Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Perfect Sting

The Smiling Assassin: Pete Hodgson's mastery of the dark arts of politics goes back a long way, but his latest scalp - Pansy Wong's - was taken in a 'sting' operation that came pretty close to perfection.

IN RETROSPECT, the year I spent editing the Otago student newspaper, Critic, probably did me no good. In terms of journalism, I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since. In terms of sheer fun and excitement, however, being the editor of Critic in the tumultuous year of 1981 was hard to beat.

As a sort of insurance policy against what I suspected would be a strong on-campus reaction to the mass protests planned for the Springboks Rugby tour in July-September 1981, I agreed to give a young, right-wing history tutor, Michael Laws, his own weekly column – "Dragonfly". Things were going to get ugly, and I wanted the students of Otago to know that their newspaper was open to all shades of political opinion.

After Critic I left varsity and got a job at the University Book Shop. Years passed. And while I was making my way up the ranks of the trade union movement in Dunedin, Michael was working in the National Party Research Unit in Parliament. His highly successful association with Winston Peters marked him out as "one to watch". Certainly, I had little doubt that he would enter Parliament within a very few years.

Another man on his way towards a parliamentary career in the 1980s was Pete Hodgson. When I first met Pete he was selling vegetables out of a barrow on the student union lawn, where "The Ancient & Royal Anti-Scurvy League" had become something of a fixture in the 1970s. In the 1980s, however, Pete had left the barrow behind and was rapidly winning himself a reputation for formidable political craftsmanship as the Labour Party’s Otago Regional Organiser. Following the Labour victory of 1984, Pete’s talents were re-directed towards protecting Labour’s marginal seats.

What this meant only became clear to me one day in the mid-80s when Pete sauntered into the University Book Shop and asked me if I still had copies of Michael Laws’ "Dragonfly" columns from 1981. A little alarm-bell started ringing somewhere far off in the back of my mind, but as a loyal Labour Party member, I dutifully photocopied a complete set of Michael’s 1981 columns and handed them over to Pete.

In the 1987 General Election Michael Laws ran as the National Party candidate against Labour’s Bill Sutton in the highly marginal electorate of Hawke’s Bay. He lost, but only narrowly. Just 859 votes separated to two leading candidates.

When I asked him about it, many years later, Michael told me it had been a dirty campaign. Labour, he said, had dug up all sorts of embarrassing material from his past.

Ahh, but it’s a dirty business altogether, is politics – just ask Pansy Wong.

Pete Hodgson’s talents as a plotter, schemer and highly skilled political manipulator have seldom been better displayed than in the downfall of the Minister of Women’s and Ethnic Affairs.

The first act of the drama was to accuse Ms Wong of improperly using her ministerial title to support a private business contract involving her husband, Sammy Wong. An indignant Ms Wong denied doing any such thing. She’d simply added her signature to a Deed of Variation and given her occupation – quite correctly – as "Minister of NZ Government" and her address as "Parliament Buildings, Wellington, NZ".

At first it appeared as if Pete Hodgson’s rocket had misfired. The Cabinet Office absolved Ms Wong of any impropriety, and her husband rallied to her defence by publicly admitting that, with hindsight, he was foolish to embroil his wife in a private business deal.

Pete Hodgson was beginning to look like an utter (and seriously incompetent) cad.

But Pete’s rocket hadn’t misfired. In releasing the information about the Minister’s signature on the Deed of Variation, he had merely put a match to his rocket’s blue touch-paper.

Perhaps Pete began the final act of the drama by quietly prompting one or two friendly Press Gallery journalists to start asking questions about exactly who paid for the flight to China back in April 2008 (when the Deed was signed).

Or, maybe he didn’t have to. Maybe the final act began with him waiting for the spousal international travel rules ‘penny’ to drop of its own accord. Either way, his rocket was always bound to score a direct hit.

The moment anyone – journalist, Prime Ministerial aide, fellow Cabinet Minister, anyone – asked Pansy Wong if her husband’s travel costs had been subsidised on their April ‘08 "holiday" to China, her political career was over.

Allowing one’s spouse to do business on the taxpayer’s tab is a resignation offence.

All-in-all, it was pretty close to being the perfect ‘sting’ operation. Certainly, poor Pansy never saw it coming.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised at Pete Hodgson claiming yet another political scalp.

After all, he’s had plenty of practice.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 16 November 2010.


Nick said...

Lets just assume that Mac the Knife is cleaner than clean. It would appear that a number of his colleagues have not been, which raises the question of partisanship: we have seen Wodders the perk buster busted, and turning a blind eye to his mates larcenies. Lets hope Pete does not match Wods selectiveness.

Anonymous said...

But Mr Hodgson is so earnest and intense, as if he has yet to realise that the moral high ground is a lonely place.

Anonymous said...

An excellent photograph paired to match the article's thrust. Reminsicent of a taller version of Gollum. Aye, Politics is a dirty business, but when you are a vetinarian, the practice of lubricating your arm and inserting it up to your sleeve gusset in animal anus' comes as second nature. Still, there's always a lingering whiff for a while after that makes for short conversations at a discreet distance from such folks.

For what it's worth I have little compassion for Wong's running part of her husband's enterprise on the taxpayer's buck. Dumb. Really dumb.


peterquixote said...

Pete should probably just have remained a Vet in Dunedin, he was always boring and stupid as a politician.