This weekend saw some rare political courage from an MP on the slide, but it can'tstop the questions

A wee reflection on Maurice Williamson... What we saw this weekend was a rare example of political courage from a man clearly determined to fight for his electorate. As clearly as he has "crossed the line" and for all the questions that remain around this case, the sheer bloody-mindedness on display is worthy of admiration.

Williamson picked up the phone to make a call on behalf of a man he thought was an asset to New Zealand – Donghua Liu – as the Prime Minister has said, as soon as he did he had written his own ministerial death warrant. Ministers don't get involved in any way in live police investigations. Full stop.

Williamson resigned, but it's clear his only choice was a resignation or a sacking. It's equally clear Williamson still doesn't get deep down that he did anything wrong.

We know this because Williamson agreed to be interviewed on The Nation and later Q+A. Most politicians go into hiding after being sacked, but motivated by his desire to win back the people of Pakuranga – and perhaps by his own stubborn determination to explain and justify his actions – Williamson fronted.You could cynically say it was the crucial first step in his election campaign. And while that may be part of the truth, it makes his appearances hardly less admirable.

Vitally, he was accountable, via the media, to the people who have voted for him since 1987. That is the honourable thing to do, but it is rare these days. So he deserves kudos for his willingness to answer questions directly and frankly even when under incredible stress. In an age of dissemblers, the man was willing to take it on the chin.

What the interviews told us, though, is that Williamson doesn't get it. Not yet, anyway. Oh, he understands intellectually that he broke a rule, and politically that ministers only serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister. But he doesn't really feel he did anything wrong.

And taking his version of events at face value, he has a point. He rang the police to check whether Donghua Liu was going to be charged or not – it was simply getting a factual piece of information for the man's friends. Simple.

Sure, he should have had a staffer do it. Or got the man's lawyer to do his own work. But as Williamson tells it, the fact that the police started a review of the case as a result of the phone calls was, well, a mere misunderstanding.

Williamson repeatedly pointed out that he makes all sorts of phone calls to government agencies, that all MPs call the police, that he helps people from all walks of life through difficulties with the arms of gvoernment. Which are all excuses and doesn't get us much closer to the truth.

The core question around integrity remains, because the version Williamson tells and the interpretation by police revealed in the emails tell very different stories. Williamson says he was merely fact-checking. The police clearly saw the MP's call as a reason to review the case, with the implied threat that they had better be on solid ground. They seemed to think the comment about the man's wealth worth noting.

So is Williamson lying? Or do they back his version?

The police involved in that email trail are refusing to comment because the court action is continuing, with Liu yet to be sentenced. But it's vital the public hears their version of events. We need their side of the story. Did they take Williamson's call as a complaint? Did they feel pressure from the former minister? Did they think Liu was getting special treatment? And why oh why did they agree to a review of the case when the proper reply to Williamson was, "thanks for your call, but it's inapproriate for us to be talking about a live investigation"?

Until that's all explained, the integrity of those officers and the police force as a whole remains at risk. Are our senior police officers able to be influenced by members of parliament? In fact, should Superintendents Tims and/or Davey be investigated or even stood down for agreeing to review a case on the say-so of a minister? Is the new commissioner Mike Bush happy with their choices?

So while I hope Williamson is now able to eat and sleep after the pressures of the past four days, I don't think he's out of the woods yet. On top of police verification, for example, did Williamson, put in any other calls for Liu, say on the rules around his visa category? 

And another point: At the heart of his intervention seems to be his ideology regarding foreign investment. He openly thinks that as a relatively poor country at the bottom of the world we are in dire need of more foreign investment. The work he did for Liu suggests that he reckons we need to go that extra mile for wealthy foreigners willing to invest in this country. He even conceeded that the appeal he made to Immigration Minister Nathan Guy on Liu's behalf was just part of the service a mega-wealthy foreign investor could and should expect from a National government.

It's this commitment to getting foreign money into New Zealand that has, I think, blurred Williamson to the rights and wrongs of ministerial behaviour. His willingness to go the extra mile for what he sees as the good of the country, has crossed a line into a favour for a rich mate. In fact, it's just one of a few favours in a relationship based on favours, which include pointing out a nice bach for him and even doing a bit of work around the home for him. In return, there were the dinners and the donations – although from Williamson's point of view, the quid pro quo was going to be the tens of millions spent creating jobs and growth in this country.

But it's an attitude that many voters won't feel comfortable with. It kicks against our 'one law for all' mentality and looks like special help for the rich and well-connected. And that's what's done for Williamson, as it turns out.

Finally, Pakuranga. ACT and the Conservative Party are irrelevant there. Colin Craig milked the possibility of him standing there for a bit of publicity, but has no such intention. Whyte, of course, won't waste his time on an electoral seat. So long as National gifts Epsom to David Seymour, Whyte's focus has to be on trotting round the country drumming up as much support for the party vote as possible. An electorate would be a waste of his time and resources. Williamson is likely to win again, albeit with a reduced majority.


