The latest allegations of a corruption scandal involving a Cabinet minister suggests this government is far too loose when it comes to providing access to power for friends and associates.
Kris Faafoi is in trouble because of his alleged role in helping a mate with an immigration matter when he was the Associate Minister of Immigration. On the face of it, the evidence is bad for Faafoi, as it looks like he has breached the Cabinet Manual rules which prohibit helping mates out by doing them a personal favour.
The text messages between Faafoi and his musician friend Jason Kerrison show Kerrison lobbying the minister for help, and Faafoi promising the sort of assistance that no normal constituent would receive. The exchange looks corrupt.
You can see the full story by Newshub’s Fiona Connor and Tova O'Brien here: ‘I'm on it bro’: Messages show Kris Faafoi offering help to friend Jason Kerrison over immigration case.
Unlike many other controversies around donations and shortfalls in ethical standards, this one is easy for the public to comprehend. The Minister clearly states he’s going to contact officials to help “speed things up”, and tells Kerrison to “send me surname and immagration nz file number” of the family member seeking residency.
Faafoi’s correspondence in text and Facebook messages to Kerrison is very explicit. He says clearly “Bro I have a plan – but it can't be plastered over FB” – see the Herald’s ‘Bro I have a plan’: Kris Faafoi offered to help in friend's immigration case.
And later, he reassures Kerrison he’s sorted it out but has to be careful: “Bro it's moving. I can't put anything in writing.” Replying to his friend’s appreciation for the favour, he essentially explains that it’s the right thing to do, saying “Whānau whānau brother”.
The correspondence suggests Faafoi knows he’s in dodgy territory, saying “I've enlisted the help of an MP up your way. If I deal with it directly, I will have a conflict of interest.”
Being involved at all in the case is certainly a conflict of interest according to the Cabinet Manual. This states that “a conflict may arise if people close to a Minister, such as... whānau, or close associates, might derive, or be perceived as deriving... personal, financial, or other benefit from a decision or action by the Minister or the government.”
The Manual also gives an example of inappropriate participation in the official processes as being: “attempting to intercede” on the behalf of “family members, whānau, or close associates” on “some official matter”.
According to the Herald’s Audrey Young, the situation is serious for Faafoi: “Using one's ministerial position to help a friend is not only a breach of the Cabinet manual, it is sackable offence and has claimed the job of a minister before. Nick Smith was forced to resign from the Cabinet in 2012 when it emerged that as ACC minister in the previous term, he had intervened on an ACC case for a friend” – see: Kris Faafoi is in trouble but just how much? (paywalled)
Young says that “Jacinda Ardern will be demanding answers”, and “the answers cannot just come Faafoi himself but from the Immigration Service.” She says there’s probably only one defence that Faafoi might make – that he didn’t actually do what he promised his friend: “Ironically the one thing that would save Faafoi is a lie. If Faafoi wasn't actually helping his mate's mother, but was only telling his mate he was helping, then he might get to keep his portfolios.”
Faafoi denied any wrongdoing yesterday, saying “I think he did have a case which is why I offered to speak to his local MP”. He’s now refusing to comment on the story.
Broadcaster Duncan Garner, who is a close friend of Faafoi, has come out in his defence this morning, arguing that in the end the Minister’s friend didn’t actually get the outcome from Immigration NZ that he was lobbying for: “Faafoi achieved nothing for Kerrison” – see: Kris Faafoi doesn't deserve to be sacked, his country needs him.
Garner puts forward another reason Faafoi shouldn’t be sacked: “Labour's Kris Faafoi has been the Government's best performing Minister by a country mile. He's decisive, a good communicator, doesn't promise the world and has a sense of humour… I hope he stays in Cabinet - his party needs him and so does this country.”
And perhaps, this type of lobbying of Faafoi (and other ministers) isn’t that uncommon. Garner says: “Heck, I've even texted Faafoi about immigration cases that have been featured on this show – no Tova, you can't look at my text messages. But spoiler alert, I've actually also asked him to his face on national television and radio. So, Faafoi? He'll have to accept some public humiliation for 24 hours but Ardern doesn't need to sack him nor does Faafoi need to be whacked with a sledgehammer.”
Labour’s Willie Jackson came out to bat for Faafoi on The AM Show today saying that, although the situation is “messy”, “I think we'll be able to work our way through it because the reality is he didn't make any decisions in terms of what was happening here. The thing with Kris is he's a good man, he's not just a good minister. He's a great community man” – see Dan Satherley’s Kris Faafoi's position ‘untenable’ if claims proven – Simon Bridges.
On the same show, National’s Paul Goldsmith said that Faafoi’s actions wouldn’t be acceptable in a National government: “If it was me under a National Prime Minister, I'd be toast. You'd be spreading your peanut butter on me right now.” He argued that, in contrast, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern “never disciplines anybody”, and pointed to various scandals involving Shane Jones.
Jackson responded that National is actually too punitive on these matters: “There's no second chances with National – cut everyone's throat, lock everyone up, throw the key away. Punitive, punitive, punitive. Goldie would kill ol' Fafs off. It's not right.”
National leader Simon Bridges is pushing the matter, appearing on various breakfast shows this morning to put the heat on Faafoi and Ardern, but as yet doesn’t appear to be calling for a resignation. On RNZ’s Morning Report, he just said the PM needed to sort it out, saying Ardern “needs to show leadership she needs to deal with this urgently. It wouldn't be a difficult case to get to the bottom of very quickly. Faafoi should be asked what's gone on and then deal with it” – see: PM must ‘deal with’ reports Kris Faafoi offered to help friend in immigration case – Simon Bridges.
Talking to Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB, Bridges went further, “accusing the Government of showing favouritism to celebrities” – see the Herald’s ‘Celebrities get influence’: Bridges slams Labour over Faafoi case. He said: “Whether it's Derek Handley, Carol Hirschfeld, Richie Hardcore or Jason Kerrison, it does start to look like, under this Government if you're a celebrity you get influence that others don't.”
So, how will Jacinda Ardern act on this issue? Matthew Hooton, speaking on Newstalk ZB this morning, said: “I know that the Prime Minister is taking it very, very seriously. She is investigating it thoroughly. They are going to be going through all of his communications – not just the ones that have been released, but all his communications with the relevant officials” – see: PM has one rule for Labour ministers and another for NZ First.
Hooton argues there are two scenarios, in terms of what has happened and what consequences will follow. The first: “It’s possible that he was just doing what a lot of politicians do – and John Key was probably the master of this – and all politicians do it, just saying to a mate ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll sort that out for you mate’, but then getting back to Wellington and not in fact doing anything at all. Now if that is the case, it’s still a bad look, and it’s still a violation of the Cabinet Manual. But given that this is one of the few competent ministers in her government, I think in that case Jacinda Ardern will give him a serious bollocking”.
He says a second possibility is this: “If, however, in a second scenario, it emerges from the Prime Minister’s investigations that there is any evidence that he in fact followed up on what he is promising his mate, and did in fact put pressure on immigration authorities, then it’s an entirely different matter. And I would think the Prime Minister would, unfortunately from her perspective, have to sack him immediately.”
Finally, who is the “good friend” of Kris Faafoi, who appears to have released their correspondence to the media? The singer is actually a wannabe-politician himself, and stood unsuccessfully in this year’s local government elections – for more on this, see Denise Piper’s Opshop singer Jason Kerrison throws hat into Northland council race.
Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society.