A Little defamation?

Last month Labour leader Andrew Little made some controversial comments about Scenic Circle being granted a contract to assist management of a resort in Nuie, saying it “stinks to high heaven”.

NZ Herald reports: Hotel chain’s ultimatum to Andrew Little: You have one week to apologise

Last month, Mr Little compared the Scenic Hotel Group’s resort contract with what he described as the Government’s “dodgy deals” with SkyCity casino and a sheep farm in Saudi Arabia.

“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 claimed.

Mr Little said at that time that the close timing of the donation to the awarding of the contract “stinks to high heaven”.

The Matavai is owned by the Niue Tourism Property Trust on behalf of the Government of Niue, which owned the resort before then.

But yesterday…

Earl Hagaman, the founder of the Scenic Hotel Group, said Mr Little had a week to retract and apologise for comments he made last month about the management of a resort owned by Matavai Niue Limited.

Mr Hagaman and wife Lani Hagaman said that after seeking advice, their solicitor had notified the Labour leader today that defamation proceedings would ensue “unless the position can be properly retrieved”.

Lani Hagaman said their lawyers had confirmed their view that Mr Little’s allegations were “false and defamatory”.

“We are asking for a full retraction and apology because no one should be verbally attacked and denigrated because they believe in democracy and the right to make their own unsolicited political choice on who they want to give a donation to,” Lani Hagaman said.

“The decision to make the donation was completely unsolicited and was Earl’s personal decision and nothing to do with the Scenic Hotel business.”

Lani Hagaman criticised Mr Little’s use of his Parliamentary role to attack their business.

She said her and Earl did not “come from power or privilege” and had strived to give others a livelihood and provide support to regional economies “where other big hotel chains won’t invest”.

“The position Andrew Little holds is one of power and privilege. It should be a privilege to be elected into Parliament and work hard for the people of New Zealand, rather than to cast unjustifiable slurs on people because they have made a donation to the party of his prime political opponent.”

Little has confirmed and responded:

Mr Little said he had received a letter from the Hagaman’s lawyer this morning. He was now “considering the issue and taking advice”.

He added: “I will not be restrained from undertaking my constitutional role of calling the government of the day to account.”

At that stage at least he didn’t seem to understand that the Hagamans were holding the leader of the opposition of the day to account

 

But Little appeared to later reassess his situation:

VanceLittleDefamationResponse

Vance tweeted after a press conference two hours later:

Little says he’s taking legal advice and he’ll respond by the deadline (next Friday).

But says he won’t resile from his duty to hold Govt to account. Won’t answer question about standing by statements.

Little seems to be confusing holding the Government to account and holding himself to account.

He has go himself into a very awkward situation here. He has recently taken to talking tough and has been called out for allegedly stepping over the line.

Taking a step back and apologising seems to be difficult for him. But not apologising risks dragging this out over the next few months and possibly in to election year.

This holding to account thing can be tricky when it rebounds.

See also: Little takes advice on defamation threat

“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?