Bryce Edwards Political Roundup: Winston Peters Vs Dirty Politics

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Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Winston Peters Vs Dirty Politics

Dr Bryce Edwards.

You don’t have to support Winston Peters or his party to be outraged about the treatment he appears to have received at the hands of government agencies, and possibly the Beehive. It increasingly appears that he is the victim of a dirty politics scandal – someone has leaked Peters’ superannuation overpayment details to the media, and many are now pointing the finger at government departments and National ministers. And there are now some important constitutional and democratic issues at stake. 

Dirty politics?

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.

Peters predicament might well lead to an elevation in the polls, possibly at the expense of the National Party, who currently look rather tawdry, given the suspicion that ministers, staffers, or party activists might have played a part in trying to bring Peters down with scandalmongering.

As Audrey Young wrote this afternoon: “it is almost certain that either a public servant or a political operative leaked the bare bones of his story to some media in a bid to discredit him. It has backfired badly, especially if it was a National black ops move. It has given Peters an elevated platform to attack National and dominate the political agenda for the next few weeks in the role he champions best, victim” – see: Only one winner possible in privacy row between Peters and National … and it won’t be National.

Indeed, part of the problem for National is that this whole scandal looks like a revival of the 2014 dirty politics allegations. As Young says, “National’s past form has come back to haunt them.”

Even the main protagonist in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics investigation – Cameron Slater – makes an appearance, but this time serving up allegations of dirty tactics by the party he used to support: “The rot is set in and it has started at the top. National is rotten from the top down and now there needs to be some serious investigations into how a government can use private tax matters to attempt to silence political opponents” – see: Someone is getting axed today for sure.

Slater says he doesn’t believe the Prime Minister’s statements on the issue, and suggests the leak has come from a ministerial office, meaning there will need to be a resignation: “In an exercise of spin that defies belief he claims to know nothing and believes none of his ministers have leaked. Bill English is lining someone up for an axing and trying to put distance between himself and the minister/s and/or staff who did his bidding. Some poor schmuck will be gone. The sacrificial lamb to protect Wayne Eagleson and Bill English from this shabby and ill-conceived hit job. The State Services Commissioner and the CEO of MSD both need to go in any case”.

If National is responsible for the leak, what were they thinking?

According to Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy, the scandal is bad news for National, and may amount to an own-goal for the party: “It is unclear what benefit National might think it would get, at this critical stage of the campaign, by damaging and humiliating perhaps its only likely partner to get across the line to govern from September 23” – see: Peters too hot to handle.

So what might have been National’s motive? According to Tracy Watkins, National may benefit from pushing down support for New Zealand First – see: Beehive knowledge of Peters’ pension problem is explosive.

Here’s her main point: “National certainly has good reason for wanting to knock Peters down. If his vote suffers by an even a couple of points it will likely be National that picks them up. Risky business given that National may need Peters to govern? Actually, there is a scenario which the Nats have worked out where they could return to Government without needing any coalition allies. It relies on the Greens and TOPS party falling just short of the 5 per cent threshold and their wasted vote being divvied up between Labour and National. And it relies on Peters being a few points less popular than he is now. But National also wants to take Peters down a peg because he has cast fear into the hearts of many MPs in provincial New Zealand, where he has been making real strides.”

Similarly, Barry Soper writes tonight on why National might target Peters: “National’s less than confident he’d give them a leg up into the Beehive after next month’s vote, hardly surprising given English’s recent disparaging remarks about Peters and how difficult he is to work with and not forgetting it was he who seconded the motion to kick Peters out of the National Party in the early 90s” – see: Bill English knew nothing of Winston Peters paying back money.

However, Soper says “The leak of the Peters file came from National but it’s a strategy as ill conceived as Metiria Turei’s cry-me-a-river poverty plan. So politically it has the real potential of calling time for National”.

Rachel Smalley also thinks that National had the motive to try and bring down Peters: “You’ve got to ask yourself, who benefits from this? If Peters takes a hit in the polls, if this blows up, who wins? National does” – see: Winston Peters super saga: I smell a rat. She also argues: “if Peters takes a hit in the polls and some of his conservative voter base desert him, where would they go? They’d go to the Nats. National would likely pick up their votes.”

Peters hits back

Winston Peters has now hit back forcefully at National, making strong accusations. He says: “‘You’ve got a political party that’s been deeply exposed now all the way to the Prime Minister” – see Corin Dann’s Winston slams Nats as English says Ministers knew super details. Peters adds, “This is humbug – it’s tawdry, its dirty, it’s filthy and they should not succeed on it.”

He’s now threatening legal action, saying “legal subpoenas would force the truth over the leak” – see the Herald’s Winston Peters says National MPs knew of his super overpayment before he did.

