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Gordon Campbell on the alleged sins of New Zealand First

First published on Werewolf

Upon his retirement – assuming the day ever arrives - Winston Peters will deserve a knighthood for services rendered to the media industry. Be it the scandals he has uncovered (eg the Winebox) or the scandals he has featured in… Peters is, as they say, good copy. He sells newspapers, as the Dominion-Post showed yet again the other day when it put its revelations about the New Zealand First Foundation on its front page.

In the course of this fascination with the man over the past four decades, everything from his sartorial style to his favourite steak and chips café to his drinking habits has been grist to the mill. IMO, the (only) interesting thing about the media’s relationship with Peters is the stance of superiority that seems to be hard-wired into the coverage, whether it be positive or negative. Down the years, Peters has been either patronised as a loveable rapscallion or decried as a sleazy operator doing dodgy deals. (His association with racing covers both those bases.) Much of the “dodgy” coverage has enabled the media to draw up its skirts and profess itself shocked – shocked! – by behaviours that in others, it tends to treat more hard-headedly, and pretty much as political business as usual. Labour and National scandals do not permeate their brand to anything like the same extent as the scandals that feature New Zealand First. Why should this be the case?

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Just my opinion, but I think it comes down to the issue of class. The class disdain for Peters has been most evident in the coverage of the kingmaker role he has played off and on, since 1996. Many of the commentariat appear to find it deeply offensive that this man (and the entire class of people who vote for him) should be allowed to have anything significant to do with the governance of this country. The decisive role? Oh, heaven forbid.

Scandalising The Name

Before examining the substance (or lack thereof) in the latest flurry of New Zealand First scandals, some sense of déjà vu is escapable. Back in 2008, political coverage was dominated for months by allegations surrounding a $100,000 donation (by the logistics and transport billionaire Owen Glenn) to a trust closely related to New Zealand First. Although Parliament’s privileges committee did eventually censure Peters for "knowingly providing false or misleading information on a return of pecuniary interests" he ended up being cleared by the Serious Fraud Office, and the Police also decided that he had not committed an offence. NZF suffered significant political damage however, and exited Parliament at the 2008 election.

Déjà vu, yet again? The question of “who benefits” should be a consideration at least, with regard to any political scandal that pops up between now and polling day 2020. One of National’s strategies for winning Election 2020 has been to damage NZF, hopefully to the point where it falls below the MMP threshold. To that end, National has recent form in relation to its leaking of damaging material on Peters on the eve of an election campaign.

That is not (merely) a left-wing conspiracy theory. Barry Soper, no Marxist, accused National on Newshub in mid 2017 of obtaining material about Peters’ superannuation payments, and leaking it to the media at the outset of the 2017 election campaign. As Soper put it at the time:

The leak of the Peters' file came from National…So politically it has the real potential of calling time for National and it also raises serious questions about the politicisation of the public service. To say the highly sensitive information about a political leader should be handed on to his opponents under the so-called "no surprises" policy is patently ridiculous.

True, true. Yet there we all were, during Peters’ court action only a few weeks ago, having to listen to former state sector bureaucrat Sir Maarten Wevers trying to justify the indefensibly wide sharing of Peters’ personal details among his political opponents:

Sir Maarten said Mr Peters' was a high profile public figure and who received money he was not entitled to…. Sir Maarten said there was a risk this would get into the public domain and the minister, who was responsible for the performance and conduct of the ministry, would be "blind-sided by it".

So… in order to save the Minister from potential political embarrassment, this allegedly justified the sharing of personal details of Peters overpayment – an operational matter that was due in part (arguably) to departmental error – by the MSD chief executive and by the state sector CEO. This info got shared by those state sector bureaucrats with a whole daisy chain of government ministers, some of whom on-shared the juicy details with their staff and (in one case) with family members - and ultimately, those details got leaked for maximum political advantage close to an election.

The systemic concerns here should be obvious. What limits - if any – are there to this supposed “ no surprises” imperative when it comes to information management? Is any and all personal data held on a public figure now to be regarded as fair game? Routinely in other contexts, ministers cite the excuse of “this is an operational matter” to evade accountability for the departmental cock-ups that occur on their watch; yet evidently, this is a one way street. Apparently, Ministers are being systematically apprised of operational material that might be to their political advantage for them to know, or to be protected from. Yet relatively speaking, those troubling structural matters have received barely a smidgeon of the coverage lavished on New Zealand First. The original leak – and Peters’ subsequent court action - have largely been treated as a New Zealand First scandal.

Scandal One

With that example in mind, lets look at the other recent NZF “scandals”. IMO, it shouldn’t have been news when NZF lawyer Brian Henry recently warned National MP Nick Smith of the potential legal consequences if Smith chose to libel Henry in public, beyond the shield of parliamentary privilege. Smith’s rejoinder that he was just doing his job of holding the government to account is irrelevant. Henry was not infringing on Smith’s right to do so, within Parliament. In a democracy though, MPs don’t enjoy an unbridled right to defame members of the public. That is what Henry was saying – that beyond Parliament, he has the right to defend his reputation, and his livelihood.

Scandal Two

Ditto for the “scandal” about the attempt by NZ Future Forest Products – a firm that numbers Brian Henry and Peters’ partner, Jan Trotman among its directors – to gain financial backing from the Provincial Growth Fund for a business venture. But… in this case, the rules for the PGF worked exactly as they are supposed to do when conflicts of interest arise. The NZF politicians absented themselves from the decision, and the application was declined by the panel set up to apportion the funds.

