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.

Hagamans v Little – summing up

Today in the defamation case brought by Earl and Lani Hagaman against Labour leader Andrew Little the judge will sum up the case who will then hand over the decision making to the jury. Unless there is a quick decision we may not find out a verdict until next week.

Yesterday the lawyers gave their closing addresses.

Stuff sums up in: Andrew Little ‘cruel and cynical’ in Hagaman comments, defamation jury told

Labour leader Andrew Little was “unfair, cruel and cynical” when attacking millionaire hotel owners involved in a Niue resort deal, a High Court jury has been told.

However, Little’s defence team said he was acting in his moral duty as leader of the opposition when questioning government involvement in the deal.

Little’s lawyer John Tizard said…

…Little had “a social or moral duty as the leader of the opposition to respond to questions raised by members of the public”.

The thrust of his comments were aimed at the Government, not Earl Hagaman, due to his suspicion and concern about its track record.

While the Hagamans claimed Little had made allegations of corruption “as a matter of fact”, Tizard said he had simply raised questions about the donation and contract award and requested they be answered by the Auditor General.

“It’s not an allegation that it wasn’t above board, it’s a question of whether it was or wasn’t above board.”

Little did what he could in the time he had to check the facts of the issue, and confined himself to the matter at hand rather than making irrelevant assertions.

Except there doesn’t appear to have been any facts to check – Little has (in a round about way) conceded there were none to back his allegations.

“You will make what you will of his evidence, but I suggest to you you may well conclude if anything Mr Little was overly upright in what he saw as his responsibility as leader of the opposition.”

While Little had used strong language, Tizard said he was expressing his opinion in a way that many others would choose to do.

“The mere fact it was colourful does not mean it was inflammatory.”

Comments reported in stories on TVNZ and RNZ were “cut and paste exercises” where only a small excerpt of his overall remarks were broadcast, and the jury could not be sure he had been fairly represented.

It started with a statement put out by Little.

The Hagamans’ lawyer Richard Fowler QC said…

…Little’s comments went beyond a neutral position that the issue required investigation, as his use of the phrases “stinks to high heaven”, “murky” and “dodgy deals” showed.

“As has been said before, what’s the worst possible thing for a businessman? Pretty hard to think of what’s worse once you go to the c-word – corruption.”

While the Hagamans accepted Little had to hold the Government to account as leader of the opposition, “that does not entitle you to go off and defame innocent people”.

“If they were collateral damage, if that’s what it was…that still doesn’t change anything in terms  of fundamental liability.”

He had failed to undertake any significant investigation into the issue or speak to Scenic Hotel Group before commenting, and had employed “very loose facts”.

“There is more than a whiff in the evidence of Mr Little going about what he was doing on the basis he didn’t particularly care because of course the person at the other end of this corruption continuum if you like…was in fact a National Party donor.”

“Hanging the Hagamans out to dry was unfair, cruel and cynical.”

He questioned why, if Little did not believe his comments were defamatory, he had apologised and made an offer of $100,000.

Little’s late efforts to extract himself from a tricky situation may not have been a helpful move.

His slowness and apparent difficulty in making a comprehensive apology could also be a problem – he still hasn’t given a “sorry I got it wrong” apology.

Both lawyers mentioned Earl Hagaman’s poor health (he is dying) but that shouldn’t affect legal arguments.

From what I can see this mostly comes down to two things:

  • The responsibility of the Leader of the Opposition to hold the Government to account.
  • The responsibility of politicians to make sure they have solid grounds for making serious accusations against the Government and by association if not directly against private citizens and companies.

The judge will have more to say about what the case hinges on. Then it will be up to the jury.

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.

 

Hagamans v Little continues

The defamation case that earl and Lani Hagaman have taken against Andrew Little continues in Wellington.

Little hasn’t been present all the time, he was in Parliament for Question Time yesterday afternoon.

Stuff: Defamation action ‘not about bankrupting’ Andrew Little, Lani Hagaman says

The wife of a hotel owner suing Labour leader Andrew Little for defamation has denied wanting to bankrupt the politician over comments he made about a Niue resort deal.

Lani Hagaman, the wife of Scenic Hotel Group founder Earl Hagaman, said receiving an apology and legal costs were her main concern, during the second day of a civil jury trial at the High Court in Wellington.

The Hagamans are seeking $2.3 million in damages for comments Little made about a $101,000 donation they made to the National Party during the 2014 election, and a contract their Scenic Hotel Group won a month later to manage the Matavai resort in Niue, which receives government funding.

Newshub: Andrew Little will pay any defamation costs from his own pocket

Mr Little says he’s taking personal responsibility and will pick up the bill should damages be awarded to complainants in a defamation case.

