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July 17, 2017 | by  | in Politics |
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Political Round Up

Todd Barclay

Prime Minister Bill English came under intense media scrutiny in June when it was revealed that he had known of MP Todd Barclay’s alleged illegal surveillance of an employee since February last year. On two occasions over two years, Bill English had made dishonest statements to media about Barclay’s actions.

Barclay and his office staff in the Clutha-Southland electorate developed a strained working relationship after he was elected in 2014, prompting staffer Glenys Dickson to resign. She made her decision to quit after English called her saying Barclay had told him that he had secretly recorded her private conversations at the electorate office — an offence under section 216B of the Crimes Act.

Dickson was then paid a resignation settlement out of former PM John Key’s leader’s fund to prevent legal action on her part. The fund is an allowance intended to be used to support the PM’s parliamentary business and research — not as an employment dispute settlements budget. Dickson’s payout did not stop her from laying a complaint with police, however.

English’s first bout of dishonesty came as police began to investigate Barclay in March 2016. The then-deputy PM was asked by journalists whether he had spoken to Glenys Dickson over her resignation. He denied speaking to Dickson, despite being the person who had confirmed with her that tapes of her conversations existed. Barclay, meanwhile, refuted the allegations of illegal surveillance.

Media interest in the story renewed in 2017 when Newsroom gained access to text messages sent by English. It reported that English knew about Barclay’s recordings and the settlement with Dickson, which, according to English’s texts, was “paid from the Prime Minister’s budget to avoid potential legal action.”

A media frenzy ensued on June 20, when English made a second round of dishonest statements to journalists. The PM originally denied claims that he knew about Barclay’s alleged recording of Glenys Dickson’s conversations. Later than day, however, he admitted to media that Barclay had told him of his recordings. English even released a police report which recorded him telling police of Barclay’s actions. His credibility in tatters, Barclay apologised for “any misleading statements” he had made, and later announced that he would stand down as an MP after the election.

Making dishonest statements to media about the actions of a disgraced backbench MP is not the best way to garner confidence in an election year, but if English ever wanted to lose the nickname of “Boring Bill”, the media interest in his role in the Barclay affair certainly helped.

 

Labour Interns

Labour did not have much time to score political points over the Barclay affair before it became embroiled in a scandal of its own. On June 22, political news site Politik revealed that unpaid foreign interns working on Labour’s “Campaign for Change” programme had met with Labour Party officials to raise complaints about their living conditions.

The interns came to New Zealand to help Labour mobilise voters for the upcoming election. They were housed in Auckland’s Awataha marae, the living arrangements of which disillusioned some of the interns, who complained about substandard facilities and confined living quarters.

Labour’s critics pointed out the hypocrisy of hiring unpaid student interns from overseas to work for a party which campaigned on reducing immigration levels by “the tens of thousands.” One critic of the programme, Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox, said that the scheme involved “slave labour.”

Awataha marae spokesman Anthony Wilson said in an interview that while “we are not a five-star hotel […] we don’t think our facilities are substandard.” He added that the interns may have complained about the confined sleeping areas because they were unused to the marae practice of sleeping next to each other in the wharenui.

One of the volunteers, speaking anonymously with media, said that the controversy had been caused by only a small number of disgruntled interns, and that while the cramped sleeping arrangements were “not ideal,” the idea that the interns worked in “sweatshop conditions” was “not true at all.”

While the interns themselves disagreed on the suitability of the marae accommodation, Labour acknowledged that problems were rife within the “Campaign for Change” programme. Labour’s General Secretary Andrew Kirton apologised, saying that the scheme “got out of control.” Kirton flew up to Auckland and organised different accommodation for some of the interns.

Hiring unpaid interns from overseas and housing them in what some described as substandard accommodation was not a good look for a party campaigning on reducing student visas and boosting workers’ rights, but Labour was lucky to have its scandal just a day after the headline-grabbing disgrace of a National MP.

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