Taito Phillip Field's conviction on corruption charges marks a low point for our Parliament. But if that is as low as it goes, it's still not doing all that bad

It goes without saying that the guilty verdicts in the Taito Phillip Field case are a cause for real disappointment and anger. He’s the guy who means that henceforth our Parliament as an institution can no longer claim proudly to be free from corruption. And as Field’s prosecutor Simon Moore put it, the very existence of “bribery and corruption strikes very much at the heart of who we are as a people.”

After an almost four month trial at the High Court in Auckland, Field was convicted on 11 counts of corrupt behaviour as an MP, as well as 15 of wilfully attempting to obstruct or pervert the course of justice. He will be sentenced on October 6.

(Incidentally, does anyone out there know if there is any way that Samoan society can remove his “Taito” honorific; and if so, just what is required before doing so? It might be nice for those who share the title if he could just become plain old "Phillip Field" again.)

That said, a sense of perspective is perhaps needed here. On the global scale, getting some free house renovation work in exchange for (unsuccessfully) lobbying an Immigration Minister is pretty small beer. Compare Field’s actions to this; or to this; or to this. Not for nothing does New Zealand regularly top Transparency International’s list of the perceived least-corrupt countries in the world, and I doubt Field’s actions will change this perception markedly.

Furthermore, let’s give credit where credit is due in terms of bringing this matter to a close. The media (in this case TVNZ), so often derided as ineffectual and purely reactive, first uncovered the issue. Dr Noel Ingram, QC overcame the narrow remit given to his inquiry and issued a report that showed there were matters the police needed to investigate. In spite of the government's obvious desire to put the matter to rest, the police did so thoroughly, and then laid charges. The judiciary allowed those charges to go to trial. A jury, reduced to the barest allowable 10 members, sat through 15 weeks of evidence and were still able to distinguish between those allegations that were proved and those that weren’t.

There’s not many nations in the world where this would happen to a sitting MP of the then-ruling party. So let’s take a second to celebrate the fact that in this case, the system worked. God knows we’re quick enough to damn it when it appears to have failed!

Of course, before we get overly self-congratulatory, there remains the uncomfortable fact that a New Zealand Member of Parliament has been proven to have acted corruptly in office, not only criminally while sitting as an MP (as was the case for Donna Awatere-Huata). And there's the further fact that the Labour Party acted for far too long as at least an enabler for Field's denials of wrongdoing. I've no doubt that Labour's tribal political loyalty was elevated above the public good in his case. And quite possibly cultural sensitivities were overly pandered to, in that Field's excuse that his relationship with various immigration supplicants were simply about traditional reciprocation, or the acceptance of lafo, rather than personal gain were too readily accepted.

I've no doubt there’ll now be some on New Zealand's political right who will say that the Field verdicts simply are the only time the courts caught up with the corrupt acts of Labour in power. Even the normally mild-mannered and serene David Farrar at Kiwiblog is flogging the high horse of righteous indignation into quite a lather, opining that unless Labour apologises for Field "the conclusion many people will reach is they are unfit to hold office again, and that their so called concern for the welfare of vulnerable New Zealanders is insincere." (There is always the possibility that these verdicts make for a welcome distraction from all the National Ministers putting themselves into the sort of "fundamental conflict" he decried in others not three months ago!)

But fair enough. Labour deserves a good kicking on its handling of Field, and I've no doubt it was among the many straws that broke back of the electorate's trust in Labour in 2008. I only hope some good can come from his fate, in that his example will loom large in the mind of any future MP tempted to turn his or her authority into personal gain.

One last thing, on a completely unrelated topic. If John Key thinks Keisha Castle-Hughes should “stick to acting” rather than publicly expressing her opinion on what is required to combat global warming, then perhaps he should reciprocate by stopping these sorts of staged performances? After all, if actors aren’t allowed to get involved in politics, I don’t see why politicians should get to playact having a “conversation” with us!

Comments (5)

by BK Drinkwater on August 07, 2009
BK Drinkwater

Good article.

Speaking to the question of the title Taito, the ODT says:

"Keneti Muaiava, lecturer in Samoan culture and dance at the University of Auckland, said the title Taito - one of highest chiefly titles in Field's home village of Manase - could be removed only by those who bestowed it."

http://www.odt.co.nz/news/politics/68605/field-can-still-claim-travel-perks

by stuart munro on August 07, 2009
stuart munro

It should not be supposed that successful prosecutions for corruption are the gold standard for determining the propriety of parliamentary behaviour. In quality assurance we talk about systemic integrity and adherence to functions. By these criteria our parliament is very corrupt indeed. The sale of state assets is a glaring example. In most countries, the process by which state assets end up in private hands is nothing more nor less that corruption, and I have yet to see any solid evidence of countervailing national interest that would rebut that presumption in New Zealand.

Making conviction the measure establishes an abyssmal standard for MPs. They should, like Caesar's wife, be above suspicion. Instead they are beneath contempt.

by stuart munro on August 07, 2009
stuart munro

Some attention should also be paid to the relative seriousness of the crime. An entry-level employee who pilfers is guilty of theft as a servant - an unhealthy cv endorsement but a relatively minor offence. A military or police officer who does the same thing is guilty of the more serious crime of Barratry. And a democratically elected representative charged and empowered to protect his or her constituents interests? When they steal, they are guilty of treason.

by Bruce Thorpe on August 07, 2009
Bruce Thorpe

The relativeness seriousness of the crime must also be viewed from the other angle.

Not look who is doing it, so much as what has actually been done?

It does not seem at all likely to me that the most corrupt action in the history of this country's parliament is this matter of a minister getting free work on his property from a person seeking immigration status.I suspect

I am not trying to minimise the totally despicable behaviour but there would be few countries completely immune from similar exploitation of migrant applicants.Field is small time by any standard,except I suspect his own, and  I am questioning whether it is indeed the darkest act of corruption in our parliamentary history.

The last member of parliament I remember facing a similar disgrace was Donna Huata Awatere, which I thought was rather more offensive in that it was exploitation of her political cause and blatantly the filching of cold cash.

It seems to me there must have been many darker deeds committed by parliamentarians involving at least some of their fellows and on a larger scale than these examples, and the odds are they were committed by those who were  fairer skinned and higher placed than the two that have been publicised.

by stuart munro on August 08, 2009
stuart munro

Wonderful. Let's intrude cultural relativism into the mix. I'm not at all sure that embezzling from a trust is nastier than exploiting the vulnerability of a migrant worker, but the fact is that both Field & Huata were manifestly unfit for the trust which was reposed in them. And as you say, I'm certain we have worse than them in the house.

We need to establish a system of punishments that will deter such people from even considering entering parliament. As it stands, the menu is just too rich, and like funeral buffet crashers, many MPs just shouldn't be there.

The problem is made worse by our relative excess of MPs. We have about 4 times as many per capita as Britain, which has about 4 times as many per capita as the US. We could easily halve the numbers without significantly degrading quality of representation, in no small part because so many of them are entirely self-serving.

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