Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards.
As the public decide who to vote for, the matter of whether wealthy interests have been able to influence Government decisions has arisen once again. This relates to controversy from late last year about whether junior coalition partner New Zealand First is using their fundraising mechanism to illegally hide the influence of wealthy donors.
Looking at these fundraising arrangements, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has concluded that a violation of the Crimes Act has taken place, announcing yesterday they are charging two individuals in connection with the New Zealand First Foundation. This is a significant and unprecedented new chapter in the tussle over vested interests in New Zealand politics – see Derek Cheng’s Findings of Serious Fraud Office probe into NZ First Foundation released.
Party leader Winston Peters made the announcement, claiming the SFO decision meant his party had been fully exonerated. This claim appears to be on the basis that those charged are not involved in the party, or at least no longer are.
The individuals who were charged may well have been involved in the New Zealand First Foundation, but an agreed statement from the party and the SFO stated that those charged do not include any current NZ First MP, Minister, staffer, official or party member. As many have pointed out, the operative word here is “current”, with the suggestion that those charged might well have chosen to resign from the party.
The identities of the two individuals are currently suppressed by a court order. But this is now being challenged by two media organisations, RNZ and Stuff – see Thomas Manch’s Urgent hearing called over name suppression in NZ First Foundation donations case. According to these media outlets, “The voting public of New Zealand has a legitimate interest in knowing the defendants’ connections, if any, to the New Zealand First Party and in particular whether the New Zealand First media release, which is highly critical of the SFO, is fair and accurate.”
The idea that NZ First have been exonerated by the SFO decision has been derided by many commentators and journalists. Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva summed up the announcement like this: “The news amounted to a validation of an investigation by Stuff journalist Matt Shand published last November, and subsequent reporting from RNZ’s Guyon Espiner, reporting that financial records showed donations to the foundation had been used to fund an array of campaign and political expenses, but with the donors’ identities not disclosed” – see: Winston Peters’ smoke and mirrors fails to hide the truth.
Sachdeva challenges Peters’ argument that the SFO should have held the announcement over until after the next government was formed: “doing so would have been morally reprehensible, depriving voters of information in the public interest at the time when it is most important they be fully informed”. He argues that if the SFO had delayed the news that they were bringing charges, then “Voters would have some justification for feeling hoodwinked, as would New Zealand First’s hypothetical coalition partners – both of whom may have benefited from knowing the party they backed had been at least partly funded by a foundation whose workings appear, in the minds of the SFO, to have breached the law.”
Electoral law expert Andrew Geddis points to attempts by the party to supress the announcement as suggesting they didn’t really regard the SFO decision as an exoneration – see: Nothing to do with the NZ First Party? Seriously laughable.
Geddis also says it would have been a bad look to hold on to the information, asking how the SFO could seriously do this: “And what was the SFO really meant to do once it had done so? Sit on the information even as people go out and vote, then tell them about it after the results are announced? How relaxed do you think the public would be about that happening – especially if NZ First was returned to parliament, much less holding the balance of political power?”
Peters’ attack on the SFO is, according to Geddis, “a classic attack-the-messenger tactic, with offence being the best form of defence and distraction being the name of the game.”
Geddis also commented on the case on RNZ’s Checkpoint last night, challenging Peters’ continued insistence that the fundraising Foundation is legally separate from the party: “I don’t care what technical legalities you may throw at it, if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck” – see RNZ’s Winston Peters holds ‘important’ media conference as SFO releases NZ First Foundation investigation statement.
Whether the legal principle of sub judice should rule out debate on the issue is dismissed by Geddis: “in terms of discussing the outline of the case, discussing the background facts and so on, those are all on public record. Subjudice is something people throw around when they don’t want to talk about an issue, it doesn’t mean you can’t talk about anything to do with the case.”
Stuff’s political editor Luke Malpass sums up Peters’ representation of the SFO charges as “Bluster, bravado and bulls….” – see: Serious Fraud Office charges may be final blow for NZ First. He says no one thought Peters himself would be charged, and the fact that he hasn’t been shouldn’t be read as exoneration for the party.
