Pigs at the trough and wannabe thespians

After a Fiji holiday, the MPs' spending scandal looks incredibly tame; plus university reminiscences


Last month I spent a blissful week at a remote resort in Fiji with my oldest friends. (More of that later.) 

Fiji is a poor country with a military dictatorship for a government, a collapsed property development sector, and just recovering from a devastating hurricane.

It’s taken a while to recalibrate my brain to a world where the big issue of the week was who bought a mirror for his office or who got charged twice for a taxi fare.

The post-political space is sometimes a surreal location, and you see things from a great height with apparently wonderful precision.

What I saw was a truly concrete and physical manifestation of the herd mentality of the media clearly revealed when a phalanx of panting journos chased Chris Carter around Parliament.

One of them thought it was a good idea; all followed as the “chooks” as Joh Bjelke-Petersen memorably branded journalists in general, progressively lost contact with the factual universe.

The script writer for TVNZ's Q+A managed the best example of reality detachment with the line about your money (as in you, the taxpayer) getting “stolen and purloined”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the loss to the taxpayer from this supposedly excessive behaviour was exactly nil.

Zilch, zip, nada, zero.

In nearly every instance personal spending was reimbursed before the credit card company charged any interest at all, and it seems probable that at least a minority of ministers, both Labour and National, thought that this was OK behaviour.

Rather than a feeding frenzy, which few commentators could resist joining, some professional-type digging might have been a better response.

Why, for example, did Phil Heatley and Chris Carter, both apparently intelligent men, ignore the repeated warnings about “personal expenditure” from Ministerial Services?

The answer seems to be that these form letters of admonition never got past the Ministers' secretaries.

The reality was that this was a massive outbreak of journalistic voyeurism, and that we, the public, encourage the scribblers in this kind of behaviour.

I was told by a Herald insider that the only time in recent history that an extended print run was required happened when Caroll du Chateau revealed some juicy details about Don Brash’s alleged relationship with an Auckland businesswoman.

So what did we learn about our MPs? We found out that at least one bloke, Shane Jones, watched blue movies. We discovered that Tim Groser likes a drink after a hard day and that Parekura Horomia likes his food.

Well, duh, duh and double duh.

Still, the whole thing gave me one, probably last, opportunity to engage in the stimulating and thoroughly enjoyable sport of jousting with Sean Plunket on National Radio.

Plunket is by far the best radio interviewer we have ever had.

He’s always well prepared; his mind is quick and lateral.

Years ago I developed a points system for use when chatting with him on air.

When he says “alright” in response to your answer, that’s a penalty to you (three points) and when he giggles that’s a try (five points). The only reply which can ever derail him is a one word answer to a four paragraph question. Pull that off, fluster him and you’ve got a converted try (seven points).

I sincerely hope he moves on to better than a monthly column. With an election coming up he’d be a huge asset to either television channel or any radio station.

Her majesty’s Herald was predictably one-eyed, taking a stick to Labour Ministers while glossing over National Minister John Carter’s massive pig out (literally--it was two pigs’ heads, four deserts and two bottles of wine amongst two appetites), which was not immediately reimbursed.

The whole contretemps cost Labour a few percentage points in the polls but gave Labour Leader Phil Goff a rare and precious moment of decisive leadership.

Labour’s tight discipline ultimately held and party managers ought to be ruefully glad that the whole matter didn’t arise closer to an election.

I well recall, in 1999, the hapless Jenny Shipley being forced to cope with a rash of golden handshake “scandals” for which she really had no responsibility.

Here’s a story bursting to be told. The Fiji sojourners, Paul Holmes, Peter Beaven and me, met in the third form at Karamu High School, Hastings, departed to Victoria University together on the same train, and have stayed close ever since.

No radio, television or newspapers on the remote and beautiful resort allowed many hours of reminiscence, but there was one shared experience, the final upshot of which, I didn’t know.

In our second year at Victoria University, Paul conceived a plan to give his acting career a boost by taking over the Victoria University Drama Club, switching it to Shakespeare plays and starring as Hamlet, Macbeth or whoever.

This would mean plays with an automatic audience – Macbeth was compulsory in fifth form English at the time – and Paul’s quest to be the next Lawrence Olivier, (well, Dustin Hoffman) would be advanced.

Peter and I successfully organised the takeover, Paul was elected president of the club, and the shift to Shakespeare was effected. It was at this point the cunning plot came unstuck.

The club recruited a director, whose name eludes me but who went on to oblivion. He duly called for auditions for the Scottish play.

Paul was mortified when the casting list was posted at the university cafeteria.

He’d been cast as the third murderer.
 What particularly grated was that the Macbeth part had gone to an interloper from Christchurch.

Here’s what I didn’t know.

That upstart Cantabrian’s name was Sam Neill.