Dunedin’s problem MPs

There has been a poor record with Dunedin MPs this century.

David Benson-Pope asked to be relived of his portfolios in 2005 after he was accused of bullying as a teacher, resigned as a Minister in 2007 and was not selected to stand in his Dunedin South electorate in 2008.

Metiria Turei in 2017.

Clare Curran in 2018

David Clark lost portfolio and was demoted to the bottom of Cabinet in 2020 and would have been sacked as a minister altogether if not for the Covid-19 pandemic (his knowledge as Minister of Health was deemed important enough to retain him in a crisis).

David Benson-Pope was a Labour Member of Parliament for Dunedin South from 1999 to 2008, and a Cabinet Minister from 2005-2008.

May 2005: Benson-Pope steps down as bully inquiry looms

David Benson-Pope stood down from the Cabinet last night until an inquiry decides whether he administered cruel punishment to former pupils and assaulted one of them.

The allegations were raised again last night on TV3 after three of the five accusers identified themselves. One included a man who says that as a 14-year-old he had a tennis ball stuffed in his mouth. They were all students of Bayfield High School in Dunedin, where Mr Benson-Pope taught for 24 years. They say there are other witnesses to some of the alleged incidents.

The accusations against him include throwing tennis balls at students to keep them quiet, striking a pupil with the back of his hand and making the pupil’s nose bleed at a school camp, and caning a student hard enough to draw blood.

Mr Benson-Pope asked to be relieved of his portfolios, the compulsory education sector and fisheries.

Helen Clark referred to the allegations as “the start of what is a rather ugly election campaign, where a desperate and dateless Opposition will drag out whatever it can to smear the character of whoever they can”.

Benson-Pope was reelected in 2005, became a Minister in the next Labour-led government but had more problems, leading to his resignation as a Minister in 2007. From Wikipedia:

After a week of intense pressure focusing not only on the allegation that his staff had acted improperly, but also that he himself had misled Parliament, the media and his Prime Minister about his knowledge and involvement, Benson-Pope offered his resignation from Cabinet at noon on Friday 27 July 2007. Subsequent investigations by the State Services Commissioners Hunn and Prebble make it clear that neither the Minister nor his staff acted in any way inappropriately.

Prime Minister Helen Clark accepted the resignation, saying: “The way in which certain issues have been handled this week has led to a loss of credibility and on that basis I have accepted Mr Benson-Pope’s offer to stand aside”. An editorial commented “Not for the first time, he and the Government have been embarrassed less for what he has done than for his inability to simply say what he has done.”

Benson Pope sought the Labour nomination for Dunedin South for the 2008 election but was replaced by Clare Curran.

Metiria Turei was a Green list MP based in Dunedin North from 2002 to 2017, becoming Green co-leader in 2009. In the lead up to the 2017 election she admitted to benefit fraud over a period of three years in the early 1990s and after the Green Party plummeted in the polls she resigned as co-leader and withdrew from the Green list, stood in the Te Tai Tonga electorate only and failed to get back into Parliament. Wikipedia:

Turei resigned as co-leader of the Green Party and as a list candidate for the 2017 election on 9 August 2017, saying that the “scrutiny on [her] family has become unbearable.” She stated that her intention was to not return to Parliament after the election. Not being on the list meant that, if she failed to win the electorate of Te Tai Tonga where she was standing, she would not return to Parliament after the election. During August, the Green party fell in opinion polls to around the 5% threshold, below which there wouldn’t be representation in Parliament, and Labour’s new leader, Jacinda Ardern, generated such a turnaround that by the end of the month, Labour overtook National in the ratings.

“Metiria Turei’s spectacular own goal in admitting to benefit and electoral fraud not only effectively ended her career but also took down two of her colleagues, savaged a healthy poll rating and led to Labour’s changing of the guard and reversal of fortunes.”
— Clare de Lore, New Zealand Listener

Clare Curran took over in Dunedin South from Benson-Pope in 2008 and became a Cabinet Minister in the Labour led government in 2017. Wikipedia:

In late March 2018, Curran became the subject of media attention after it emerged that she had secretly met with Radio New Zealand broadcaster and senior manager Carol Hirschfeld on 5 December 2017 outside of parliamentary business. Curran initially claimed the meeting was coincidental but later admitted it had been pre-arranged. These revelations led to Hirschfeld’s resignation from her position as senior manager at Radio NZ. The meeting was related to the Labour-led government’s plans to expand public broadcasting through Radio New Zealand.

