We wonder if we were supposed top be gobsmacked, consternated or otherwise thunderstruck by the headline we encountered at the top of page 16 in our Dominion-Post today.
“Fracas in Parliament,” it bellowed in a truncated version of the headline that can be found on the same report at Stuff.
The opening sentence of the report to which we were lured told us:
“A political fracas has broken out at Parliament on the third day of a NZ First donations saga.
“NZ First MPs were in denial-mode, National revealed a $30 million lawsuit threat, and another MP called out for someone to ring the police.”
Hmm. Some MPs were denying something (as they persistently do), a lawsuit threat has been made and someone has called for the cops to be phoned. Good luck with the phone call.,
The Dom-Post report gave no hint of a physical fight (although fisticuffs occasionally happen in the precincts of Parliament, as Mr Speaker can attest).
That leaves us with a rough, noisy quarrel. But that’s the sort of thing that happens pretty well every day in Parliament when the House is sitting, especially at Question Time.
So what’s big deal about the fracas headlined in our newspaper?
Perhaps more significantly, given that yesterday was the third sitting day this week, why did it take so long for a fracas to break out about the donations brouhaha?
We waded through the report to find out and initially were drawn to events in Porirua, not Parliament:
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, speaking at a police graduation in Porirua on Thursday, said she had talked to NZ First leader Winston Peters about the party’s donations and continued to have confidence in him.
But she repeated her insistence it was for the Electoral Commission to take any action.
I’m going to leave the electoral commission to do their job. It would simply not be appropriate for a politician to investigate another political party or indeed another … politician,” she said.
Peters, speaking at the same event, similarly deferred responsibility for clearing the allegations to the Electoral Commission.
“This matter, as far as the administrative part of the NZ First Party is concerned, is with the electoral commission,” Peters said.
“I understand also from advice I received overnight that NZ First Foundation has itself voluntarily written to the commission to make itself available for conversation, discussions and communications.”
Asked if NZ First MP Clayton Mitchell was soliciting donations for the party, he didn’t answer the question.
Nothing startling there.
The Dom-Post then shifted from Porirua to Parliament to record NZ First MPs claiming no knowledge of the party’s inner-workings:
Minister for Children Tracey Martin was unwilling to stop and answer questions from reporters.
“I don’t know anything about the Foundation. I haven’t had anything to do with the administration of the party for five years,” she said.
Asked if NZ First had acted lawfully, Defence Minister Ron Mark said he backed Peters.
“The leader has made very clear what the answer to that question is, and I have total confidence in the leader.”
Minister Shane Jones, responsible for the $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund, said he was not going “to feed any of these apocryphal stories, we’re in a process with the Electoral Commission”.
But our reading of the report suggests those statements were made by MPs responding to journalists’ questions, not during proceedings in the House.
It says Clayton Mitchell “was absent from the routine media scrums on Thursday”.
And then, at long last, the report takes us into the House and we learn that National MP Nick Smith had tabled an email he received from Brian Henry, Peters’ personal lawyer and NZ First judicial officer.
This threatened to sue him and National leader Simon Bridges for $30 million for making “serious allegations” in the House, where MPs have a legal immunity from defamation claims.
While this tells us Smith has received an email from a lawyer, it does not give us any impression of a fracas in Parliament.
Let’s read on….
Next, we are told that:
ACT MP David Seymour said he was considering laying a complaint with police, but wanted to first confirm electoral law had been breached.
“There’s someone breaking the law somewhere, it’s just a matter of time until it becomes clear exactly who has broken the law,” he said.
He said a NZ First donor who felt misled may have a better case to take to the police.
“If I was a person in that position, it might be quite smart to get out ahead of it, rather than have someone coming to ask you the questions,” he said.
Is this the MP calling out for someone to ring the police?
Or was the call made by another MP and have the details of this been dropped from the Dom-Post report?
One final observation. The bald but unsubstantiated headline in the newspaper has been lengthened in the Stuff report (as we noted earlier) to Fracas in Parliament as MPs spin on NZ First donations scandal.
But when MPs refuse to comment, can they be accused of “spin”?