I cannot remember a time when Parliament – our country’s highest governing institution – has been brought into such disrepute. And the Parliamentarians have only themselves to blame.
The nadir was surely the admission last week by the Prime Minister that expatriate billionaire and Labour Party funder Owen Glenn told her in February that he had donated $100,000 to New Zealand First. The fact that she did not disclose this information during the months of swirling questions, half-truths and contradictions, speaks volumes, raising serious credibility concerns.
Last week the Serious Fraud Office announced it was going to probe into the money flow around substantial donations made by Bob Jones and Velor family interests to New Zealand First. The SFO says they have enough evidence of a “serious and complex fraud” to warrant an investigation.
The decision by the SFO is the correct one given Winston Peters and the administrator of the Spencer Trust, Wayne Peters, have been less than forthcoming about the Trust.
Mr Peter Williams QC, acting on behalf of Winston Peters, says The books are there, the statement is there, the entries are there, the disbursements are there, the complete answer is there and nobody has taken the trouble to look at them… It shows Jones’ money, it shows the Vela money and it shows it being appropriately disbursed.
Given the high public interest in this matter Mr Williams should release that document to the public. We should expect no less, and indeed if Mr Peters were the protagonist in the matter he would be demanding as much.
Meanwhile Parliament’s powerful Privileges Committee continues to investigate whether Winston Peters should have declared Owen Glenn’s $100,000 donation in the MP’s register of pecuniary interests. While Winston Peters has denied any knowledge of the donation, Owen Glenn, in a letter to the Privileges Committee, was very clear: “The payment was made by me to assist funding the legal costs incurred personally by Rt Hon Winston Peters MP concerning his election petition dispute, at his request. Mr Peters sought help from me for this purpose in a personal conversation, some time after I had first met him in Sydney. I agreed to help in the belief that this step would also assist the Labour Party, in its relationship with Mr Peters. I supported the Labour Party…. Mr Peters subsequently met me socially at the Karaka yearling sales, I believe in early 2006. He thanked me for my assistance”.
Mr Peters responded by saying Mr Glenn’s comments were factually incorrect. On Thursday Mr Glenn will be giving evidence to the Privileges Committee, and he will be available for cross- examination. Members of that Committee will therefore have every opportunity to clarify these matters.
The Committee should also use the opportunity to seek a direct response from Mr Glenn regarding the disclosure made by Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia in 2006 that her Party was offered $250,000 in return for giving their vote to Labour after the election. The offer was said to have come through a third party who was well known to the Maori Party. This trusted friend and messenger apparently met the Labour Party ‘benefactor’ – who is understood to live outside New Zealand – on a boat.
Clearly, offering a financial inducement to a Member of Parliament is against the law. Section 103 of the Crimes Act deals with “Corruption and bribery of member of Parliament” and states: Every one is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years who corruptly gives or offers or agrees to give any bribe to any person with intent to influence any member of Parliament in respect of any act or omission by him in his capacity as a member of Parliament..
When this issue first surfaced I asked Bill Hodge, Professor of Law at Auckland University, how serious these allegations were. He replied: I would say, based on what has been reported, that Ms Turia has described a prima facie case of ‘corruption and bribery’ under section 103, since the offer would effectively be buying support for a party which could not govern without third party support, and thus is effectively buying the Government. That is at least a prima facie case, or a case to answer on its face, and there is enough there, without more, for the Police to investigate. There are lots of crimes, which are investigated by the Police – such as smuggling and drug dealing – without any complaint being laid. I don’t see the need for a complaint myself”.
Given recent events and the fact that this serious matter has never been cleared up, it is perhaps appropriate not only for the Police to open a long-overdue investigation, but for Mr Glenn himself to be given the opportunity, when he appears before the Privileges Committee, to clear any suspicion over whether he was the Labour Party ‘benefactor’ in question. While third parties have denied his involvement, given Mr Glenn’s candor regarding the $100,000 donation to Winston Peters, this could be an opportunity for him to properly clear his name – if, of course, a member of the Privileges Committee asks Mr Glenn the question. I believe they should do so.
As to the future, much will depend on the findings of the Privileges Committee and the investigation of the SFO. Should one or both find “no fault” then the high ground will go back to New Zealand First and Labour. Should fault be found, the high ground will, of course, go to National which has already ruled Winston Peters out of any future National-led Government.
While our Parliamentarians have been looking out for their own futures, this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator has been looking out for the future of the country. Charles Finny is the Chief Executive of the Wellington Regional Chamber of Commerce, and in an article entitled “Policies to Improve Productivity and Grow the Economy”, he explains how the Chambers of Commerce have released an election manifesto in the hope that it will act as a blueprint for an incoming government.
As a former Chamber of Commerce President, I am very much aware of the excellent work carried out by the Chamber in its advocacy role for small business. They understand that a flourishing business sector is the pre-requisite for a healthy economy, and that the best thing that a government can do to improve the quality of life for all New Zealanders, is to ensure that the commercial environment fosters business growth and success.
Charles explains, “The major impediment to growth in New Zealand is our poor productivity performance. With the general election approaching, we have decided to focus on the policies needed to correct this poor productivity performance. In general, the business community is not looking for special favours from government or for interventions from Government in the economy. What’s it wants are sound, stable policies which provide a platform for economic growth, and an environment where barriers to business success are removed. That said there are things Government can do to create a better business environment for productivity growth. The Chambers suggest a policy progamme built around investment in infrastructure; lower marginal tax rates; reductions in government imposed costs on business; strong external linkages and a flexible labour market”.
With tax cuts high on the wish list of business (and individuals) an examination of corporate tax rates across the thirty OECD countries shows that 77 percent of countries now have lower tax rates than New Zealand’s 30 percent rate. The lowest is Switzerland with a corporate tax rate of 8.5 percent, next is Ireland on 12.5 percent, followed by Germany and Iceland on 15 percent, Hungary on 16 percent, and the Slovak Republic and Poland both on 19 percent. Imagine the kick start to the New Zealand economy that would flow if our tax rates were at the low end of the scale instead of being at the high end.
For a small country located long distances from our overseas markets, it is essential that the government follows the advice of the Chambers of Commerce and puts in place a plan for growth. And central to that plan should be a significant lowering of tax rates to give New Zealand businesses a competitive advantage. After all, with the government poised to pass a new law that will impose significant cost increases across the whole economy, through the ill-advised Emissions Trading Bill, New Zealand businesses will need all the help they can get not only to survive the current recession but to help drive our economy forward.
1.Herald, Evidence will clear Peters today: QC
2.Owen Glenn, What Owen Glenn said: text of letter
3. Muriel Newman, Corruption in Parliament
4.OECD, Corporate Tax 2008
5.New Zealand Chambers of Commerce, Election Manifesto 2008