Hard News by Russell Brown


Costly indeed

In this job, an MP once told me, you balance your chequebook and keep your transactions squeaky clean. That was Judith Tizard. Yes, the same Judith Tizard who, we now know, bought a bottle of Bollinger on her ministerial credit card at an "upmarket" restaurant

That a minister might buy a couple of bottles of wine in the course of entertaining a group of visitors after a consumer affairs conference seems unexceptional. But Bolly, darling?

The narrative fell quite neatly into place yesterday. Tizard was Ab Fab, Chris Carter has a boyfriend, Parekura Horomia likes food – and Shane Jones likes, well, you know.

Jones has squandered his talent, creating a trail of receipts that wasn't going to be erased by his reimbursement of nearly all the questionable spending before he left his ministerial office in 2008. His media day began with an extraordinary interview on Morning Report and concluded with a very sad one on Close Up, in which the former minister bleakly, bluntly surveyed his fall from grace.

National's Tim Groser, meanwhile, has used the minibar in his hotel room more than a couple of times on his travels.

And of course, Phil Heatley, whose unreimbursed spending was more egregious than much of what emerged yesterday. I said this at the time:

I think their breaches of the extremely tight rules (which don't even allow the minister to reimburse spending on his or her card) are trivial, and Goff's attempt to beat it up was weak, if inevitable

It did emerge that Heatley's spending was worse than that, but even so, he was cleared by the auditor-general on grounds of ignorance.

And lost in yesterday's crate-digging frenzy was the news that on foreign visits, the ministers' credit cards were generally not held by ministers but staff members, and were routinely used to pay the entire party's hotel bill, including personal expenses, which would be repaid. Jim Anderton said this morning he spent nine years promptly and routinely reimbursing such expenditure, and was never once queried by Ministerial Services (which seems to have been admirably active in chasing and scrutinising receipts).

But it is possible to conduct oneself as a minister and remain within the expenses rules. Most ministers, especially the senior team, managed it. Of the thousands of pages of records dumped yesterday, it seems that only a few dozen are questionable – and some of the examples burped up in the press seem tenuous. I really have no problem with the idea of people needing to eat while travelling.

The implications of the far more detailed regime now in place will be lost on no one. And that's a good thing. And I trust that my colleagues in the press will apply the same laser focus to, say, Tim Groser's important work in climate change and trade negotiations as they have to his minibar bill.

(I also pray that the Herald's reporters can find another adjective to go before the word "restaurant" than upmarket. Even clichés get old sometimes.)


Meanwhile, Len Brown
bought a $59 ham for his family with his official card, and duly reimbursed the city accounts, occasioning this table at the bottom of today's story:


Personal credit card use:
* $148 mini hi-fi system
* $115.27 groceries
* $316 Rendezvous Hotel
* $59 Christmas ham


This spending seems to have been clearly declared, signed off and repaid well before it became a story. Not that you'd know that from Monday's Herald editorial:

Having admitted making personal purchases on his council credit card, including a $148 mini hi-fi system, he says that he has now reimbursed the council for personal expenditure totalling $579.27.

I think an ordinary person would have read that and assumed that Brown had been shamed into the repayment by the bold work of the fourth estate. They would presumably have also taken at face value the same editorial's sniffy description of Brown as "relatively inexperienced" next to Banks. Brown has been in local body politics since 1992. Banks has spent a bit over five years as mayor and was once on the Birkenhead Borough Council. The Herald seems to have cast its lot rather early this time.

It seems likely that the tip on Brown's spending – originally fielded by Jonathan Marshall at the Star Times – came from a political opponent, and that the timing wasn't an accident.

Banks has been on the radio declaring that if Brown can't run his credit card, he can't be trusted to run Auckland. To be expected, I suppose – Brown does look sloppy here.

But the Banks campaign has also spent $50,000 on a letter to 80,000 households that indicates that Banks has decided the "nice guy" thing wasn't working out.

It compares rates increases under Banks in Auckland City with an 8.3% increase in Manukau City. Trouble is, the figure it quotes for Manukau is more than a decade old – it dates from a time when Brown wasn't even mayor. But the voters who get the letter mostly won't know that, which is the point.

The character of the people around Banks (and remember, until recently, he was happy to use Whaleoil to dump shit he didn't want to be seen saying himself) suggests there'll be some more of this. I'd be watching my Wikipedia page if I was Len Brown.

And I'd be reminding the punters that the man presenting himself as a model of probity and economy spent $16,000 on arrival as mayor in 2001 pointlessly moving his mayoral office and upgrading a garage for his $500,000 Bentley – and then did the same thing again when he regained office in 2007.

Although, really, you'd be a fool to cast your vote on the basis of either of these stories. As the ATA quietly salts away Super City transition costs into years two, three four and five of the new city, there's much more at stake than that.

Meanwhile …

This week's Media7, looking at the media war around the Gaza flotilla and forward to the FIFA World Cup, with all its contradictions, is here to view. It's actually quite a good one.

Kick It!, Public Address's special World Cup blog – featuring the talents of Hadyn Green, Pete Darlington and Dan Slevin, and made possible by Toi Toi Wines, is live now. We'll be sending bottles of Toi Toi's medal-winning sauvignon blanc every week to the readers who post the wisest and most amusing comments. Thanks to them for coming to the party.

And here are two excellent promos for NZ On Screen featuring a man you may recognise:

Tonight on NZ On Screen - Promo 1979 from NZ On Screen on Vimeo.

Tonight on NZ On Screen - 1956 with Opo the Dolphin from NZ On Screen on Vimeo.

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