or leaned on by the minister.

In the absence of a whistle blower, or any documentation, leaked emails or other evidence so far to support that view, that’s a pretty serious accusation. Seemingly, it relies solely on the fact that Hagaman donated money to the National Party.

This is dangerous territory for Little.

Directly getting involved in dirty politics – making serious insinuations but having little or no evidence of impropriety – might have been standard tactics for a blogger but is dangerous territory for a major party leader.

Political donations are a murky area and it is easy to score quick political hits off those who make them. The number of donors appearing in the yearly list of knights and dames makes most of us cynical about both regimes. So too the number of corporates who regularly show up as political donors. People would more likely believe in the tooth fairy than think you can get something for nothing, particularly from politicians. So suspicion, particularly about policies benefiting party donors, is healthy.

For sure.

But our donations regime is at least more transparent than it once was. If anything, the Hagaman donation proves the disclosure regime is working as intended.

Little hasn’t revealed any political secrets, he has pointed out two publicly known dots and suggested they are joined.

So Little was right to ask the question but wrong to leap to judgement before the Auditor General decides even whether to take a look.

If every big donation is going to be decried as dodgy there seem to be only two alternatives – either barring donors from tendering for Government contracts, which is probably unworkable, or a fully state funded regime, which is where the first option ultimately leads anyway, given the inevitable drying up of campaign funds.

But State funding opens a whole other can of worms, one that comes at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to taxpayers.

It’s also just as likely to become a football and just as open to abuse.

Anyone who doubts that should cast their mind back to the Labour pledge card scandal of a few years back.

Which is the other problem with where Little may be going.

The public’s suspicion about wealthy donors is probably only rivalled by their scepticism over politicians putting their hands out for more money.

So what were the reasons for Little’s attack?

Was it an attempt to scare donors away from  National?

Is it a sign that Labour are struggling to get donations from companies so don’t care about scaring them off political donations?

Or was it just an attempted political hit job? To try and plant seeds of bad political perceptions? Or a gamble, hoping that something might be flushed out of the woodwork?

“Government’s Niue dealings look dodgy”

I don’t know who Ross Henderson is but he has expressed his opinion on the Niue resort issue that was raised by Andrew Little this week.

Stuff: Government’s Niue dealings look dodgy

Here is a fact for you. An influential New Zealand businessman made a donation of $101,000 to the National Party in 2014, and one month later his company got a lucrative contract to manage a resort in Niue. A year later, the resort received $7.5million in aid funding.

That’s three facts.

How should we deal with this fact? This week we’ve seen a range of approaches. But I think there’s an obvious place to start – you must be naturally suspicious.

I was naturally suspicious – mostly about why this issue was raised now by Little, and why Little was so presumptuous saying it “stinks to high heaven” but providing no evidence of impropriety, instead promoting a ‘perception’.

The government have tried to say this week that there is no link between the donation and the tender. But the link is clear: Earl Hagaman, the founder of the company Scenic Hotel Group that won the contract, made the biggest donation National received from a living individual in 2014. There is your link.

It’s not a link. There is no evidence of a link. It could be a coincidence.

When we discover something like this we need to check it out thoroughly. If there was any favouritism, that would be corruption. It’s not just our right, it’s our responsibility in a healthy democracy to look closely at this sort of thing.

Nothing much has been discovered, but it does need to be investigated now to see if there is any substance to Little’s insinuations or not.

I’ve done a bit of investigating of my own. This Earl Hagaman fellow is a hotel tycoon that moved here from the United States –  We know the role big money plays in that country’s politics.

That’s an implicated smear with the flimsiest of connections.

With the Panama Papers still fresh, I found it a bit provoking the same NBR article reports that “[The Hagaman’s] wealth is tied up in trusts, with Mr Hagaman believing if you own it personally, somebody will try to take it away.” I wonder, how much of the fortune that Hagaman has made in New Zealand has been taxed?

More implicated smears with zero evidence. I wonder how much tax Henderson has avoided? Evaded? This is dirty stuff from Henderson.

On the government side, we have Murray McCully. Well, that name is enough to cause suspicion on its own.

Sure. But McCully has been involved in many things and it’s not practical to investigate all of them. Where there’s evidence of impropriety, yes, but when political opponents and journalists simply speculate there’s much less cause for concern, except about the smearing.

Even plenty of right wingers think he’s no good, with hard right commentator Matthew Hooton saying this week that “if McCully organised a sausage sizzle for local hospice, he’d find a way to do it corruptly.”

Hooton is not “plenty of right wingers”. I’m not a right winger and have never been much of a fan of McCully but I think deserves fair political justice like any other politician.

It’s not as simple as Hagaman slipping McCully a cheque and McCully rubber stamping an application in return. There are plenty of other people involved, and Both Hagaman and McCully are downplaying any personal involvement in the deal.

So Henderson is implying the “plenty of other people” are involved in dirty dealings.

But it doesn’t have to be a black and white, explicit transaction. The way the powerful influence politics can be a bit more subtle than that.

There’s nothing subtle about Henderson’s ‘opinion’.

