Hard News by Russell Brown


The Letter

Let's get this out the way first: there was nothing wrong with the letter that David Cunliffe signed 11 years ago enquiring as to the progress of Donghua Liu's residency application. Anyone with any familiarity with what comes through the door of an electorate MP's office will know that.

Indeed, we're getting into dangerous territory if we start thinking otherwise. It's important that MPs represent their constituents when they have problems with the system, especially in the case of immigration applications, where people are at their most powerless and the system at its slowest and most alienating. If this role were to be curbed, it would be those people who suffered.

But that appears to be what the New Zealand Herald proposes in an editorial this morning:

It is well past time to ask why they allow themselves to be used in this way. An MP is in no position to vouch for the character and credentials of somebody who has just arrived in the country with investment intentions for the purpose of residency rights. An industry of immigration consultants exists to guide applicants through the procedures.

The only reason to involve an MP would seem to be that the ultimate decision will be made by the Immigration Minister. And the only reason an MP would intercede for someone scarcely known, may be that a donation to the party's election fund might ensue.

The last sentence there doesn't actually make sense. The "only" reason "may be" a donation? I think the words the author is searching for are "in almost no cases is the potential for a donation a reason to help".

Liu was clearly in a much better financial position than most people who would come to an electorate office with this kind of issue, but the idea that elected representatives "only" do their jobs in representing people because there might be a buck in it is simply bizarre. You need to be in a pretty serious place of privilege to declare that MPs should cease helping constituents.

By the same token, I have no problem with this being a story -- and I'm not even sure there's a dark plot behind it. Jared Savage is a very good, very thorough investigative journalist and it seems possible that the Cunliffe letter came up in the course of OIA requests around Liu's interactions with various National Party ministers. (On the other hand, John Key seems to know an unusual amount about Labour's historical business here and if he's bragging that he's had a copy of the letter for weeks, then it would be interesting to know how and why.)

Any contact Labour had with Liu would be automatically a story be because Labour -- doing the job of Opposition -- had been so critical of those interactions. If Labour too, and in particular its leader, had also interacted with Liu, that's a matter of public interest.

More so, given that "a party source" confirmed to Savage that in 2007 Liu made a $15,000 donation via an auction for a bottle of wine -- a donation that Labour still can't track. Rick Barker also enjoyed Liu's hospitality during a holiday in China, while he was a Cabinet minister, and is hazy on the details.

Both of those stories seem of more moment than Cunliffe's low-level letter -- or would have been had Cunliffe not stoutly denied any contact with Liu and then had the evidence presented to him. I actually don't believe Cunliffe woud have denied the existence of something he knew existed and could be discovered via OIA.

Last night I asked a former MP and a friend who has worked two stints as an electorate secretary whether such a communication was run-of-the-mill and whether  it was plausible that such a letter wouldn't have been kept on file for 11 years. Yes on both counts, I was told.

But the very fact that he was being asked the question, and the fact that an electronic copy of the letter now turns out to have been kept by a retired electoral office staff member (presumably the one who wrote up the letter for Cunliffe to sign in the first place) suggests that Cunliffe should have asked a lot harder -- or, at least, given a more equivocal answer when the matter was put to him.

Bill English, drafted in as the lead commentator on Morning Report today, ventured that Cunliffe's 2003 letter was "not a criminal offence". Well, no: on the face of it, it was an electorate MP doing an electorate MP's job.

And for all that the Herald's editorial tries to draw an equivalence, it's not remotely in the same territory as what Maurice Williamson did. Williamson interfered repeatedly in a criminal investigation into an assult by Liu, to the extent that senior police officers contacted the office of the Minister of Police about it. He had previously lobbied another minister to expedite Liu's citizenship application and the day after it was granted, conducted the citizenship ceremony himself in his own office. By that time it was known that Liu was involved as a witness in a corruption case in China. And Liu didn't only seek help with his own immigration status, he tried to procure a change in immigration policy itself, summoning Immigration minister Michael Woodhouse to a meeting and directly lobbying John Key at one of National's fundraisers.

But the problem for Cunliffe is that having been caught out in his denial he has removed his party's ability to pursue National over its links with Liu -- and over the various dissemblings of John Key and Judith Collins on related matters.

It might be noted that that had not proved a particularly profitable line of attack anyway -- Key's barefaced lie that he played golf with Oravida founder Stone Shi "for charity", when in fact the "charity" was a National party fundraiser, appears to have had no consequences at all for the Prime Minister. But it certainly doesn't help an Opposition that is already in considerable strife.

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