Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

< Columns

Margaret Wilson

If the public were asked to rate their ministers it's a fair bet that Helen Clark would win in a canter, while her best friend Margaret Wilson brought up the rear. Wilson's untrusting, suspicious, even conspiratorial style causes her endless difficulties, and she has more bees in her bonnet than you'd find in the average apiary. She doesn't always follow normal process with appointments, and these days her statements have to be subjected to careful scrutiny to divine her real intentions. For all her undoubted academic ability, Wilson's political career has been a terrible disappointment.

Ironically, she seems not to have been responsible for her latest debacle over the proposed changes to the Electoral Act. Instead, she's the victim of her colleagues' misguided aspirations. They believed they could halt the delivery of slanderous pamphlets in the run-up to an election, while incidentally firing a shot across the bows of the media which, sometimes with reason, they feel is sliding into hatchet journalism. In the end, newspapers and television forced the Government to stage an ignominious retreat, leaving ministers decidedly grumpy.

Labour politicians are convinced there is a problem with defamatory election comment. However, the news media are not the real culprits. Professional newspaper reporters and broadcasters will usually rectify a mistake, and, if forced to, quickly apologise. It is the single-issue fanatic who gives candidates the most angst during campaigns. I stood for Parliament eight times and often experienced the sort of thing that riles today's MPs. I strongly opposed the war in Vietnam, and during the last week of the 1969 campaign found to my horror that a slanderous document labelling me a communist was being circulated around the electorate by a pestiferous American immigrant. In 1972 the same fellow was seen poking a similar pamphlet in mail boxes as voters made their way to the polls. No complaints to the Police under the Electoral Act could be effective since voting was already underway, and damage - if there was any - had already been done. After the election of 1972 I began a defamation suit, but it collapsed when the accused would file no defence. In any event, he was a man of straw, and I had had the satisfaction of winning despite him.

Dr Roger Ridley-Smith's attack on Helen Clark in 1990 when she was Minister of Health has been mentioned. He had a track record of besieging Ministers of Health in their electorates, having attacked National's Aussie Malcolm in 1984 and me in 1987. Unfortunately, high-profile ministers attract this sort of thing. With amalgamation of local authorities on the horizon in 1987, my campaign workers encountered the mayor and mayoress of a small, soon-to-be-abolished borough, hobbling about the streets of my electorate delivering an offensive leaflet against me. By this time my hide had thickened and I decided to ignore them all, hoping that with the quantity of printed material cascading into letter boxes, few would notice the offending items.

Not surprisingly, many victims of malice feel angry. No one enjoys being an Aunt Sally. It is galling to see pernicious people getting away with underhand activity. The Police, not surprisingly, are loath to get involved during campaigns, and the courts are reluctant to question a poll result once it has been declared. It is even more annoying that in order to punish an offender, one must engage in expensive legal action. In any event, that action can only come after the results have been declared. And if a libel suit gets to court, it means that whatever the allegation, it will only be given wider publicity. Mud sticks. In 1991 Helen Clark was sufficiently annoyed to pursue the egregious Dr Ridley-Smith, and she had the satisfaction of seeing him convicted and fined. But what comfort would that have been had she narrowly lost her seat? In reality, no matter what ministers might decide to try, political pest control is virtually impossible.

The proposed amendment to the Electoral Act would not have worked. The cases that have been cited all occurred when a similar criminal libel law was in force. It had no effect then, and there is no reason to believe that it would achieve anything now. Unfortunately, being a politician requires a thick hide and a willingness to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. At election time the only way to deal with poisonous pests is to ignore them. This time, Margaret Wilson's advice should have been listened to more carefully. The pity of it is that she has such a patchy track record that her colleagues can't work out when to back her.

Michael Bassett is the author of many books about New Zealand political history and was a Labour minister between 1984-90.