Let me see whether I’ve got this right.
We learned a few days ago that on the day before the September 23 general election, Winston Peters kick-started legal action against National cabinet ministers (including then prime minister Bill English), party officials, a senior public servant and two journalists over the leaking of his superannuation overpayment. He took this action without disclosing it to either the National or Labour parties.
Then, post-election, Peters entered into – indeed orchestrated – what were held out to be “good faith” negotiations with both parties on possible coalition arrangements.
Both parties believed they were in with a chance – in fact an equal chance – and Peters was happy to encourage this belief. It suited him to do so because that way, both Labour and National would be keen to do business with him.
But realistically, what chance was there of Peters going into coalition with National when he was simultaneously – apparently unbeknown to anyone but his lawyers – taking legal action against senior National ministers and officials?
What sort of hopelessly dysfunctional government would it have been if the deputy prime minister (let’s assume his appointment to that role would have been one of the conditions of any NZ First deal with National, as it was with Labour) was suing the prime minister?
No, it’s inconceivable.
The obvious conclusion, then, is that Peters kept quiet so he could play the parties along, spinning out the negotiations and extracting maximum concessions, when he must have known all along that he would go with Labour.
To put it another way, the negotiations appear to have been an elaborate charade. National was used as leverage, pure and simple.
If this was the case, National weren’t the only ones being played for suckers. Labour were deceived too. Ask yourself: what concessions did the Labour team make that they wouldn’t have considered had they known Peters intended to go with them regardless?
I’m not alone in thinking this. Veteran political editor Barry Soper, who gives the impression of being one of the few journalists on good terms with Peters, wrote: “Like all good gamblers, Peters kept a stony face, letting them [National] believe they were still in the game whereas in reality they’d been dealt out when the court papers were filed against them”.
They were playing blind, says Soper, and so was Labour. “If they’d known of the court papers they might not have been so generous”.
Now Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is left with little option but to play it all down by insisting it was just a “personal” matter between Peters and the people he’s pursuing. She says Peters gave her a “heads up”, although not until last week. All sorted, then; nothing to see here.
Of course Ardern has to maintain the line that this doesn’t affect the unity or stability of the coalition. To do otherwise would be to admit that her government was borne out of deception.
Other senior Labour figures, such as Phil Twyford, are also busily parroting the position that it’s a personal issue and therefore none of Labour’s business. Twyford went further, insisting that Peters negotiated in good faith. But seriously, how can Labour trust Peters after this? They appear to have been shafted before they even had their feet under the cabinet table. At the very least, they were misled by omission.
On Morning Report, political law expert Graeme Edgeler put a benign interpretation on Peters’ behaviour by suggesting he might have decided to proceed with legal action only after deciding to support Labour.
In other words he may have negotiated with National in genuine good faith, intending to shelve his legal action if they reached agreement. But if that were the case, why did his lawyers file papers in the Auckland High Court the day before the election? He would surely have stayed his hand while he waited to see how the post-election talks panned out.
In any case, surely the proper position for Peters to have taken at the outset of coalition talks would have been to disclose to both Labour and National that he had initiated, or was about to initiate, proceedings. That would truly have been a demonstration of good faith. But this is Peters we’re talking about. He follows his own rules.
I suppose some people might admire his mastery of the political dark arts (Soper seems to), but to me it just looks devious, manipulative and deceitful. And what a cute coincidence that Peters should have left the country to attend the Apec conference in Vietnam when the bomb went off, so that he was spared having to answer awkward questions. (I won’t comment on the irony of a foreign affairs minister who opposed the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement representing New Zealand at a meeting aimed at sealing the deal. But hey, who’s going to pass up a first-class flight and an opportunity to hob-nob with the big boys of world politics?)
Let’s allow that the leaking of Peters’ superannuation details was a political dirty trick, albeit a clumsy one, aimed at embarrassing him ahead of the election. But the secrecy of his plan to exact utu, and the likelihood that the coalition talks were skewed by it, can only add to misgivings about the integrity of the process by which the Labour-NZ First coalition was formed. It’s another affront to democracy and transparency.
There’s another issue here: the protection of journalists’ sources. Media freedom advocates are alarmed that the deputy prime minister should embark on a witch-hunt against journalists, demanding that they cough up phone and email records so that he can find out who leaked, and thus determine who to sue.
Journalists not being a greatly admired occupational group, this is unlikely to trigger an outpouring of public sympathy. But it needs to be pointed out that a likely consequence (if not the purpose) is that journalists will be discouraged from publishing stories likely to embarrass senior politicians, which is part of their function in a democracy. The result would be a less informed public. It’s the sort of menacing behaviour you’d expect from a bully like Vladimir Putin.
But while much has been made of the threat to media freedom, it should be treated as a secondary concern and a distraction from the real issue, which is the legitimacy of the government. That was already in doubt following the farcical coalition talks which resulted in Peters – a man who couldn’t even retain his own seat, and whose party was rejected by 93 percent of voters – being appointed to the second most powerful role in New Zealand politics. Alongside this latest scandal, the recent parliamentary gamesmanship over the appointment of the Speaker, which so excited the media, was a mere sideshow.