On 24 August 2018, Prime Minister Ardern dismissed Curran from the Cabinet after Curran acknowledged that she had kept a second meeting off the records. In February, Curran had met with tech entrepreneur Derek Handley at her Beehive office to discuss his interest in the vacant Chief Technology Officer role. Curran had failed to disclose the meeting in her ministerial diary and to inform staff or officials about it. Curran apologized to the Prime Minister for her actions and also resigned from her positions as Minister of Government Digital Services and Minister of Open Government. Curran kept her Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media and associate ACC portfolios.

On 5 September 2018, Curran “appeared flustered” and “stumbled over her answers” when answering questions during question time from opposition National MP Melissa Lee regarding Curran’s use of a personal Gmail account for Ministerial use.[34] Two days later Curran resigned as a Minister of Broadcasting and Associate Minister of ACC, saying she could “no longer endure the relentless pressure I’ve been under”.

On 27 August 2019, Curran announced that she would be retiring from Parliament and not seek election at the 2020 general election.

David Clark became Labour MP for Dunedin North in 2011. He became a Cabinet Minister in the incoming Labour-led government in 2017. As Minister of Health he had a key role dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. New Zealand was put into lockdown on Thursday 26 March. A week later it was revealed that Clark had driven to a mountain bike park for a ride during the lockdown, a marginal action under the lockdown rules.

Clark avoided interviews and said little for four days until he revealed that in the first weekend of the lockdown he had driven 20 km with his family to a beach, which clearly breached the rules and the repeated requests from Prime Minister Ardern.  Statement from the Prime Minister on Dr David Clark:

“Yesterday evening the Health Minister advised me of his trip to a beach during the lockdown and offered his resignation,” Jacinda Ardern said.

“Under normal conditions I would sack the Minister of Health. What he did was wrong, and there are no excuses.

“But right now, my priority is our collective fight against COVID-19. We cannot afford massive disruption in the health sector or to our response. For that reason, and that reason alone, Dr Clark will maintain his role.

“But he does need to pay a price. He broke the rules.

“While he maintains his Health portfolio, I am stripping him of his role as Associate Finance Minister and demoting him to the bottom of our Cabinet rankings.

Journalists see his ministerial career at least as untenable after the Covid-crisis, or after the next election. Asked after this if he would stand for reelection Clark has been non-committal.

That’s a poor record from Dunedin based MPs over the past 15 years.

It hasn’t been all bad.

Pete Hodgson was Labour MP for Dunedin North from 1990 to 2011 And was a Cabinet Minister in the Clark led government from 1999 to 2008, including as Minister of Health. He is now working on behalf of Clark managing the Dunedin Hospital rebuild.

Michael Woodhouse has been National list MP for Dunedin North from 2008 to the present, became a Minister outside Cabinet in 2013 in the Key Government and served various ministerial roles through to 2017.

Current senior Ministers in the Ardern Government Grant Robertson and David Parker are based elsewhere now but have strong connections to Dunedin.

David Clark accused of cronyism after appointing another ex-Labour MP

Minister of Health David Clark has been accused of cronyism after he appointed former Labour MP Steve Maharey as new chair of Pharmac, against the advice of officials, and without following State Services Guidelines in considering a pool of applicants.

Clark’s history shows he has been appointed to a number of positions as he has worked his way into politics and up the ladder, and once he became a Minister (in Cabinet) he has made more than one appointment that involves political connections.

Clark is an ordained Presbyterian minister and practiced as one from 1997 to 2000 (he is still a celebrant and performed a civil union for Grant Robertson and his partner in January 2009).

He started his political involvement while working as an analyst for Treasury from 2003 to 2006, and was also appointed to a number of community positions:

  • Campaign hoardings assistance, Wellington 2005
  • Advisor to Hon David Parker 2006 – 2007
  • Dunedin North Campaign Committee member and activist 2008
  • Head of College, Selwyn College, University of Otago 2008 – 2011
  • Member, Finance and Audit Committee Otago Community Trust 2008 – 2012
  • Trustee, Otago Community Trust 2008 – 2012
  • Leith Branch Membership Secretary 2009 – 2011
  • Member, Otago Forward economic development forum 2009 – 2011
  • Dunedin North LEC Deputy Chair 2009 – 2010
  • Dunedin North LEC Chair 2010
  • Member, University of Otago Vice-Chancellor’s Alcohol Advisory Task Force 2010 – 2011
  • Deputy Chair, Otago Community Trust 2011 – 2012
  • Member of Parliament for Dunedin North 2011 – current

After working his way up the Dunedin North Labour Party administration he was selected to replace the retiring Pete Hodgson and won the safe-ish electorate in 2011.