So… no funds were misappropriated. The conflict of interest was managed, the protections built into the PGF funding system worked. How is this a scandal? Because they applied for funds in the first place? Frankly in a country of this size, any firm called NZ Future Forest Products is at some point, going to cross paths with Shane “Plant A Billion Trees” Jones and the PGF. What matters is how any potential conflicts are managed. These were. Yet it still got beaten up into a NZF scandal.

Scandal Three

The most significant of the recent NZF scandals has concerned the close relationship between a trust called the New Zealand First Foundation, and the New Zealand First political party. Here’s the gist of the original story:

Almost half a million dollars in political donations appear to have been hidden inside a secret slush fund controlled by a coterie of Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters' trusted advisers. The secretive New Zealand First Foundation collected donations from wealthy donors and used the money to finance election campaigns, pay for an MP's legal advice, advertising, fund a $5000 day at the Wellington races and even pay an IRD bill. A New Zealand First spokesperson said on Monday the foundation had been in existence across several election cycles. "There has never been any suggestion that it is anything other than lawful," she said.

Subsequent stories have indicated a blurring of the lines – in the minds of donors at least – as to whether they were donating to the NZF Foundation or to NZF, per se. (For some donors, the distinction may not have mattered unduly.) Evidently, the NZF Foundation then “loaned” significant sums of money to the New Zealand First political party. Have any laws been broken? The Electoral Commission is carrying out an investigation, albeit with limited investigative powers of its own, but with powers to refer suspect cases to the Serious Fraud Office or Police, for possible further action.

As Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis cogently explained on RNZ the conditions of such a “loan” (ie size, interest rates, payback date) have to be publicly declared. Reportedly all the loans involving NZF were for one year. If the loan is repaid on time, no problem. If it is not repaid but is rolled over instead, that fact and the new loan conditions have to be noted in the paperwork. If the loan is not rolled over (or repaid) it then becomes a donation once the payback date has passed, and if the donation exceeds $15,000 it must be notified to the Electoral Commission. Presumably, the Commission will now be interested in determining whether all of the necessary detail of the loan/donation traffic between the NZ First Foundation and the NZF political party has been provided to it, and that the due dates and amounts match up.

One gap in the legal framework though, as Geddis went on to indicate, is that if the loan gets repaid (by some means) then those details (who paid it, when) need not be publicly disclosed, under the current law. “What we’re seeing here,” Geddis told RNZ, “ is an indication that there’s a problem with how loans are treated..” What legal requirements that do exist in this area, he added, were the response to the loans that Colin Craig gave to his Conservative Party. Arguably, more in the way of legal obligations regarding the records of loans made to political parties may now be required. As former Labour Party president Mike Williams recently indicated, a bus can be driven though the current electoral laws around political loans and donations.

Again, these systemic problems (about how loans, political donations and the legal thresholds are open to manipulation) are not unique to NZF. Last year, National was embroiled in a donations scandal of its own, whereby – allegedly – a $100,000 donation was deliberately split into parcels to get it below the $15,000 threshold where disclosure of the donor/donation becomes mandatory. Those allegations are still under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.

Is the NZ First Foundation truly an independent entity, or is it in essence, the donation-garnering arm of the NZF political party? Obviously, the separation would matter if there were any undisclosed donations to the Foundation above the $15,000 threshold – but equally the blurring may matter to some donors, who might have thought they were donating to the party, only to discover they were donating to an allegedly separate entity, the Foundation. There is a more to run on this story. Again, though, if we want to look at political scandals that involve questionable trusts and the handling of conflicts of interest, this scandal involved far bigger sums of money – “ John Key keeps lid on hidden billions”. Yet this scandal came and went without leaving any discernible stain on the integrity of National. When it comes to other political parties, dodginess is not assumed to be in its DNA in quite the same fashion.

That’s a problem. Because by fixating on the supposedly inherent dodginess of New Zealand First, we’re downplaying the systemic faults in the laws around political funding. Across the board, the major political parties have more of a vested interest in maintaining loopholes, than they have in shutting them down. If NZF is so heinous, and if political parties can readily find ways of driving around the legal rules that govern loans and donations, maybe we should step back – and seriously consider the case for nationalising the funding of political parties.

Arguably, this would enable taxpayers to impose funding limits equally and transparently on the election campaigns that determine who gets to govern the country for the next three years. However, that idea is opposed most vociferously by the same centre-right figures who tend to shout the loudest about the sins of New Zealand First.

Footnote : The political gamesmanship involved in the recent scandalising of NZF has been evident in the attempt to smear PM Jacinda Ardern, by association. On the loony right, there have been calls for Ardern to intervene and chastise Peters for everything from his language – goodness gracious, he called some journalists “psychos”! – to the Foundation matter, even before the Electoral Commission has concluded whether the scandal being alleged has any legal substance.

A Mighty (Annoying) Wind

Summer is a different season for Wellingtonians than for everyone else in the country. The capital is colder by 5 degrees (or more) on most days, and on the rare warm day…there’s still the wind. A few days ago, RNZ sought name suggestions for the wind in Wellington. IMO, the title of Dr Dre’s classic album provides the best option, because the Wellington wind really is The Chronic – day in, month out. Northerly gales, southerly gales? Hey, its “ Nuthin’ But a G Thang…”

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