NZ Herald right on the botton
New Zealand Herald Editorial Friday 13 October 2006
Few public officials have performed their duties more bravely and honourably than the Auditor General, Kevin Brady, in investigating unlawful election spending by political parties. His report yesterday, confirming that all but one party in Parliament mis-spent taxpayers' money promoting themselves in last year's election campaign, was a powerful example of an independent watchdog standing up for the public. Yet what is remembered of the Brady inquiry will be the circumstances of its preparation and completion as much as the consistency of its verdict.
It is hard to recall an instance of a public servant, an officer of Parliament no less, being subjected to the menace and derision heaped on Mr Brady since his draft view was leaked in mid-year. The Labour Party and its leader, Helen Clark, in particular, reacted with a venom that has been well documented once it became clear Labour had dipped into taxpayer funds to the tune of perhaps $800,000 for electioneering purposes. Not only was Mr Brady second-guessed, and the judgment of the Crown's top lawyer, then-Solicitor General Terence Arnold, scorned, but Helen Clark challenged Mr Brady's right to speak publicly to the Herald and elsewhere about his inquiry. Labour was not alone, and the leader of its tiny support party United Future, Peter Dunne, forever removed his claim to being the voice of common sense by also attacking these officials. Other parties and individual MPs were quick to claim errors by the Auditor General in their own cases and tried to paint the inquiry as flawed and collapsing under the weight of their responses. Much was made of Mr Brady's view being at variance to the clearing of previous such spending by his office, and the Prime Minister and others tried to put words into his mouth about the need for retrospective legislation to validate the unlawful spending.
In the final report, presented to Parliament yesterday, Mr Brady confirmed a substantial portion of his earlier findings. He and his staff held their nerve despite a campaign of disinformation by a club of the politically powerful who were willing him to abandon his draft views and accept their contortionist justifications. His inquiry necessarily hit the rawest nerves in the political sphere - those of party leaders and their blurred accountability between the parliamentary and the party political - and the response he engendered was fierce.
Part of Mr Brady's concern reported yesterday focuses on the failures of the Parliamentary Service to administer correctly the spending from these leaders' budgets. He is right that there was a failure to stop illegitimate spending, but the service has as its commissioners, or board of directors, MPs from these same parties that were demanding that money be released. It is in an invidious position. Still, as Mr Brady has shown, public servants are there to act on behalf of voters, not politicians, and the service needs to take a hard look at its values.
It goes without saying that Labour, and all other parties exposed for the misappropriators that they are, had to pay back all taxpayer money. Spare us the spin, the attempts to curry favour with the public for undoing a wrong with a right.
Voters will never know how the election results were affected by this unlawful free-for-all. Without Mr Brady's integrity, independence and fortitude, they might never have got to the bottom of what was, truly, a scandalous episode. His refusal to be cowed makes him a leading contender for any accolade of New Zealander of the Year, 2006.