Salesman: Hey, sir! Try our Wax Lips: The Candy Of 1000 Uses!
Homer: Like what?
Salesman: One, a humorous subsitute for your own lips.
Homer: Mmm hmm, keep going …
Salesman: Two, ah … Ooh, I’m needed down in the basement.
- ‘Homer Badman’, S06E09, The Simpsons
This exchange between the dimwitted cartoon patriarch who raised me always springs to mind when I see public figures floundering for answers good enough to make the media call off their dogs. By and large, our elected politicians in Wellington are trained and media managed enough to pull themselves out of tight spots. Local government officials aren’t always so battle hardened. So it was that when Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull was asked recently whether he would be meeting and greeting the 14thDalai Lama in Dunedin next month, he fed the Otago Daily Times‘ this cracking diversion: “My understanding is I will be out of town – something in Wellington, I’ll probably be at. Some meeting. I can’t remember.” The Mayor was as good at excuses as our candy convention clerk was at mustering uses.
I know what you’re thinking, China flexed it’s censorial muscle and the Mayor of Dunedin, joining our country’s Prime Minister John Key, decided to snub the Dalai Lama for fear of being shut out of the Chinese market. National and locally, an awful lot of economic eggs seem to have been placed in that basket. Cull anticipated your bleeding heart liberal conspiracy though, and told us that China’s views had not swayed his decision. He didn’t even make the decision to decline the invitation himself. It had been on hold, he said, and staff must have made the decision for him while he was away in China. Oh, and the Dalai Lama was just the leader of a minority religious faith. This from a man who launched a recycling plan late last year called ‘It’s A Karma Thing’. The irony abounds. If he thought his disclaimers would dampen the predictable backlash, he was dreaming. Local Buddhists were among those upset by their Mayor’s careless comments, which he quickly clarified to mean they were a minority in their own City, not on the planet, and he apologised for those comments and only those comments. Cull had also remembered the important engagement he had – it was a meeting with Local Government New Zealand. Crucial stuff.
It is a relief that Mayor Cull has apologised for offending Dunedin’s Buddhist community, but disappointing that he has left other issues raised by his comments unaddressed. He has refused to say whether he would meet the Dalai Lama had his crucial meeting in Wellington not been scheduled, instead saying that it was important for us to recognise Chinese sensitivities. After a recent business trip to Shanghai, Cull returns to Dunedin to tell us that decisions about who we host and meet in our own city should defer to China. We can’t get our exports into the booming Chinese economy without also importing their aversion to democracy. Our Mayor, on our behalf, is prepared to put our proud traditions of free speech and freedom of religion on ice for the right price.
In a final insult to the business community he was lobbying for, he can’t even bring himself to admit that’s what he’s doing. I still would have called him out on it, as would many others, but there is at least some integrity in saying: “Yep, I’m going to turn my back on our proud traditions of free speech and freedom of religion, to try and make Dunedin some money”. In his bid for re-election, it would certainly be a vote winner in business / socially conservative circles. Instead he comes across as a limp centrist, bobbing along on conflicting currents of personal and political interests and not being altogether convincing at either.
The apology drew the headline, but it pales in comparison to this gem of a passage further along:
Mr Cull yesterday refused to discuss an email exchange he had with Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade staff about the Dalai Lama and China. The exchange took place on March 28, when Mfat staff responded to a request from Mr Cull, an Mfat spokesman confirmed yesterday.
The exchange was revealed by an Official Information Act request by the Otago Daily Times, but Mfat staff would not release a copy yesterday.
To do so ”would likely prejudice the international relations of the Government of New Zealand”, the spokesman said.
Earlier this week, Mr Cull denied receiving any outside advice on the Dalai Lama’s visit from China, Chinese officials or anything similar.
Mr Cull would not discuss the emails yesterday, initially saying he had not seen the information released by Mfat.
After being emailed a copy, Mr Cull said it would be ”remiss and inappropriate” of him to discuss it.
Sadly, the ODT have since chosen to drop the story, but further concerns surround Cull’s claim that the decision to turn down the Dalai Lama invitation appeared to be made by his staff while he was in China. This presents us with three possibilities:
- Cull mislead reporters, and residents, in suggesting he was unaware the decision had been made.
- The Mayor and his staff colluded to give him plausible deniability over declining the invitation.
- Council staff actually have authority to accept and decline civic invitations from international dignitaries.
All three are troubling, but considering Cull has already been exposed for seeking advice from MFAT on the matter, after initially denying any external guidance was given, we may at least be able to rule out the third of these.
It would appear our Mayor has lost control of both his opinions and his diary. If Cull continues to roll over and play dead for any vested interests that come his way – the Otago Rugby Football Union / NZRU and Shell Oil to name two – he may find that come October he will have lost control of the city.