Malpass highlights the involvement of Foundation officials the media are seeking further comment from: “The two trustees of the foundation were Peters’ personal lawyer and NZ First’s self-proclaimed ‘dark shadow’ Brian Henry, and former NZ First Party President and MP Doug Woolerton.”
Will the SFO decision be the final nail in NZ First’s coffin? Most commentators believe so. Richard Harman says “This has been a body blow to NZ First’s already stuttering campaign” – see: Campaign derailed.
Of course, the SFO announcement does allow Peters and his party to employ the populist messaging of NZ First being a victim of elite dark forces aligned against them. This is a point well made by Herald political editor Audrey Young: “Peters reached for his old playbook to portray himself as the victim of persecution or conspiracy by the Serious Fraud Office, calling it an ‘intervention in the election’. Coming from the Deputy Prime Minister, that is a stunning accusation. Peters as victim has been done countless times before to woo the support of hundreds and thousands of forgotten New Zealanders over many years” – see: Peters draws on his best defence against SFO, attack (paywalled).
Peters has been on the front foot giving media interviews today, strongly defending his party and attacking his enemies. One of the most interesting was a heated ten-minute interview with John Campbell on TVNZ’s Breakfast – see: Winston Peters claims NZ First unfairly targeted by SFO – ‘Why are we being singled out?’.
In this interview, Peters calls the SFO “a jackboot outfit” and raises the question of why other investigations into political finance aren’t being announced just before the election: “It’s unbelievable they should interpose right before this election this position when they’ve got the outstanding matter of Christchurch and Auckland mayoralties, the outstanding matter of the investigation into the Labour Party which they’ve started.”
Peters also went on RNZ’s Morning Report and argued the SFO is biased against NZ First, and the Foundation is “totally separate” to his party – see: Winston Peters claims Serious Fraud Office biased: ‘It’s just unfair’.
He argues the SFO’s bias is apparent in the fact that the original draft of their press statement didn’t contain any acknowledgement that current party members and so forth haven’t been charged: “We have the draft, please don’t think that we’re going blind here, and I think New Zealanders should know just what level of interference without exoneration the SFO was prepared to ram down the throats of New Zealand voters… When they wanted to bring it out last week they weren’t even saying that the ministers and the members have been exonerated. That was not in their press statement. We had to go to court to squeeze that out of them … we’ve got the draft and none of it had exonerated the party or the MPs or the members at all”
In terms of allegations that the NZ First Foundation helped channel donations for influence, Newsroom’s Jonathan Milne has covered this today, arguing: “Some big New Zealand First donors will be pleased that flagship government conservation measures have been stalled for the past three years” – see: Winston Peters puts his mouth where his money is (paywalled).
Milne asks “did the party’s supporters in the fishing and forestry industries get value for money?” He even rung up one of the fishing industry donors to NZ First, Peter Talley, who “refused to comment and hung up the phone.”
As to whether such donors have directly influenced Government policy, Green Party co-leader James Shaw told Milne that he couldn’t comment, but said this: “When you have a party taking large donations from, say, fisheries companies, and then issuing policy that is entirely aligned with those companies, the case for donations reform is pretty obvious”.
Some are defending NZ First. Gordon Campbell supports the party’s suspicion about the SFO announcement, saying the timing “seems extraordinary. It is difficult to imagine that the SFO would make a similar call with respect to either of the two major parties, at a similarly crucial tipping point in the election campaign” – see: On the SFO’s investigation of New Zealand First.
Campbell also ponders why only alleged misdemeanours involving NZ First create such a storm of debate about money and politics: “the media, political leaders and the general public are not currently engaged in a wide-ranging debate about the flawed nature of the laws governing political donations. We’re talking only about how these rules may or may not have been manipulated by New Zealand First. No wonder NZF leader Winston Peters feels aggrieved.”
Finally, the Government-aligned blogsite The Standard has come out with a strong defence of NZ First, with long-time Labour Party activist Lynn Prentice arguing that the junior coalition partner is a victim of “dirty politics”, especially because the Police and SFO took so long to investigate, and made the announcement just prior to the election. He calls it “political interference” – see: SFO exonerates NZ First. The Labour blogger says he’d like the complainants against NZ First to be charged “for deliberately wasting Electoral Commission, Police and SFO time and resources.”