Comments (12)

by Emily-Kate Robertson on May 05, 2014
Emily-Kate Robertson

I absolutely loved Whyte's comment that he'd not stand there just to ensure that opposition to Colin Craig wasn't split between he and Williamson. Obviously it wouldn't happen anyway, but I thought it was funny. 

by Tim Watkin on May 05, 2014
Tim Watkin

Ah yes, the quest for relevance from the irrelevant! Well, in Pakuranga at least. When I say Williamson is likely to win, I mean 'all-but certain'. Based on what we know now.

by Richard Aston on May 05, 2014
Richard Aston

There is a huge difference between a cabinet minister making that call to the police and the guy's lawyer. I think Williamson is being disingenuous in saying he was “simply getting a factual piece of information for the man's friends”.

But yes he will be voted back in, I guess the good people of pakuranga would like knowing their MP would phone the cops for them if they got into trouble.

by Andrew Geddis on May 05, 2014
Andrew Geddis

But as Williamson tells it, the fact that the police started a review of the case as a result of the phone calls was, well, a mere misunderstanding.

Here's what the NZ Herald reported:

Internal police emails show Inspector Gary Davey told the two district commanders that he phoned Mr Williamson on January 28.

"He started by saying that in no way was he looking to interfere with the process, he just wanted to make sure somebody had reviewed the matter to ensure we were on solid ground as Mr Liu is investing a lot of money in New Zealand."

Why on earth would the officer make up this claim out of a "mere inquiry" into what was happening? How would he know Liu was a heavy investor, unless Williamson told him so? Whose account is the more likely to be accurate - the police officer's one written at the time of the call, or Williamson's several months later when he's been accused of wrongdoing?

by Rich on May 05, 2014

Do the police not have a single person/team who handle all political queries? I'm sure it isn't usual for politicians to get an answer from a mid-level manager - in the SOE I worked for, you'd have been expected to refer them to the CEO's office. 

by Tim Watkin on May 05, 2014
Tim Watkin

Yeah, those quotes are from the emails. But Williamson has since said that's not what he meant, that Davey had misunderstood his intent. What I want to know now is if Davey stands by his notes or accepts they may have been at cross-purposes. Because as you say, those were notes written at the time by a man trained to record conversations.

Williamson has also said that the conversation about Liu's investment in NZ was begun by Davey, who said the alleged offending happened at a certain hotel. Here's the bit from The Nation's transcript:

So could you clarify for me why you told the police that he was – why you thought it was necessary to tell the police that he had all that money?

I’ve had a think about the phone call and I think the way it came about, and of course it’s hard to remember back to January the exact wording, but what I think happened is the police officer speaking to me said the assault actually took place in the Boulevard Hotel, which this Mr Liu owns. And I said ‘yes that’s right he owns it’. And I said ‘he actually owns a big chunk of land around it as well’. He said ‘that’s right, but he owns the hotel where it occurred’. It wasn’t like ‘cause he’s so rich, don’t do anything’. But I wasn’t even asking whether they could do anything or not. I was asking ‘are you going to proceed?’

Read more:
by Andrew Geddis on May 05, 2014
Andrew Geddis

What I want to know now is if Davey stands by his notes or accepts they may have been at cross-purposes.

I'm not sure it helps Williamson either way. Even making an approach that could be (and quite clearly was) misinterpreted in this way is a wrong demanding resignation, irrespective of his subjective intent. So this isn't like (for instance) the UK's "Plebgate" row, where some members of the police apparently invented an MP's words to get vengence for the Government's policy towards policing ... there's no reason to think that the police involved have deliberately overcooked their perception of what Williamson wanted for some ulterior reason. And that's then on him - if a Minister picks up the phone to ask "what's going on?", and the official at the other end thinks "oh shit, it's a Minister - I better make sure everything is completely kosher", and that official is police officer investigating an alleged offence, then there's no innocent facing the issue with a "I didn't know they were going to act like thar!"

Also, much as you might want to hear from them, I very much doubt the police officers are now going to get dragged into a "he said"/"he said" tussle over this. The outcome of doing so is either calling Williamson a liar for his current account of events, or else accepting that Williamson's actual words to them were misrecorded and thus leaving them open to accusations that they railroaded a Minister into resigning. There's no good outcome for them, so I'm betting we won't be hearing "the police's side of events" at all.

by Tim Watkin on May 05, 2014
Tim Watkin

That's what I fear, Andrew. I'm not suggesting it's a set up, I just like to know what really happened in these sorts of things rather than leave uncertainty; two such conflicting versions of events should be questioned.

by Mike Osborne on May 06, 2014
Mike Osborne

Williamson picked up the phone to make a call on behalf of a man he thought was an asset to New Zealand

Where does an MP's assessment of asset or not fit in the judicial process?

How does it sound if we drop "to New Zealand"? I suspect that the White Ribbon Day people might question the value of the asset.


by Tim Watkin on May 06, 2014
Tim Watkin

Well, any person is innocent until proven guilty, Mike. And when Wiliamson picked up the phone it was only an allegation and one that he wasn't even sure would be prosecuted.

by Ross on May 07, 2014

It's equally clear Williamson still doesn't get deep down that he did anything wrong.

And neither does Judith Collins, otherwise the Oravida saga might have died a while ago.

If this sort of arrogance is apparent in a 2nd term government, what might we expect from National if it gets a 3rd term?

by william blake on May 07, 2014
william blake

The courage of powerful men discussing business, politics and money, but not about a battered wife, courage or cowardice?

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