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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Clark's handling of Glenn saga casts cloud over Labour

The latest revelations about Winston Peters’ involvement in political donor Owen Glen’s bid to be consul to Monaco suggest a significant conflict of interest, and demonstrate him misleading the public again. But he will probably emerge unscathed from the fiasco. Prime Minister Helen Clark may not be so lucky.

Communications between Peters’ foreign affairs adviser and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, obtained by TV One News, show that in contrast to his earlier protestations, the then-foreign affairs minister was active in promoting the expatriate businessman to appointment to that post.

It shows him up again as muddled and as having misled the public at some point about his involvement in Glenn’s bid to become honorary consul in Monaco. He told reporters in February he had been hands off and had little to do with the selection – in fact, he said, “We have not made a decision with respect to even having a consul in Monaco.”

Except the papers show that officials concluded the previous November there was a marginal case for the appointment of a consul, and that should one be needed then the preferred candidate would be Italian businessman (a Kiwi by marriage) Frank Repetto, the nominee of National MP (and Monacan consul to New Zealand) Richard Worth. If the process was still going by February – and still had Glenn in the frame –it was at Peters’ initiative.

And the suspended foreign minister appears to remember this now: he says that there is no case to answer because once officials advised against appointing a consul, the matter was closed – a clear contradiction.

Will this further hit to Peters’ tattered credibility around the Glenn affair hurt the recently resurgent leader and his New Zealand First party? It’s unlikely.

Since the privileges committee hearing in September, believing Winston Peters did not know Glenn had donated $100,000 to his legal costs has essentially been a leap of faith. The committee itself just managed to make that leap – it held open the possibility he didn’t know but should have made the enquiries that would have lead to finding out.

The papers from within MFAT suggesting Peters actively lobbied for Glenn’s appointment are certainly incriminating – but only if you believe that Peters knew about the earlier donation from Glenn. Then it starts looking like, at best, a serious conflict of interest.

But if you believe – as most Peters supporters do and as the privileges committee was willing to grudgingly concede as a possibility – that the minister of foreign affairs could contact Glenn fairly often, meet and dine with him, without the subject of his donation ever coming up, then the further evidence proves nothing except the minister’s apparently remarkable ability to hold himself above the fray.

Peters’ hard core of support has shown over and again that the standard by which he will be judged is no less than, and possibly more than, criminal liability. In the absence of irrefutable proof – rather than what is merely a crushing weight of circumstantial evidence – that Peters knew about the donation, their faith in him will hold.

But for a prime minister who is scrapping over soft votes in the centre, where reside electors with a less sunny view of Peters and his serene ignorance of matters financial, the news is not so good.

Helen Clark says there is “no issue” over the Monaco consulship because no appointment was ever made. But under Clark’s version of events that appointment could not have been made, because she stepped in to axe the appointment process herself in February, when Glenn told her he had donated to New Zealand First. This was obviously a pre-emptive measure.

This intervention, however, occurred during the period when Clark maintained silence on the (at the time alleged) Glenn donation, and Peters denied any donation. Clark later maintained that both Glenn and Peters were “honourable men” and she accepted there was a reasonable explanation for their conflicting version of events. However, she was concerned enough to cauterise Peters’ political involvement with Glenn.

She also answered numerous questions in Parliament confirming she had confidence in Peters as foreign minister, despite having (as she says now) over-ruled whatever process he was following with regards to Glenn’s possible appointment – a job squarely within his responsibilities.

Ironically, this course of action was more legitimate than the supposedly relaxed, hands-off handling of the alleged conflict of interest she recounted last month.

The kinds of behaviour that would be unacceptable in times of peace may mark a person out as a hero in times of war. Similarly, Clark’s determination to hold together fragmenting support against a gale of opposition will be praised if she can weld a multi-party government post-election.

That's no vindication, however, for her evasiveness and cynical disregard for the standards of her foreign minister over the course of this past eight months, which amount to nothing less than a cover up. Peters may be content to play to a gallery of supporters on the margins but for a legacy-obsessed leader like Clark, that should be important.

[more NBR columns]


At 29/10/08 8:51 pm, Blogger Tim Selwyn said...

Winston's saying on his blog:

1. As Foreign Minister, Owen Glenn’s name came to my attention and I asked my Ministry officials to look at whether an Honorary Consul appointment in Monaco was necessary and whether Mr Glenn was a suitable candidate.

2. Those officials didn’t act as quickly as I thought they should on this and other issues and I gave them a hurry along once or twice.

3. Their final report to me advised that no appointment was necessary and if one were, a candidate other than Mr Glenn was more suitable. And that’s where the matter ended from my perspective. This all happened between April and November 2007.


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