He was appointed Minister of Health when Labour took over Government in October 2017. he made a controversial appointment soon after:

ODT (8 December 2017): Hospital rebuild chairman sacked; Hodgson given job

Health Minister David Clark has sacked the Dunedin Hospital rebuild chairman and appointed former Labour cabinet minister Pete Hodgson to lead the project.

When contacted, Hawke’s Bay consultant Andrew Blair said his role as Southern Partnership Group chairman was “terminated” this week. Dr Clark told the Otago Daily Times the rebuild needed to be led by a local person.

Mr Hodgson, Dr Clark’s predecessor in Dunedin North, served as MP from 1990 to 2011, and held numerous ministerial portfolios in the fifth Labour government.

“As a former minister of health, he understands the complexity of the issues involved,” Dr Clark said.

“He is indisputably a local champion, and  . . . is well connected into health.

Dr Clark’s other move is appointing University of Otago chief operating officer Stephen Willis to the group now led by Mr Hodgson.

So Clark’s university and political connections coming into play there. This left Clark open to criticism, which he got – War of words over Dunedin Hospital rebuild

Former Health Minister Jonathan Coleman says the Government has made the “wrong move for progressing the rebuild” of Dunedin Hospital.

“The announcement of the ultimate Dunedin Labour Party political insider and former Health Minister Pete Hodgson as chair of the Southern Partnership Group is exactly the wrong move for progressing the rebuild.”

Hodgson is probably a good person for the job, but there is a risk of it being seen as cronyism.

Now this week (Newsroom) Clark accused of cronyism over Pharmac appointment:

Steve Maharey, former Labour MP and ex-Education Minister was appointed Pharmac chair on August 1 to little fanfare.

But questions are now being raised about his appointment after it emerged Health Minister David Clark went against the advice of officials in appointing Maharey.

Documents released under the Official Information Act show the Ministry of Health advised reappointing existing chair Stuart McLauchlan for a fourth term.

A report from 3 May 2018 advised Clark, “the Ministry considers sound reasons exist that support the reappointment of Mr McLauchlan”.

“Pharmac is taking on new roles that will have a significant impact on the health sector… They will require Pharmac to develop new capabilities to carry out these new roles,” the briefing said.

It went on to say: “Mr McLauchlan has performed well as the chair and it is advisable to provide for continuity during this period of expansion of Pharmac’s role. This is particularly so, given that a new chief executive has recently been appointed”.

It went on to recommend McLauchlan be reappointed for a further term of three years or, if Clark wished to change the chair, to reappoint him for just one year, while a replacement chair was sourced.

But Clark overrode that advice.

Instead, he informed McLauchlan that he would not be reappointed, and elevated Maharey to the board.

Opposition health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse said the move was “appalling,” and raised questions about the process involved.

While Clark had the right to appoint Maharey, he went against guidelines from the State Services Commission, which advises a position description be filled out and a wide-pool of applicants be sought before appointing board members.

A workflow for appointment processes from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet shows that the general procedure is to identify required skills and “call for nominations”.

Instead, a statement from Clark said the position “was not publicly advertised, which is within the Board Appointments and Induction Guidelines from the State Services Commission”.

Clark told Newsroom the appointment “followed the standard process for Board chairs and was signed off by the Cabinet”.

But Woodhouse said the process raised issues of cronyism.

“David Clark’s appalling move to remove the previous chair and appoint a former Labour MP to the role, all with no position description, no application process, interview, or any other input into the decision is cronyism at its worst,” Woodhouse said.

Making uncontested appointments, especially when close political affiliations are involved, are risky.

Maharey may chair Pharmac competently and without controversy, but questions could be asked about his credentials. He has been Vice-Chancellor of Massey University since he left Parliament.

