Island Life by David Slack

However Philip will just sign the card

How long is it since you last put your hand in your pocket for a whip around? Would you rate yourself as the generous type? Was it notes or coins? I just pose the question to add a slight cautionary tone before we plunge on to judge others, and poke in our nose where it has not been invited.

Consider a couple of memorable moments in recent New Zealand history. In the early nineties, the Lower Hutt law firm of Renshaw Edwards came undone in the most spectacular fashion when the eponymous partners contrived to steal as much as $20 million of their clients’ money, which they poured into those two great New Zealand sinkholes: property speculation and gambling.

Hilariously - I use that term with a little hesitation, because the consequences for numerous innocent people were quite appalling; but I use it all the same because it was hard not to laugh at the sheer black comedy of the thing – each of them was busily siphoning out the funds, one race meeting at a time, entirely unaware that the other was filling his boots with the same catastrophic disregard for the consequences. Which were, of course: bankruptcy, deep and sustained public odium, despair and incarceration.

When these accidents happen, the Law Society is there, of course, with its fidelity fund to put things right, because it’s the putting right that counts, isn’t it customers? Oh yes it is.

But when she got there, the cupboard was bare. Even though the partners of the country's many law firms large and small had been diligently paying their dues and sustaining a handsome fund to reimburse any poor soul who might wander into a lawyer’s office and have his bank account set upon in a manner not condoned by the rules of the society, this one had broken the bank. The depredations of Messrs Edwards and Renshaw had been just too much to bear.

Something had to be done, and the Law Society did the only thing they could: they had a whip around. Cost per head: $8,000 from memory. (If I were MSM, I’d be obliged to look it up, but this being a blog, I’m sure someone will be happy to provide the necessary information or, as they say in the newsroom, do the work for me.)

Lawyers being such uniformly kind and generous types, this all proceeded so smoothly and with so little demur or rancour that people hardly noticed it taking place. As if. There was all kind of mutinous talk: howls of anguish from the practitioners in the small law firms who didn’t enjoy the benefits of the harbour view offices in the Auckland CBD. She’s a blunt instrument, your flat tax.

Let’s come now to more recent times. You’ll recall that with every day of the sad and sorry court case involving the low-flying police officers and their Prime Minister, the PR carnage just grew more bloody. Late in the game, when the verdicts were in, and the fines handed down, the cabinet hit on an excellent wheeze for putting things right, or as it goes these days: achieving closure. They had a whip around.

No doubt you can see where I’m going with this. In rough numbers:

Total cost of pledge cards: about $400,000.

Total number of Labour MPs – 40 or so.

“Donation” per head. $10,000

Hurt? Of course it would hurt. But they might want to consider how much more hurt they could do themselves by passing retroactive legislation of such gob-smacking self-service.

There are threads of validity in their spin. A debate about public funding of election campaigning would be a capital idea. Last time we had one, we managed to agree on a not-bad system for allocating political parties free broadcasting time. We might manage to devise an acceptable extension to that scheme. But that debate is not this one, and it should not be prodded onto the stage as the unlucky act that has to follow one that has so comprehensively bombed.