All four major daily newspapers devoted today’s editorial to Taito Philip Field. Good – the first ever conviction of a corrupt MP, should not pass without major scrutiny.
First the Herald:
One of the prime consequences of the Field case should be the removal of immigration decisions from a Beehive desk. It is wrong that individual cases can be taken to a minister – usually a junior minister and often not in the Cabinet – who has the power to overrule the decisions of officers who have applied the general rules and polices the Government has set.
No doubt the ultimate power is preserved for a minister in case bureaucratic consistency causes the occasional political embarrassment, such as the admission of an undesirable or the exclusion of someone who attracts public sympathy. But if exceptions need to be made at times, better they are made by an independent public panel than a politician in a quiet office accessible mainly to his parliamentary cohorts.
I think you do need a final decider who can apply some common sense to situations, as strictly applying pre-set criteria can cause some perverse outcomes in immigration cases.
However what I would do is have greater transparency around MP representations to the Minister. Publish a regular table of how many representations an MP has made, and how many decisions favourable to their efforts were granted. If that had been in place for Field, we would have seen early on that his colleagues were greenlighting a massive proportion of cases he advocated – far more off memory than any other MP. That should have rung bells.
Secondly The Press:
Instead he will go down in history as the first man in New Zealand politics to be convicted of bribery and corruption. The jury unanimously found him to be guilty of 11 out of the 12 counts of bribery and corruption he faced, and also guilty of 15 counts (out of 23) of obstructing justice arising out of his attempts to cover up his wrongdoing. Rather than serving his constituents, he was found by the jury to have corruptly exploited some of the most vulnerable of them.
And this exploitation was lauded by his colleagues as working hard and a tribute to his integrity – even after they had been detailed by Ingram.
Among the most shameful aspects of this sorrowful affair was the attempt by the Labour government of the time, when the scandal first made the headlines, to trivialise it. The prime minister, Helen Clark, set up an inquiry, but it was woefully underpowered, with terms of reference set very narrowly and no power to compel testimony. When it nonetheless reported back detailing a range of abuses by Field and suggesting strongly that it had been misled, Clark and other Labour leaders continued to support Field in the House.
It was perhaps just poor judgement to initially support Field against unproven allegations. But to carry on supporting him after the Ingram Report detailed his wrong-doing was a huge failure of leadership. And they did it again after the Privileges Committee exposed Winston’s lies. To their shame every single Labour MP voted to believe Winston despite the fact he changed his story so many times, as documents kept contradicting it.
Thirdly is the ODT:
An inquiry ordered by Miss Clark, but with ludicrously narrow terms of reference, found he had exercised poor judgement but was not guilty of criminal misconduct.
However, more allegations followed, including that he had falsified information given to the inquiry, and a police investigation led to his trial in the High Court.
Actually Ingram made quite clear in his report that he had serious doubts over some of the information and testimony of Field.
Thus was the great political hope of Pacific Islanders – and of the Labour Party in 1993 when he was first elected – brought down to the level of common criminal, the first New Zealand politician to be convicted of corruption, now facing possibly a lengthy jail term.
There can be little sympathy for Field.
The challenge is to make sure there will not be a second.
An finally the Dominion Post:
He was, according to then prime minister Helen Clark, probably only guilty of “trying to be helpful to someone”.
A jury has disagreed, and Taito Phillip Field has become the first New Zealand MP to be convicted of accepting bribes and acting corruptly.
Clark’s comment was stupid and unwise, but at least she had the defence of saying it when the allegations were first aired. Far far more serious was the continued defence of Field after the Ingram Report detailed his activities. For that there is no defence.
Field’s crime struck at the heart of our system of government. That those he used his office to take advantage of were among the most vulnerable of people immigrants desperate to stay in New Zealand makes his behaviour all the more abhorrent.
Sadly, the affair reflects badly not only on Field, but on those politicians who put pragmatism and keeping his vote ahead of principle, and tried to close the issue down rather than do the right thing. Miss Clark was initially dismissive, using her favoured “move along, nothing to see here” strategy. When people didn’t, she launched a narrow inquiry under Noel Ingram QC.
The terms of reference made the conclusion inevitable. Clark did not count though on how thorough Ingram would be at documenting abuses, even if they were not related to Field in his capacity as a Minister.
Despite the constraints on Dr Ingram and a distinct lack of co-operation from some of those involved his report made it clear that something was terribly amiss in the way Field had been handling immigration issues to everyone but Labour MPs, that is. They continued to defend him.
MP Russell Fairbrother told Parliament the report was a tribute to Field’s integrity. Deputy prime minister Michael Cullen praised him as a hard-working member. Miss Clark continued to peddle the line that the issue was done with.
I urge readers to go back and read the Ingram Report if they have the time. If I was an MP I would rather resign than be forced to get up in Parliament and claim the report was a tribute to Field’s integrity and that he had done nothing wrong. Such a line was preposterous and insulting.
And to this day we still have not had a word of regret from Labour. Not just regret for the corruption, but for defending action that goes to the core of what Labour claims it stands for – protecting poor vulnerable people from exploitation. When one of their own is the exploiter, they went silent. It was only Andrew Little, some weeks later, who started to make the case that regardless of the legality, Field’s actions were reprehensible.