He doesn’t seem to have done health as an MP. His responsibilities:

  • 1990-1994 spokesperson of broadcasting and education
  • 1994-1997 spokesperson for labour
  • 1996-1999 spokesperson on social welfare, employment, and tertiary education
  • 1999-2007 he ha\d various portfolios:
    Minister of Social Services and Employment
    Associate Minister of Education holding special responsibility for tertiary education
    Minister of Broadcasting
    Minister for Education
    Minister for Research, Science and Technology
    Minister for Crown Research Institutes
    Minister for Youth Affairs

Nothing health related – but Clark didn’t have much of a background in health either.

If there are no controversies over Pharmac (or the Dunedin Hospital rebuild) this may not be an issue for Clark, but he should take care avoiding too many accusations of cronyism.


UPDATE: more appointments with political connections from Clark – More DHB chair turnover but Health Minister says it’s not political

On Sunday David Clark announced three new board chairs for Auckland DHBs – Pat Snedden will lead Auckland DHB from June 1, Judy McGregor at Waitemata DHB from June 10 and Vui Mark Gosche at Counties-Manukau DHB from Thursday.

At least two of the appointments appear to be politically motivated with Gosche coming into the role having previously been a Minister under the former Labour-led Government.

Gosche was a Labour MP from 1996-2008.

McGregor served as the first Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner for the New Zealand Human Rights Commission between 2003 and 2013 (two terms), appointed by Minister Margaret Wilson and replaced in the role by politician Jackie Blue (a National political appointment).

Pat Snedden was previously also a Labour appointee who says he was politically pushed by National’s Health Minister in 2010 – see Minister pushes health chief out

Dave Cull lacks transparency in secret deal

Dunedin mayor Dave Cull  seems to have so far escaped local scrutiny but is being criticised from further afield  for his “gentlemen’s agreement” payments to Pete Hodgson that have not been documented.

Timaru Herald (Stuff) Dunedin mayor defends MP deal

Dunedin Dave Cull is defending a “gentleman’s” agreement which saw a former MP paid $3400 for lobbying following a handshake deal.

Documents released under the Official Information Act reveal that former Dunedin North MP Pete Hodgson was paid by the council to lobby the Government not to strip core functions of Ag Research Limited from Invermay, near Dunedin.

The council said the main point of contact for the deal with Hodgson was Cull, but could not locate a single email, contract or any other document relating to the agreement. Hodgson had provided “lobbying and advocating” on behalf of council, and that he had “contributed” to a letter to Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce and a submission written to the board of Ag Research.

“Mr Hodgson did not provide any reports relating to his services,” governance support officer Grace Ockwell said.

This isn’t a good look – especially for a mayor who has campaigned on improving transparency.

The Taxpayer’s Union broke this story: QUESTIONS TO BE ANSWERED ABOUT PAYMENTS BY DUNEDIN CITY COUNCIL TO FORMER MP

And: Payments by Dunedin City Council to former MP with no documentation

When I put it to Cull on Sunday (the story was released early and then withdrawn until yesterday) he responded:

What you are getting Pete is misinformation. I don’t negotiate contracts or employ anyone except our chief executive, and that with Council. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Local Govt in NZ knows that. And Mr Hodgson did considerably more in this instance than write a couple of letters: including researching, analyzing, attending meetings and giving reports. He is now assisting without payment.

It appears that the page on the Taxpayers Union site has now been taken down anyway. Perhaps they have realized that a good deal of what they are claiming is untrue.

It appears top be accepted as true.

Southern neighbours aren’t impressed. Christchurch Press editorial Gentlemen sign contracts too:

The standards that apply to council administration in the south should be no less rigorous than in Auckland city or the Whangarei district. Why should ratepayers in Dunedin tolerate a more easy-going attitude towards the spending of their money than anywhere else, just because of a romantic notion that southerners are somehow more honourable? Actually, they aren’t.

In matters involving public money, it is absolutely essential that the principles of transparency and accountability are upheld.

And this is a mayor who campaigned on a record of increased transparency.

The existence of the deal only became public when documents were released under the Official Information Act. It is obviously difficult to know if any other work has been paid for under similar gentlemen’s agreements because, by definition, documentation probably does not exist.

This is an important point. How many more “gentlemen’s agreements” might there be?

Southland Times editorial Time, gentlemen, please …

Could you smell the port and stale cigar smoke on Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull’s breath as he defended the “gentleman’s agreement” under which his council paid former MP Pete Hodgson for lobbying?

