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Secretary working in paper archive
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PoliticsDecember 13, 2017

From Blair force to Super Splat: a rummage through MPs’ official CVs

Secretary working in paper archive
Secretary working in paper archive

Opinion: Green MP Golriz Ghahraman recently came under fire over a selective biography on the party site. Branko Marcetic dives into a bunch of other members’ bios.

Did Golriz Ghahraman and the Green Party mislead New Zealand voters about her work on the defence teams of alleged war criminals or didn’t they? It’s the question on every New Zealander’s mind, if by “every New Zealander” you mean “the small slice of the voting public that pays breathless attention to every mini-controversy that erupts between elections.”

On the one hand, her Green Party website bio was certainly worded in such a way that an unsuspecting voter might have believed she worked solely to prosecute war crimes, rather than defend as well, and her fellow MPs’ public statements further muddied the waters. On the other hand, the correct information about her exact activities was available in other, albeit slightly more obscure, sources.

Fortunately for me, I’m not here to decide one way or the other. Instead, I’m here to give readers a tour through the world of all MPs’ everchanging, vaguely worded, and sometimes suspiciously incomplete party website bios. The art of crafting such faux-informative twaddle is hardly unique to Ghahraman and the Greens – in fact, it’s basically a political requirement. Here is a brief sampling.

Jacinda Ardern

Let’s start with our new PM. During the election, Ardern’s work for Tony Blair became a mini-controversy of its own, given that the centrism of the British pioneer of “Third Way” politics didn’t seem to comport with Ardern’s own campaign rhetoric, and the small matter of the illegal, destructive and ultimately pointless war Blair helped engineer in Iraq. Lost in the controversy was what Ardern had actually done for Blair.

It wasn’t helped by the fact that Ardern herself was cagey about this. Her Labour bios for years didn’t mention her time with Blair. When she shared her regret about working for Blair to the Sunday Star-Times, all we learnt was that she worked under him at the UK’s Cabinet Office. In 2008, she told the Waikato Times that she “worked as a senior policy advisor on issues ranging from employment law right through to the impact of regulation on small businesses”, while her official website (now gone) simply said she was an assistant director in the Department of Business and Enterprise in London, “trying to improve the way they regulated small business.” It’s only by looking at a 2013-era version of her Labour bio that you’d learn she “worked for two and a half years for the Better Regulation Executive in UK Cabinet office”. (The Otago Daily Times had also mentioned this in February).

Ardern probably wasn’t entirely up front about this because it could have been hugely damaging to her image. The BRE was a classic piece of Blairite Third Wayism, an agency whose sole purpose was to hunt down business regulations and eliminate them. It encouraged business owners themselves to suggest possible cuts directly to the agency, aimed to slash inspections by a million a year, sent staff members to shadow government departments to ensure they were keeping with its philosophy, and at one point stood as an obstacle to rules preventing misleading descriptions of unhealthy baby formula. It also implemented an absurd one-in, three-out programme – ie cut three old regulations for each new one that’s made – that’s even more extreme than what Trump has proposed in the US.

Ardern’s time in power so far has allayed concerns she’s bringing the BRE’s philosophy to her role as PM, but it undoubtedly could have made for some awkward interviews. (I myself tried and failed to get responses from her spokesperson about her role there shortly before election day, and subsequently gave up after she won.)

This wasn’t the only thing Ardern was cagey about in her official bios. Inconsistent on using the “s” word to describe herself during the election, Ardern’s bios either left out that she headed the International Union of Socialist Youth in her younger days, or referred to it as “the largest international political youth organisation” without explaining what the letters IUSY stood for. In one it was simply an unnamed “international political organisation with consultative status with the United Nations”.

Bill English

Our former PM – or, if you ask Nick Smith, our current one – has also experienced some bio massaging of his own. English’s current page, which is basically identical to the one he had during the election, has a lot to say about his time as finance minister and prime minister, but little before that, saying simply that he held the Clutha-Southland seat “until his decision in 2014 to stand as a List MP only.” As with most profiles of English, the National Party seems to have forgotten he was alive before 2002.

There’s probably a good reason for that: it wouldn’t do any good to remind voters that English spearheaded the most unpopular and damaging health care reforms in New Zealand’s history while he was health minister under Jim Bolger in the 90s. English’s tenure saw the rolls of medical professionals slashed, hospitals reduced to third-world-like conditions, a sometimes fatal rationing of care and a series of scandals particularly related to mental health, all while health care bureaucracy ballooned in size and cost. Numerous experts today point to the chaos created by his policies as a large part of the reason for today’s health care crises. This certainly wouldn’t have helped National’s “stable and steady” campaign message.

English’s page also reminds us of his darkest secret: his real name is Simon.

Winston Peters

This one is more a sin of omission. Peters’ website bios tend to be rather lengthy and detailed, even for a party leader. Yet while most MPs add a line or two about where they reside (Steven Joyce, we’re informed, “spends his spare time developing his seven-acre lifestyle property at Albany, north of Auckland,” with his family and “Retrodoodle”, whatever that is), Peters seems to studiously avoid any mention of it.

