In the current political finance scandal over ministerial credit card misspending, very frequently the offending politicians have claimed that their misspending was all ‘an innocent mistake’. This is especially the case when ministers explain their use of ministerial credit cards to pay for what were very obviously personal items. For example, Judith Tizard has explained that her use of her ministerial credit card for purchasing personal items was because she'd got the card mixed up with her personal one. This was also the case with Phil Heatley, earlier in the year. And Chris Carter claimed his spending was mistaken rather than dishonest. But is this really a legitimate excuse? [Read more below]
In this sense, the ultimate apologist for the misspending ministers is likely to be the Auditor-General, Lyn Provost (pictured on the right). She is currently working on a wide-ranging review of ministerial spending rules and procedures. However, Provost’s previous report on the Heatley affair indicated that she was not up to the task because she essentially accepted Heatley’s plea that ‘The misspending wasn’t deliberately wrong’. Hence the Auditor-General let the minister off because of her belief that he did not intentionally breach the rules. Unfortunately this could become the ‘test’ for determining whether wrong doing has occurred.
Of course a defendant is not normally taken seriously by the law when they use the defence that they were simply ignorant of the rules. This claim of innocence has led many to consider that the politicians are simply thieves. For example, No Right Turn has taken issue with the ‘innocent mistake’ justifications in a post entitled No pity for thieves:
The politicians involved are trying to make out that it was all an innocent mistake, and in some cases it likely was - but in others there is a clear and consistent pattern of abuse of Ministerial credit cards for "expenses" that are neither reasonable not necessary.
these people are simply thieves. An ordinary person caught stealing from their employer in this fashion would not just be forced to pay the money back, but would also likely be facing dismissal and prosecution. We should apply the same standard to politicians. There can be no place in our political system for thieves.
This feeling is brilliant communicated in the following satirical news report written by Danyl McLoughlin, which humourously expresses what would happen if a regular worker made the same excuses that politicians made for their ‘theft’ from work:
Countdown employee red-faced
Lower Hutt based Countdown retail worker Richard Loa announced today that he was deeply embarrassed by revelations that he had been taking items from the store without paying for them. Loa, a 41 year old checkout operator and frozen foods section assistant team leader came forward today to admit that over a period of four years working at the Wellington supermarket he had taken home bottles of wine, frozen chickens, vitamin pills and razor blades on a weekly basis. ‘I now accept that this was wrong and I apologise for it,’ Loa said. ‘In my defense the rules around whether or not I could smuggle out bottles of shampoo in my gym bag were vague and unclear.’ It is understood that Loa came forward after Countdown management announced that they had installed security cameras in the staff changing rooms. These showed footage of Loa eating two large boxes of Lindt chocolates valued at $44 while on breaks during a busy weekend shift. ‘That’s when I decided that coming clean and explaining everything was the right thing to do,’ Loa said, adding. ‘The chocolates were consumed while I was doing my job although I concede that the security footage is not a good look.’ ‘I would have paid for the chocolates myself but I didn’t have any cash and it seemed more convenient at the time to stuff them under my shirt and eat them in the toilets,’ Loa explained. Loa announced that he would repay the value of the chocolates and other items consumed but would not be stepping down from his position as frozen foods assistant team leader. ‘I’ve made a mistake and I’ve done the right thing and fronted up to it,’ Loa said. ‘I acknowledge that it’s not a good look but frozen food placement faces a lot of challenges and I have some exciting ideas on how to tackle them so I’d like to put this whole thing behind me and move on.’ This attitude is not shared by Loa’s employer Progressive Foodstuffs who have dismissed him without notice or by the New Zealand Police who have arrested Loa on five charges of theft.
Similarly, one commentator on the Red Alert blog, ‘burt’, said the following:
If a service station worker was caught lifting $5 from the till to pay for bus fare home at the end of a shift the most likely outcome would be;
1) Lose job.
2) Face charges of theft as a servant.
3) Be required to pay it back.
Big contrast to the standard we expect from an MP;
1) Say sorry.
2) Possibly pay it back.
3) Move on.
Why do the people we are expected to trust as being responsible with our money never have any real accountability for being self serving with it ?
And earlier in the year the National Party used the same excuse in regard to Phil Heatley’s credit card misuse, suggesting that it was due to him being ‘untidy’ or ‘careless’. But as the Nelson Mail newspaper editorial said, ‘in the real world, admitting a $70 misappropriation would be firm grounds for instant dismissal’, and he’s lucky to still have his job on the backbench paying $143,000. Similarly, columnist John Minto compared Heatley with the plight of low paid workers that get sacked for ‘unauthorised consumption of company product’ when they have a lemonade or an unsold old pie on the job. It was Minto’s opinion that Heatley ‘would be on the street if the same rules applied to everyone’.
Yet, politicians might respond that these ‘common theft’ examples are not an exact parallel because in the ministers case the rules weren’t as clear cut and the ‘grey areas’ meant the ministers couldn’t know they were stealing. Their defence simply is: “the rules were unclear”. Legal expert and blogger Graeme Edgeler answers this type of justification by replying: ‘if it wasn’t clear you were allowed to take the money, why did you take it?’