Mr Hodgson was paid $3400 for his work helping the council advocate that Invermay retain its core Ag Research functions. He was plausibly the best person for the job. But it was done on a handshake with nary a contract – and all that tedious accountability that goes with it – in sight.

Much as Mr Cull may apply a rosily nostalgic gloss to this as a gentleman’s way of doing business in the south, it isn’t.

Hasn’t been, we would like to think, for ages. Not since the days when distinctions were drawn between gentlemen and the rank and file.

A gentleman’s agreement, says Oxford, is binding in honour but not legally enforceable.

It may come as disappointing news to the council, but in these unmannerly times legal enforceability is not regarded as a tiresome detail, let alone a damned impertinence.

Particularly where the expenditure of public money is concerned.

Mr Cull would have us understand that he isn’t, for one moment, saying he would be comfortable if the council always negotiated contracts verbally.

After all, not everyone’s a gentleman.

But when the agreement is with a sound chap like Hodgson, the mayor apparently cannot see the difficulty in the absence of either a contract specifying what would be required, nor any follow up report about what, exactly, was delivered.

Things are so vague that though his council says Mr Cull was the main point of contact with Hodgson, the mayor says he wasn’t.

Almost a shame, then, that somebody didn’t think to keep notes on a file, or something.

And will all due modesty Mr Hodgson says that as a former minister of research, science and technology he was better placed than anyone to lobby on behalf of the council.

Mr Hodgson says the fact that nothing was written up “would probably reflect their trust in me”.

As far as the public is concerned, what this should reflect is the untrustworthiness of all involved.

A council, a mayor and a former minister of the Crown should collectively and individually know full well that this was dodgy and then some.

The Taxpayers’ Union, while acknowledging that it isn’t an eye-watering amount, detects that the council isn’t applying the most basic internal controls.

Exactly. On this evidence, alone, the Auditor General should get involved.

The very real public concern has to be wider than this single, inglorious, incident.

Because Dunedin doesn’t lack for gentlemen.

What else has been happening down there in that stale old club of theirs?

Again the obvious question asked.

Southern action continues on Invermay

The announcement that the Invermay agricultural research centre may be gutted prompted a rising of concern and action in nearby Dunedin and across the south.

It prompted a Stand Up Otago feature and ongoing campaign by the Otago Daily Times.

And prompted a Southern Summit where mayors and leaders from Otago and Southland gathered to discuss actions that could save the south from further depletion of public service jobs and services.

The campaign has cranked up a gear. ODT reports South Enlists Former MPs.

Southern councils have reached across the political divide by recruiting former Dunedin MPs Pete Hodgson and Katherine Rich to the fight to save 85 jobs at Invermay.

Mr Hodgson, the former Dunedin North Labour MP, was the minister responsible for CRIs, including AgResearch, under former prime minister Helen Clark.

Former Dunedin-based National list MP Katherine Rich’s father, Dr Jock Allison, is a former director of Invermay.

Both former MPs were yesterday named as members of the working party finalising a counterproposal for Invermay, to be presented to the AgResearch board and Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce.

Good to see them stepping up to join the fight. And southern local government leaders are to meet Bill English.

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull yesterday said initial talks had been held with AgResearch representatives, and a four-strong delegation of southern councils would meet Clutha-Southland MP Bill English in Balclutha on Friday.

That delegation would feature Mr Cull, Otago Regional Council chairman Stephen Woodhead, Environment Southland chief executive Rob Phillips and Clutha Mayor Bryan Cadogan.

The working party would make a final proposal to the AgResearch board late next month, and after that to Steven Joyce.

The counterproposal would be based on input from more than 50 delegates from organisations across the lower South Island, gathered at a summit held in Dunedin earlier this month.

The meeting was called after AgResearch unveiled a proposal to shift 85 jobs from the Invermay agricultural research centre to either Lincoln or Palmerston North by 2016.

Mr Cull said the counterproposal being prepared would show AgResearch’s plan was ”strategically damaging both to the region and the national economy”.

”Many see Invermay as integral to Dunedin’s economic development strategy, and its loss would have a major impact on the wider regional economy.

”If they take away the sort of infrastructure and services offered by Invermay, they erode our research and economic base and we have nothing to build on.”

Keep up the good work.