The main problems that the political left has had with the New Zealand Labour Party in recent years are epitomized by ex-Labour Minister Judith Tizard. She personifies virtually all that was wrong with the Labour Party under Helen Clark’s leadership: arrogant, Establishment-oriented, economically neoliberal, and obsessed with identity politics. The fact that she and many Labour MPs appeared to morph so easily into being the New Establishment is now reflected in many of the revelations coming out of the ministerial credit card documents that have been released. There are just so many examples of the culture of entitlement and extravagance that pervades the ‘political class’, but the one that stands out as the best indictment of the bourgeois nature of the Labour Party is Tizard’s taxpayer-funded purchase of a $155 bottle of Bollinger bubbly. But she wasn’t the only one. As the 7000-document release is slowly processed by the media and public we’re finding out just how bourgeois the previous Labour administration was. [Read more below]
Reading about the extravagance of all the Labour ministers reminds me of how the prime minister of the First Labour Government, Michael Joseph Savage, was determined not to live a bourgeois extravagant lifestyle once he became prime minister. Being a representative of workers to him meant that he shouldn’t just take on the material comforts of the ruling class once he was elected to represent those workers. The extravagance and luxuries of office were to him associated with the interests of rightwing politicians. Hence he refused to live in Premier House on Tinakori Road, near Parliament. He regarded such a mansion as inappropriate for any politician, let alone one representing the proletariat. The spacious house and gardens were apparently too opulent and Savage thus believed it was against party principles to occupy such an ostentatious home, and so he purchased a bungalow in Northland instead. And he had Premier House converted into a large dental clinic as part of his government’s health programme. The house was used as a crèche and then left empty until it was restored as the Prime Minister’s residence under the very different Fourth Labour Government, at the cost of $1.8 million. ‘Sir’ Geoffrey Palmer was the first modern era Prime Minister to occupy it, and of course more recently it was lived in by Helen Clark (whose aunt trained as a dental nurse there) and fellow Labour minister, Judith Tizard (who lived in one of the four guest bedrooms).
Although Shane Jones has admitted that his video consumption was a ‘shocker of a look’, this phrase better describes Tizard’s bourgeois tastes in taxpayer-funded wining and dining. Yet Tizard’s extravagance has unfortunately been somewhat overlooked in the chase for the more media-friendly porn movie sensation, which is a pity. The porn stuff has come to symbolize Labour’s ministerial spending scandal, when the bottle of Bollinger would have been much more appropriate and political. After all, most people in New Zealand have watched some sort of porn – and for many it’s surely a common activity. But drinking Bollinger champagne? This is an elite and highly extravagant type of purchase to make the taxpayer fund. And what we’re talking about here is a so-called Labour Party doing it. So more than anything, the careerists that make up the modern Labour Party have been revealed – if there was ever actually any doubt – to be little different from any establishment politicians.
An elite out of touch
So let’s look at what else has been revealed so far about the last Labour Government’s spending habits. Judith Tizard brought her bottle of Bolly at Auckland’s Cin Cin on Quay. She also ate ‘a meal of roast salmon, grilled tuna and fresh figs.’
Other extravagant Labour Government wining and dining ministers included Chris Carter, Michael Cullen, Rick Barker, and Shane Jones. Chris Carter’s culinary extravagance is pretty well documented already – but just to reiterate, at just one dinner he spent $639.21, shouting meals and booze for the Minister of Wine and Cheese, Jonathan Hunt, Carter’s partner, and a member of the House of Lords. As Dim Post says, it’s hard to see how anyone but those with a sense of entitlement could spend such large amounts of public money without good reason:
for some reason we also paid $639 for Chris Carter to go out to dinner in London with his partner, former Labour MP Jonathan Hunt and a retired UK Labour MP. Hard to imagine how this qualified as taxpayer business. An awful lot of the ‘legitimate’ spending seems to come under this second category: MPs, their staffers and their friends going out to dinner at the finest restaurants and drinking the finest wines as a matter of routine. Carter and his partner seem like they enjoyed quite a lavish lifestyle at the taxpayers expense: how could they possibly have justified this to themselves?