“I am meeting my costs. The offers I have made to settle, had they been accepted, would have been fully funded by me personally,” he said on Tuesday.

No taxpayer or Labour Party funds will be used to cover the legal fees or potential damages.

“I have a personal view about taking personal responsibility if you’re found to have done something wrong.”

He says here he is taking personal responsibility but last year had refused to apologise, even after the Auditor General, after a request to investigate by Little, found no problem with the awarding of a contract to Scenic Circle.

Little hasn’t denied making the statements but is claiming qualified privilege in making them. He has said that he has responsibilities as Leader of the Opposition to hold the Government to account, but there must also be a responsibility not to make serious accusations without any evidence.

In court Lani Hagaman has said that Little should have check facts before making the accusations.

Regardless of the outcome it doesn’t look flash for Little. He says he was only targeting the Government (serious claims without facts still looks irresponsible there) but must have been aware that his comments would look bad Hagamans and Scenic Circle.

UPDATE: Newshub: Labour leader Andrew Little gives evidence in defamation case

Mr Tizard said the Labour leader will have two defences to the defamation case.

The first is that the comments were made under qualified privilege, and the second is that “the words do not mean what the plaintiffs think they mean”.

On Little’s offers to settle:

Under questioning from his defence lawyer John Tizard, Mr Little said he became “frustrated” after trying for months to resolve the proceedings before they went to court.

“Nothing ever seemed to be acceptable,” said Mr Little.

Mr Little first offered to pay $26,000 towards legal fees and apologise, but that offer was rejected.

On March 14 this year Mr Little made another offer of $100,000 and again apologised, but that was again rejected.

Mr Little said he and his wife would have funded the six-figure offer by taking out a bank loan against their Island Bay family home.

“It was the most I could offer,” Mr Little said. The couple does not own any other property.

He apologised personally in court:

He said he did not apologise to Ms Hagaman as he had not mentioned her by name in his media statements, but during court on Wednesday he offered her an apology as she watched from the public gallery.

“I apologise to her now for any hurt,” Mr Little said.

He claimed frustration and a lack of progress in attempts to negotiate:

Mr Little said he made multiple proposals through his solicitor, but would get back rejection letters which offered scant direction on the way the Hagamans wanted to move forward.

But under cross examination he conceded that he had been sent a letter outlining the Hagaman’s demands.

Little: There was no guidance being given, it was the most bizarre form of negotiation I had ever participated in.

Newshub: He said offers to settle were flatly rejected, with little feedback given on how the couple wanted to proceed, but the Hagamans lawyer shot back.

Richard Fowler (for the Hagamans): The proposition that the Hagamans never spelt out exactly what they wanted, that’s to take your words from your evidence, is not true, is it.

Little: I don’t accept that.

Newshub: Fowler said a letter sent to Little in December, and acknowledged by his solicitor, laid out the Hagamans demands. It detailed how an apology would happen, and noted any damages would be distributed to charities.

Fowler: …that the Hagamans had never spelt out what they would require to settle is just plain wrong, isn’t it. Can you face that?

Little: Not plain wrong, I said that I’ve conceded the point that this the closest we get.

The trial will continue tomorrow.

 

Defamation trial, Hagamans v Little – $2m

The defamation trial that Earl and Lani Hagaman have taken against Andrew Little begins today in the Wellington High Court.

NZH: Defamation trial against Labour leader Andrew Little to begin

Earl and Lani Hagaman have sued Little for defamation and Lani Hagaman will begin her evidence today.

The jury trial is set down until Friday and witnesses include Hagaman’s wife Lani, daughter Toya and National Party President Peter Goodfellow.

Others include Scenic Hotel managing director Brendan Taylor and Terry Ngan, who was at hotel consultancy firm Horwarth which managed the contract tender at the time will also give evidence.

Last week, Little did offer a full apology but Lani Hagaman said it was too late and the court action would proceed.

It was actually on the Friday of the week before last week that Little went public with his attempt at an apology.

UPDATE:  Lani Hagaman gives evidence at defamation trial against Labour leader Andrew Little

Hoteliers Earl and Lani Hagaman are seeking up to $2 million in damages from Labour leader Andrew Little in a defamation suit against him.

Whew!

The Hagamans’ lawyer Richard Fowler said Earl and Lani Hagaman claimed Little had repeatedly defamed them in a press release and six media interviews he did last year about a $100,000 donation from the Hagamans to the National Party in 2014 and a contract awarded to their hotel chain, Scenic Hotel, to manage the Matavai resort in Niue.

The Hagamans were seeking an optimum award of $500,000 each for comments made in a press release by Little soon after a RNZ news story reported on the timing of the donation and the awarding of the Matavai contract.

