Election years are funny things. The most accomplished of politicians can make mistakes. And amongst National’s cabinet there have been a few recent examples.
Firstly Crusher Collins self combusts. Her lack of judgment in engaging in activity while on an official trip to China to speak on corruption which supported a private company of which her husband David Wong Tung is a director of and from who National has received large donations is breathtaking. It seems that her sense of entitlement shut off her logic chip.
Then news of Amy Adams having some involvement in decisions that will benefit Canterbury farmers including herself hit the public consciousness although in a low key way.
But in terms of stupidity and hubris these episodes have been drowned out by Hekia Parata’s efforts this week.
On Sunday she effectively announced a radical change to school funding policy that would mean that poor schools would almost inevitably have their support cut. She then tried to back away from this and in Parliament denied saying what was reported. But the transcript of the interview released after this denial would suggest that reporter Jonathan Milne is right and Parata is … well …
Yesterday things went completely pear shaped for Parata following her claiming that the Kohanga Reo National Trust had been exonerated of claims of inappropriate spending.
The original story was broken by Native Affairs into the running of the Kohanga Reo movement. The programme was called Feathering the Nest. Part 2 is here. The Kohanga Reo National Trust was asked a series of questions in the preparation of the story and responded by seeking a High Court injunction in an attempt to preventing the story from being broadcast. This tactic backfired as trustees were then obliged to make sworn statements about trust spending. The Trust eventually backed down.
The investigation concerned spending on credit cards belonging to Te Pātaka Ōhanga Limited which is the trading entity associated with the trust. Both entities have the same people at the top and the KRNT is the only shareholder of TPO. The basic concern is that money was being spent for personal benefit rather than on education for kids. A number of examples were given in the Native Affairs programmes suggesting that the TPO credit card was being used regularly for what appeared to be personal matters.
Parata then called for a review by Ernst and Young. The terms of reference were to assess the effectiveness of the financial internal controls over public funding received by the Trust. With the benefit of hindsight these were clearly deficient and the wrong question was asked. The complaints were about the use of credit cards, not just the spend of the Government grant the Trust. The report which was released this week did say about credit card use “[w]e reviewed the 2012 credit card returns in detail and noted many returns did not include relevant supporting documentation.”
The circumstances surrounding the release of the E&Y report are incredible. Despite repeated requests it appears that Parata’s media advisory about the release of the report was not sent to any of the Native Affairs Team even though they were responsible for the original story. There is more than a slight whiff of sour grapes about this. And even more incredibly the press conference was called at short notice for 8 pm on a Tuesday night and reporters were given a copy of the report only 10 minutes before they were meant to ask questions. Tracy Watkins has described the background as follows:
During a press conference on Tuesday night Parata blustered and bullied her way through questions about her assurance that none of the $92 million in public funding allocated to the Kohanga Reo National Trust, or paid to its subsidiary, Te Pataka Ohanga, had been misspent.
After giving reporters 10 minutes to read the report by accountants Ernst & Young, Parata announced: “I am satisfied that public moneys are being expended in the appropriate way.”
When it was eventually pointed out to her that none of the spending relating to wedding dresses or Trelise Cooper outfits had been addressed by the report, she triumphantly told reporters that these matters were never included in the terms of reference.
She insisted, meanwhile, that there were no instances of the subsidiary receiving public money.
It took a Kohanga Reo National Trust board member to eventually confirm that kohanga reo got money from the Ministry of Education and the subsidiary got its money from kohanga reo.
Yesterday’s turnaround where the matter was referred to the Serious Fraud Office for consideration is as complete a political reversal as I have ever witnessed. Parata has claimed there are new allegations. Time will tell if she is saying the truth. The only benefit for the Government is that Parata can now refuse to answer questions on the basis the matter is being investigated but her credibility, or what is left of it, has been severely wounded.
So Hekia Parata has now become National’s weakest link. And Key has a terrible decision to make. Does he sack her now and lose face but stop the mishaps or does he continue with her and hope that she makes no further mistakes. After what has happened this week I suspect that her days are numbered.