The latest chapter in the National Government’s ACC scandal deserves some analysis. And since I provided some analysis last night on TVNZ’s Close Up coverage – which you can watch here – I thought I’d elaborate a bit on some of the points that I made. [Read more below]
This example provides a remarkable insight into how people in the ‘political class’ operate. Going on what we seem to know from this newly-revealed letter, what Michelle Boag has been doing is very much the ‘naked exercise of power’ – attempting to use political connections and those in public office to bolster your pursuit of private matters.
Michelle Boag is a very senior and experienced activist and player in the National Party – she was after all the President of the Party, and she’s been a central figure in the party over the last couple of decades. So we should take note of how such people carry out their business.
I think much of the public will be astounded to see evidence that such well-connected figures seek to use those connections in their pursuits of private matters. Although there’s nothing necessary illegal or rule-breaking about what Michelle Boag appears to be doing, much of the public will question the legitimacy of it. And that’s the real issue. When we come to definitions of issues such as ‘corruption’ or ‘cronyism’, political scientists don't rely on whether an action by a politician, official or powerful person is ‘illegal’ or not, but whether the public regards such actions as legitimate. And surely there will be many saying that this isn’t a legitimate use of power.
Perceptions of cronyism and corruption
This latest chapter in the ACC scandal really will really suggest to the public that what Nick Smith did to bring about his downfall might be more common than we think – it wasn’t some aberration. The Michelle Boag insurance letter appears to be all about bringing in powerful friends to intimidate. And perhaps people already think that is standard practice for Boag, but when it’s connected to the Nick Smith letter writing on behalf of Bronwyn Pullar, it gives the appearance that in government circles and political parties, this might happen a lot.
And although we’ve seen that John Key has denied being involved in Michelle Boag’s attempt to pressure the insurance company, there certainly seems to be others that gave their consent. The fact that Wayne Mapp has put his hand up shows that this wasn’t just Boag acting alone.
This all adds up to an increasing perception of National and this Government as being a big dodgy – of being tarnished by allegations of corruption, cronyism, and political sleaze. This is very dangerous for a government, and many previous governments around the world have fallen apart once that reputation has become established with the public.
Of course the timing of the Boag insurance letter – 2007, before National got into government – might be seen to ameliorate the bad look of using political office to make private gain. Yet you also have to remember that back in 2007, National was on the brink of going into government, and there was a widespread anticipation of this. So although Wayne Mapp, for example, was just an opposition MP at that stage, most people knew he was about to become a minister.
Civil War in the National Party
What is extraordinary about the current ACC scandal is that it appears to be never-ending. So the latest Michelle Boag revelations has to be read, obviously, within the context of this ongoing saga.
Normally a scandal dies down after a major resignation. So we might have expected that with the fall of Nick Smith this story would be at an end.
The problem for the Government and National Party is that this isn’t your usual political scandal because it appears to relate to major internal National Party schism. There seems to be something akin to a civil war going on in there. So the constant leaks that we’re getting – which are keeping this story alive – are actually from within National rather than from the Opposition (which is how such scandals normally operate).
The mud within National appears to be being thrown thick and fast. And so with today’s leak of this we’ve got yet another big “Whodunnit?” question. Who was it that leaked the insurance letter to TVNZ? I can’t say that I have any information on this or insight. But it seems likely that one of the many National Party that was included on Boag’s letter to the insurance company, may have also received a copy of the letter, and they might now have reason to have used this against Boag.
The problem for National is that ‘civil wars’ are the hardest to win politically, and they’re the hardest to stop. Unlike a war between different parties, these tend to be much more bitter and nasty. Such infighting is particularly dangerous because the factions often have access to a lot more political ammunition – or ‘dirt’. The insiders of a party know where all the bodies are buried. That’s the problem for National – they could still be a lot more dirt to come out.
So the question is: how can John Key close this fight down? It’s a huge distraction to governing, and it has the potential to fatally damage this administration. Parties in government are always very vulnerable to perceptions of disunity, and at the moment this party seems desperately disunited.
The National Party is normally better than Labour at maintaining internal discipline and closing ranks when a problem emerges. But this simply doesn’t seem to be the case this time.