Andrew Little has asked the Auditor-General to investigate. It’s one of the only things we can do from outside government when something looks as shady as this.

“We can do from outside government” is an interesting comment. Which ‘we’ is Henderson associated with?

Little’s call created a nice little sideshow distraction, as well. As Labour MP Jacinda Ardern’s father was one of the trustees appointed by McCully to oversee the deal, some have suggested Little’s comments are a smear on Mr Ardern.

Yes. Kind of like “there are plenty of other people involved”.

Little has not smeared Mr Ardern. He has not suggested that the trustees are all in on some elaborate plot.

Henderson first implicates ‘plenty of people’ and now tries to selectively exclude one person who appears to be quite closely involved in the resort contract.

He has seen big money get mixed up with politics and asked for an explanation. It’s as simple as that. As the Leader of the Opposition, that’s his job!

It’s far from as simple as that.

And it’s unusual for a major party leader to be doing the job of promoting smears without evidence. Dirty politics is usually done less directly, Winston excepted.

The Auditor-General may not find any solid evidence of corruption, but it’s still early days in this story. When we hear about this government’s crony capitalism, it can take weeks and months for the full story to come out.

I suspect that Henderson won’t wait for the outcome of an investigation, should it be done, to make up his mind about this.

But whatever happens from this point, this has been another reminder that when big money and politics mix, it stinks of unfairness.

Is it unfair to provide aid to Niue? To support a resort to encourage tourism, jobs?

There’s no one donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the National Party to advance the interests of poor people.

I don’t think there are many people living on Niue who are from the 1%. Not that there’s any known link between political donations and providing aid to Niue.

Whether there was a conflict of interest in this case or not, there is certainly a perception of one.

That sounds similar to Little’s claim that “the perception of propriety is key.” No actual facts, just implications to create a perception of impropriety.

This is dirty politics 101.

When we keep letting McCully, John Key, and the rest of them bluff their way through this kind of thing, their cronyism will get worse and worse, and we’ll only have ourselves to blame. A government should not be able to laugh off a perception of a conflict of interest. We must not let them. Not again.

The problem for Little is that one of the biggest perceptions that has arisen out of this is how hapless and out of his depth he is. There’s a perception of incompetence.

Attacking, smearing and gotcha politics looks like a desperate last throw of the dice for Little.

Going dirty might finally nail John Key. Or it might be a nail in Little’s leadership coffin that can’t be easily extracted.

Who is Ross Henderson?

Scenic Hotel company versus Andrew Little

Founders of Scenic Hotel Group, Earl and Lani Hagaman, say they would welcome an Auditor General investigation into allegations and insinuations made by Andrew Little, and they are considering legal action Little’s comments.

NZ Herald: Scenic Group founders consider legal action

The $101,000 donation was made on 18 September, the last week of the election campaign in 2014. A month later Scenic Hotels won a contract to manage the Matavai Hotel on Niue, which is owned by a trust appointed by Foreign Minister Murray McCully on behalf of the Niue Government.

Mr Little said the timing “stinks to high heaven” and wrote to the Auditor General last week asking for an investigation into the donation and the handling of the contract, which was signed between Scenic Hotel Group and the hotel board in October 2014.

The Auditor General is yet to decide whether to investigate but in a statement, the Hagamans said they would welcome an investigation from the Auditor General and would cooperate fully.

“In fact we request that an investigation occurs urgently in order to remove any doubt about the integrity and honesty of our name,” said Mrs Hagaman.

Lani Hagaman said the management contract for Matavai Resort Niue was gained by Scenic Hotel Group in an open and contestable process against other hotel groups.

Mrs Hagaman said it was a “political beat-up” by Mr Little.

“We are not interested in being Mr Little’s political football. These nasty and unfounded allegations need to stop and I would urge Andrew Little to stop wasting tax payer money on trying to promote his own political party and ego.”

This is a fairly predictable response to Little’s attack.

His insinuations suggested collusion between the National Party, Murray McCully, Scenic Hotels and the board members of the Niue Tourism Property Trust (including Jacinda Ardern’s father, ex policeman and New Zealand High Commissioner to Niue) in the awarding of a contract.

Ian Fitzgerald, the chairman of the Matavai Niue Limited which runs the Matavai has also now spoken, saying he would have “absolutely no concerns” if the Auditor-General looked into the process.

Mr Fitzgerald is one of four board members appointed by the Niue Tourism Property Trust to oversee the running of the hotel, which $18 million of New Zealand aid money has been invested in. The agreement was negotiated and signed between Scenic Hotels and the board rather than the Trust itself. Mr Fitzgerald said he was unaware Mr Hagaman had donated to the National Party and the board had only dealt with Scenic Hotels Group’s managing director, Brendan Taylor. It was in contract negotiations with Scenic Group for six months before the contract was awarded – well before the donation was made.

This confirms some obvious timing issues with Little’s claim – a one month timeframe from donation to awarding of the contract, suggested as a coincidence of concern, seemed far too short to have credibility.

In a statement, Mr Little said he was pleased the Hagamans would fully cooperate with an investigation. “The public deserves full transparency on this issue given National’s largest financial donor gave the party $100,000 during a tender process, then a month later his company was awarded a major government contract. The public must have confidence that the process led by Murray McCully was above board.”