It’s not terribly surprising to find that Michael Cullen, as Finance Minister spent $1500 taking his Australian counterpart out for dinner at the luxurious Boulcott Street Bistro. After all, Cullen has always wanted to be part of the Establishment, so he hardly would have taken him out for a curry like normal people. Apparently Cullen’s 2008 ‘bill included $900 spent on 15 mains and $600 on a range of liquor, from bottles of wine to the "liquor special" costing $65 each’. Obviously Labour Finance Minister wasn’t as tight with the taxpayer’s money as he liked to portray.
We now know that Shane Jones was a serial misuser of his ministerial credit card for personal use, and wining and dinning was no exception for him. For example, he once used his ministerial credit card to spend $330 on three bottles of Mount Difficulty Pinot Noir, as part of a $722.70 bill at the One Tree Grill in Auckland. He also liked to stay at resorts regularly. At one, he spent $160.50 for a cooked breakfast.
Parekura Horomia has a long list of big restaurant bills – the biggest being his $750 bill at the Grand Century Chinese Restaurant in Wellington.
Rick Barker, the ‘great unionist’, spent the people’s money up large too. For example, he once charged 16 Corona beers during a two-person meal on his ministerial credit card, and another time charged $336 for wining and dinning at the Terroir At Craggy restaurant in Havelock North.
The Labour Government ministers really liked to travel, and they never did so on the cheap. A good example comes from Clayton Cosgrove, Labour's law and order spokesman. On one trip to Adelaide in 2008 he and a staffer stayed at the Hilton Adelaide – ‘where else would you stay?’ – which cost us $950 for just two nights. Also in 2008 he went on a junket to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, taking his wife along for a 9-day extended stay in an executive deluxe room at China World Motel, for which he charged the taxpayers $6,388.
While travelling, Labour ministers like to spend up large. Judith Tizard used her ministerial credit card to get a A$1000 cash advance while in Australia. Clayton Cosgrove spent $1,674 on a suit, and $712 on a taxi trip. Chris Carter spent $5500 on limousines over just four days. He also spent $157 on spa treatments. His trip to a political bookshop in London cost us $607. Trevor Mallard spent $1,180 on a limo trip in New York. The list goes on…
Are these examples just aberrations? Not necessarily according to ex-president of Labour, Mike Williams. He was quoted as saying that ‘What I heard from a friend is they were all doing it - running up their members' debt, that sort of thing’. And although Shane Jones’ expenditure seems to have eclipsed all others in the media spotlight, let’s not forget that he wasn’t the only one paying for movies with taxpayer money. Others that have cited for doing so, so far, include Leader Phil Goff and Chris Carter.
A political class removed from working people
No one’s expecting ministers to live in sack cloths or wear hairshirts, but they should at least live like most people. As I argued in the blog post entitled The Heatley scandal and the parliamentary culture of entitlement, by politicians living the lifestyles of the rich and famous, this encourages the distancing of political representatives and parties from ordinary people. They cease to understand or feel the same concerns of the vast majority of the population. They become careerists devoid of a strongly-held political agenda. This might not be such a big concern for those on the right of the political spectrum, but it’s not a good idea for those parties that seek in any way to represent the working class.
Dim Post has raised another interesting critique of Labour’s personal spending spree:
The left is supposed to be about using the power of the state to better people’s lives and the idea that government will be a responsible custodian of the public’s wealth is a central concept in achieving this. So when left-wing politicians publically disgrace themselves by essentially stealing our money it’s a political tragedy but also an ideological one: they’re harming the very ideals they’re supposed to champion. Although whether Labour advances any kind of values except a desire to run the country again is open to debate.
Thus, although the fine wine, classy suits, extravagant restaurant meals and golf clubs that politicians might want the taxpayer to fund are, maybe, a bit more expected from those parties of the Old Establishment, we’re coming to see that Labour – made up of the New Establishment – is really no different.