The couple is also seeking $100,000 each for separate comments made in each of five interviews broadcast after that, a total of $2 million, with a further lower amount of exemplary damages.

Eye watering.

Lani Hagaman began her evidence today, saying Earl Hagaman was not at court because he was critically ill and doctors believed he only had weeks to live.

Lani Hagaman now had power of attorney along with the family’s lawyer.

She had decided to continue to pursue the defamation suit to clear his name.

“We reached the decision Earl’s name needs to be totally cleared from any [claim] of corruption and Earl needs to be able to die with dignity.”

That puts an added complexion to the case.

Fowler said the Hagamans had rejected a last-minute offer of $100,000 in costs and an apology from Little because it was “too little, too late” and by then the costs were far in excess of what Little was offering.

More details of the proceedings at the Herald link.

I’ll add to this post if there are more reports on the trial today.

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.

Hagamans file defamation against Little

Andrew Little chose not to apologise and retract statements made about Earl Hagaman so Hagaman has filed papers beginning defamation proceedings against Little.

Stuff: Defamation claim against Labour’s Andrew Little

Scenic Hotel Group founders Earl and Lani Hagaman say they have filed papers in the High Court after Little failed to retract and apologise for comments made about Mr Hagaman.

“The proceedings have now been served on Mr Little,” the couple said in a statement.

“As we said earlier, the reasons we’re taking defamation action have been widely reported in the media and I won’t be repeating his allegations that Earl and I find hurtful, highly offensive and totally false.  We will now clear our names in Court”, Lani Hagaman said. 

“As the matter is now before the High Court, no further comment will be made and the case will now proceed to a hearing.”

A spokesman for Little confirmed he had received the papers via his solicitor and as the matter was now before the courts he would not be making further comment.

Defamation proceedings tend to take a long time so unless Little has a change of mind and avoids it going to court this may well stretch out through election year.

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

While Key’s away the hotel play

It’s probably no coincidence that as soon as John Key heads away on an overseas trip Labour have an alleged  scandal to promote – regarding something that happened on 2014.

Andrew Little is promoting another ‘perception’ problem, which may mean that like last week with his Bahamas attack on John Shewan he doesn’t have any evidence that anything was actually improper.

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

The Labour Party has called for an Auditor-General probe into whether a donation to the National Party had anything to do with a decision to grant the Scenic Hotel Group a contract to manage the Matavai Resort on Niue.

Earl Hagaman, the founder of Scenic Hotel Group, gave $101,000 to the National Party in September 2014. In October, Scenic Hotel Group announced it had the contract for the Matavai Resort on Niue – a contract awarded by a trust which was appointed by Foreign Minister Murray McCully to oversee the resort.

Mr McCully told RNZ National that there was no link between the donation and the contract and he had not been involved in awarding the contract. That was decided by the Niue Tourism Property Trust after running an international and competitive process. Mr McCully appoints the trustees for that but said he was not involved in the decision. “I can tell you that I had no involvement in the appointment process, conducted purely by the trustees and commercial management they appointed.

These are reputable professional people who conducted a full international process.”

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.”

Why is this an issue now?

Are perceptions of propriety and issue here for McCully and the Government?

Is it also fair to consider perceptions of propriety regarding Labour and Little dredging this up now when they haven’t (yet at least) produced any actual evidence of impropriety.

This is not just an attack on McCully and the Government. It is also an attack on a company.

NZ Herald: Hotel defends ‘squeaky clean’ process

The managing director of Scenic Hotel Group says he doubted the company’s founder knew the company was negotiating a management contract in Niue, which it won, at the time he made a $101,000 donation to the National Party.

Scenic Hotel Group managing director Brendan Taylor said Mr Hagaman knew the company was looking into Niue but that had been a six-year process and Mr Hagaman had not even known where Niue was. Any mention the company was tendering for it would have been “a cursory conversation”.

Since 2011, the Government has put $18 million into the Matavai resort as part of its efforts to boost tourism to Niue. That included $7.5 million to build a conference centre soon after Scenic Hotels took over.

The Matavai is owned by the Niue Tourism Property Trust on behalf of the Government of Niue. That arrangement was put in place in 2011 to ensure oversight of NZ aid.

It could also be seen as an attack on tourism in Niue. Has the investment in a resort there benefited Niue?

Or does that not matter when Labour puts a priority on dredged up ‘perceptions’ of scandals?

This may be designed to deter companies from making donations to National – but it will hardly help Labour’s desperately needed fund raising.

Perceptions of dirty politics may contribute to a reality of decline, in Labour fortunes both political and funding.