Why? Probably because, as has been previously reported and as Peters himself has made public for years in the register of MPs’ financial interests, he lives in one of the most posh neighbourhoods in the country: St Marys Bay, Auckland, where the average house price is somewhere around $2 million. Such a suburb may not be the best look for a self-styled champion of declining regions and the forgotten man.

And while his bios trumpet Peters’ victory in the “Winebox affair”, you’d be hard pressed to find any mention of the name Owen Glenn.

Jonathan Coleman

Read Jonathan Coleman’s current bio, and you’ll find out that during his time overseas, he worked for a year as a GP trainee in Oxford, had a GP practice in London and got an MBA from the London Business School. You’ll have to dig up his 2006-era bio, only a year after he entered parliament, to find out he also worked for London’s branch of Booz Allen Hamilton.

“What’s the big deal?” you might ask. After all, Booz Allen is just a firm that works in “consulting, analytics, digital solutions, engineering, and cyber, and with industries ranging from defense to health to energy to international development” as its website puts it. But Booz Allen is also a company that just about is the US intelligence community (and acts in the same capacity in countries as far afield as the United Arab Emirates and Russia) with billions of dollars of its revenue coming from military and intelligence agencies, a number of its high-ranking employees being former US spymasters, and 12,000 of its employees holding security clearances. One of those (former) employees? A guy by the name of Edward Snowden.

According to a Bloomberg profile of the company, the firm posts “collection managers” around the world who act as spymasters. Was Coleman one of these people? Almost certainly not. But he was the Key government’s minister of defence, and the fact that he ceased naming the firm in his bios (other than a vague reference to “management consulting” in 2010) suggests National maybe knew this would bring up some awkward questions.

Megan Woods

I have a soft spot for Megan Woods, being a fellow history graduate, but I couldn’t help but notice her official party bios are less than comprehensive, given they don’t mention the fact that she ran for mayor of Christchurch in 2007 – especially glaring given that it was her first high-profile foray into politics. Why might that be?

She lost, for one. But also, she had gotten into politics through Jim Anderton’s Progressive Party, was running under the banner of Christchurch 2021 at the time rather than that of Labour, and Anderton even sent out a leaflet at the time promoting her. Perhaps Labour doesn’t want people remembering their current number six started her political career with a different party.

Ron Mark

During the election, Ron Mark’s bio went on at length about his military service. As for his 90s years, it merely informed us he ended up “setting up his own leisure and entertainment business which he ran for six years”.

Further research reveals that this was a “family fun park and go-kart track” in Christchurch, according to The Dominion, which was presumably the Daytona Park and Super Splat that he is listed as a shareholder and director for. NZ First definitely made a mistake keeping this under wraps. Peace-keeping is one thing, but Ron Mark running a fun park? It sounds like the finest mid-2000s Touchdown-produced reality show that never was.

Todd McClay

The former minister of trade makes literally no mention of his pre-political life on his current page, which is too bad, because it sounds like he had quite the career. He was not only the youngest ambassador to the EU, serving the role for Cook Islands and Niue, he also owned his own international lobbying company and served as the chief of staff to the leader of the British Conservatives in the European Parliament. He briefly spoke about it with Audrey Young upon ascending to the post of trade minister in 2015.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the party isn’t promoting this fact anymore. Being a lobbyist isn’t exactly the most popular profession these days, if indeed it ever was. More importantly, the person for whom he served as chief of staff – Lord Henry Plumb – was the subject of one of the UK’s bigger lobbying scandals when it came out that Plumb was working for Brussels-based “political lobbying powerhouse” Albert & Geiger at the same time he was an MEP, without ever declaring the former. Indeed, Plumb worked for Libertad, a front organization set up by tobacco giant Philip Morris to promote its interests.

Shane Jones

This one’s cheating, because Shane Jones technically didn’t have a bio on the NZ First website during the election. Still, even Jones’ 2009-era write-up on the Labour website pointedly left this out.

Jones was indeed the chair of the Waitangi Fisheries Commission from 2000 to 2005, and he did manage to “get approximately 70 iwi to agree on how to divide up the fisheries assets”. What this brief summary ignores, however, is Jones’ role in pushing for Japanese whaling company Nissui to a buy a quarter share in Sealord. Despite the fact that there were New Zealand companies lining up to make a bid, such as Sanfords and Talley’s, Jones publicly talked up the deal to pressure the Overseas Investment Office’s approval, even as the OIO said there was “little weight” to the figure of 700 new jobs that Jones and Nissui were promising. And indeed, the number never eventuated.

At the time, Peters publicly attacked the deal, calling it a tragedy, yet 16 years later he happily welcomed Jones aboard the party, despite his and NZ First’s well-known stand against foreign ownership of New Zealand assets. The decision also put the company, part owned by iwi, under threat of a boycott due to Nissui’s whaling.

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