And even though three official inquiries have been launched about the leaks – from within IRD, MSD, and Ministerial Services – Peters has declared a lack of confidence in them all. In one report, he says “We’re not going to have an in house inquiry to political rumour and dirt… that’s not the way democracy and accountability work” – see Jo Moir, Stacey Kirk and Tracy Watkins’ It would have been better not to tell ministers of Peters’ pension info – Prime Minister. Additionally, he says, “The last thing I’m going to have is the State Services Commission investigating their own untoward behaviour.”

Peters also has little time for the denials coming out of National: “He says he has no doubt National campaign chair Steven Joyce and leader Bill English were passed on his personal pension information” – see Jo Moir, Stacey Kirk and Tracy Watkins’ Winston Peters warned he was being ‘taken down’ by National.

“No surprises” and the politicisation of the public service

The main revelation today that has shifted the scandal in Winston Peters’ favour was that the Beehive had been supplied with the information about his super overpayment by the Ministry of Social Development. This is best explained in Jo Moir, Stacey Kirk and Tracy Watkins’ story, It would have been better not to tell ministers of Peters’ pension info – Prime Minister.

They explain how the Ministry of Social Development sought the advice of the State Services Commission, who agreed that the information about Peters should be given to the Minister of Social Development, Anne Tolley, under the “no surprises” rule: “The ‘No Surprises Convention’ is set out in the Cabinet Manual and requires departments to inform Ministers promptly of matters of significance within their portfolio responsibilities, particularly where the matters may be controversial or could become the subject of public debate.” A decision was also made to inform the Minister of State Services, Paula Bennett.

There appears to be a consensus today that these decisions were wrong. And even Prime Minister Bill English has spoken out against this, saying “given the personal and confidential nature of the information, it would have been better for the ministers not to have been advised” – see Claire Trevett and Audrey Young’s Peters’ super information too personal for ministers to know, says Bill English.

Herald political editor Audrey Young says that Anne Tolley now needs to front up and back English’s view: “The fact that Tolley is unwilling to discuss the issue any further because it is a private matter is evidence enough that she should not have been told in the first place. It is an abuse of the no-surprises policy. No minister should have been privy to that sort of information any more than the Health Minister should receive reports on any hip replacement operation Peters might have. If Tolley had no expectation of receiving such information, she should say so publicly and conclude that the ministry’s decision was a misjudgment. If she doesn’t, it is safe to assume that she and ministers have created an expectation they should get information like that” – see: Peters’ case highlights an abuse of the ‘no surprises’ policy.

Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins says that the use of the no surprises mechanism is “disturbing”, and “That was not a problem the Government needed to be aware of under the no surprises rule” – see: Beehive knowledge of Peters’ pension problem is explosive.

Newstalk ZB’s Barry Soper adds that the State Services Commission’s explanation for informing ministers is “bunkum”, and use of the “no surprises” rule is “patently ridiculous” – see: Bill English knew nothing of Winston Peters paying back money.

Soper also says that he doesn’t believe the ministers would have kept the gossip on Peters secret: “Knowing how the Beehive operates and knowing what a cesspit of gossip it is, particularly when Winston Peters has a bullseye on his back, that’s beyond comprehension.”

Writers of both left and right are united in condemning what has happened. The NBR’s Rob Hosking says the story is alarming, and he likens it all to 2014’s dirty politics revelations: “In fact, it cuts to the heart of New Zealand’s constitution: that is, the way New Zealand conducts its political business. It does look as though there has been, at best, an abuse of rules in this case and it is not pretty. Bad habits and toadying public servants. We’ve been here before when it was revealed security intelligence staff were supplying politically damaging information to political operatives in the then prime minister John Key’s office – information which was then leaked to an attack blogger. This appears to be in the same category” – see: Winston’s warpath, and why the rest of us should be beating drums, too (paywalled).

Hosking says that although there is now a public interest in Peters’ overpayments, “the corruption (as in the warping and debasement of purpose) of the public service is a far, far greater concern.”

On the left, Gordon Campbell also condemns this use of the “no surprises” rule and adds: “This politicisation of state-gathered and state-managed information should be a concern to everyone. As the government’s web of surveillance expands, and the inter-departmental sharing of electronic information increases, the temptation to use private information for political purposes will increase” – see: On Winston Peters and MSD.

And blogger No Right Turn says “its also a gross abuse of power by the government to use the information in this way, reminiscent of Muldoon at his worst. It shows an utter lack of ethics on the part of the National party to do this, or to permit a political atmosphere among their hacks that this was seen as an acceptable tactic” – see: Muldoonism at its worst.

Finally, for the ultimate discussion of the “no surprises” rule, how it has developed and “just how rotten the policy has become” – see Ben Thomas’ No alarm? How the ‘no surprises’ policy blights everyone it touches.

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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