Little is still digging – digging at McCully and digging a dirty politics hole.

If the Auditor General decides to investigate and finds impropriety in the awarding of the contract then there could be serious repercussions for McCully, who has signalled his exit from politics next year anyway.

If no problem is found this will not look good for Little, at a time that his credibility as a potential Prime Minister may come under increasing scrutiny and pressure.

Little has provided no evidence of impropriety, he has just made very strong insinuations in saying the timing “stinks to high heaven”.

Winston Peters gets away with this sort of dirty politics quite often but it is remarkable for a Labour leader to directly involve themselves in an attack like this.

This was a very risky move by Little, following an attack on tax expert John Shewan last week. It could be make or break for his leadership and possibly for his political career.

Little avoids stink and Ardern questions

Andrew Little has avoided answering questions about Labour MP Jacinda Ardern’s father being involved as a trustee owner of the resort in Niue that Little was very critical of, having said the deal stinks.

NZ Herald had reported in NZ Labour questions $101,000 National donation and Niue resort management contract links:

Labour leader Andrew Little said the close timing of the donation to the awarding of the contract “stinks to high heaven” and he had asked the Auditor-General to investigate whether it was above board.

“New Zealand money, which was earmarked as aid for the island nation, has instead been given to upgrade a resort run by a National party donor.”

He said it was Mr McCully’s personal appointees on the trust which awarded the contract. “We must have questions answered on how the tender process worked, who knew about links between donations and the tenderer and whether Niuean people will ultimately benefit from the resort’s funding. The perception of propriety is key.”

But…

The Matavai is owned by the Niue Tourism Property Trust on behalf of the Government of Niue, which owned the resort before then. That arrangement was put in place in 2011 to ensure oversight of the aid investment New Zealand was putting in.

Mr McCully appoints the trustees who are Ross Ardern (NZ’s High Commissioner to Niue and father of Labour MP Jacinda Ardern), Ministry of Foreign Affairs deputy secretary Jonathan Kings and former High Commissioner Mark Blumsky, who was formerly a National MP and now lives in Niue.

One News reported tonight: Answer the question Mr Little: Labour leader gets repetitive, won’t answer straight on Ardern link

It emerged today that the father of Jacinda Ardern, Ross Ardern, is a trustee owner of the resort, and would have helped appoint the hotel’s board of directors, who organised the contract tender.

Mr Little was asked repeatedly by ONE News if his accusations reflected badly on Mr Ardern, but he wasn’t biting, giving the same stock answer every time.

The interview (with One News edits):

Jessica Mutch: How do you think the trustees were involved in this, one of them obviously the father of one of your front bench MPs? How do you think he’s implicated in this?

Andrew Little: Well the issue isn’t the trustees, I don’t care about the trustees, what I care about is the fact that somebody who donated over a hundred thousand dollars to the National Party one month later gets a contract to run a hotel and then several months later gets seven and a half million dollars. That’s got to be investigated.

Jessica Mutch: You’re saying that you don’t care about the trustees but yesterday you did say that you’ve got all the trustees appointed by the Minister, you were questioning their position of being there. Has that changed now that the attention has come that it is Jacinda Ardern’s father ?

Andrew Little: There is only one issue here and that is a large donor to the National Party…

Jessica Mutch: How do you feel about indirectly implicating and some would say smearing the father of one of your front bench MPs?

Andrew Little: Well apart from that being one of the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, I would be failing in my duty as the leader of the opposition if having seen a large donor to the National Party…

Jessica Mutch: You did say though that the deal stinks, do you not think that that reflects poorly on him?

Andrew Little: The fact that a large donor to the National Party donated over a hundred thousand dollars…

Jessica Mutch: Was it an oversight, did you forget about the link with Jacinda Ardern’s father? Did you know about it yesterday when you came out so strongly and spoke about it?

Andrew Little: I would be failing in my duty as the leader of the opposition if I didn’t actually draw attention to and ask for an assurance about a donor to the National Party donating…

Jessica Mutch: Isn’t it messy though that Jacinda Ardern’s father is involved in this?

Andrew Little: New Zealanders are entitled to an assurance from this Government when one of their biggest donors gets a Government contract a month later…

Yes it does have the perception of messiness.

And regardless of whether a family of a Labour MP MP is involved or not Little was  over the top with his suggestions that the trustees were involved in something that “stinks to high heaven”.

Ross Ardern is currently New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Niue, so any implication he is in some way connected to a stinky deal is quite a big deal.

It’s fair enough questioning whether contracts given to New Zealand companies are fair and proper, if there’s good cause to question them.

It’s not fair to say deals involving companies and trustees and places like Niue stink to high heaven without good cause.

And if Little wants to remain squeaky clean on perceptions of favours for supporters he will need to be very transparent about any Labour policies that could be seen to favour the unions that had the deciding votes on Little becoming Labour’s leader.

There’s a good reason why stinky smears and demands for inquiries need to be carefully researched to ascertain whether there is good cause to shine a spotlight on them.