Bryce Edwards: Winston Peters puts dirty politics on trial

Bryce Edwards: Winston Peters puts dirty politics on trial

Winston Peters is well known for being belligerent, complaining and prone to political conspiracies. It’s easy to write-off his current High Court trial as hubris and score-settling.

Peters is suing former National Cabinet Ministers and heads of government departments for their alleged role in his embarrassing 2017 scandal when his pension overpayments were made public in the midst of the election campaign.

Many seem to think that the Deputy Prime Minister should just move on. However, the issues involved in Peters’ lawsuit are incredibly important for politics and democracy. They go to the heart of ethics and the dangers of corruption in government. Peters is alleging, after all, that public servants and ministers of the Crown used privileged and private state information in a way that tried to bring him and his political party down during an election campaign.

One journalist who has been close to much of this action, has little doubt that dirty politics has been in play. Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan claims that she knows it was National who leaked the dirt on Peters’, because they told her this themselves – see her opinion piece, Winston’s in the right – National has a history of playing ‘dirty politics’.

Here’s the key part: “Did the National party leak Winston Peters’ superannuation details? In my opinion, yes. The reason I say that is because in the weeks before the leak, I was told by the Nats that the Nats had the information. They told me they were considering leaking it. They told me how they would leak it, the process they would follow to cover their tracks. Without going into details, I can tell you that’s exactly how it played out. So the chances that the Nats leaked it are about 99 per cent.”

Du Plessis-Allan says Peters is therefore completely justified in taking legal action: “Winston Peters is doing the right thing by suing senior MPs in the National Party. In fact, he’s doing us all a favour. I’ve no appetite for the dirty politics that the National Party plays. In my time working in and around the press gallery in Wellington, in my opinion, there was no party prepared to stoop to the levels the Nats were to ruin someone’s reputation. Too often they made things personal.”

I’ve also argued that Peters’ case is a vital one for democracy – see my opinion piece published yesterday on the RNZ website: The Winston Peters case and the politicisation of the public service.

Here’s my main point: “It’s yet to be proven that the National politicians were in any way involved in the leak – even if it seems highly likely. But what is not in doubt is that the dirt on Mr Peters was passed on to his political opponents by public servants. Mr Peters is right to challenge this. There is something wrong when government departments are passing on potentially damning electoral weapons to their masters of the day. There’s a term for this: the politicisation of the public service. It’s what erodes democracies, allowing ruling politicians to have unfair and unethical advantages over their opponents.”

Much of the debate in the case hinges on the so-called “No Surprises” briefings that senior public servants used to convey the information to National Cabinet Ministers during the 2017 election campaign. These briefings are supposed to be used to alert government ministers to significant operational developments in their government departments.

But it’s hard to see how the Peters pension overpayments qualified as being a legitimate subject for a briefing. According to blogger No Right Turn, “WINZ had a legal duty to protect his privacy. And instead of doing that, they handed private data about a past issue which had been resolved to their satisfaction and which they had decided was not worthy of prosecution or further action to Ministers to be used for a shoddy political smear” – see: Winston is right.

According to the blogger, Peters is therefore right to characterise the leak as “malicious” and “repugnant”, and he believes those involved “absolutely deserve to be taken to the cleaners over this”.

Similar arguments have been made by rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton, who says the “no surprises” briefing policy has become corrupted, leading to its misuse for political and anti-democratic advantage of governments – see: Good may come from Peters’ lawsuit.

According to Hooton, in recent administrations, “scuttlebutt” about political opponents would be passed on by government departments under the auspices of the need to know in case it becomes public, but this political dirt was then likely to become public through this very process.

Hooton finds it hard to believe that the two ministers who were briefed – Anne Tolley and Paula Bennett – wouldn’t have misused the dirt on Peters by leaking it. But he says that’s only natural, as politicians can hardly be blamed for doing what politicians do, and really it’s the job of officials to keep information to themselves. He’s astounded that senior public servants could possibly believe it was right to hand the information over to campaigning politicians.

For more on the history of the “no surprises” briefing policy, and how it has been misused, it’s also worth reading John Tamihere’s column from last year: Peters right to pursue leak in court.

In this, he argues that public servants should have been extra careful during the election period not to involve themselves in politicised actions, and the officials who decided to pass the political dirt onto National politicians would have known this information would hurt Peters and affect the democratic process.

With the High Court trial in full swing, we are now seeing the politicians having to explain themselves. For the latest on Anne Tolley’s involvement in spreading the Peters information, see Isaac Davison’s Winston Peters’ pension overpayment: Anne Tolley admits telling staff, family members.

According to this, Tolley shared the dirt on Peters with staff and family members. Furthermore, the information was passed onto others in Tolley’s office.

Not everyone following the High Court trial necessarily sees Peters as being the victim. Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy, is covering the trial in detail, and portrays the leak of Peters’ pension information as being the work of a “whistleblower”. The implication is that Peters deserved to be exposed – see Murphy’s latest report from the courtroom: Minister told husband, sister about Peters’ super.

In this, Murphy also reports the arguments of Tolley and Bennett’s lawyer, Bruce Gray QC, who suggests that the release of the dirt on Peters was in the public interest. Gray says: “For senior politicians seeking high office there are things which the public are legitimately interested in and may be entitled to know, that need to be considered.” And he bats away the notion that Peters might have an expectation of privacy: “sadly for those who bring themselves into the public eye, it’s not one-size-fits-all. It is case-by-case and person-by-person.”

The same article also reports on the other minister briefed about Peters, Paula Bennett, who says she informed National’s campaign strategist, Steven Joyce, when he expressed concern that the media were about to publish scandalous details about Bennett’s own private life. She claims she wanted to reassure him that a looming expose in the media would actually be about Peters rather than her.

Murphy also reports on the testimony of other journalists summoned as witnesses – see: Who leaked? Journalists’ views differ. In this, Newstalk ZB’s Barry Soper is reported as blaming the National Party for the leak, while Newsroom’s Melanie Reid pointed in another direction: “Reid said her anonymous informant had imparted unhappiness at the fate of former Greens co-leader Metiria Turei over welfare payments when Peters’ overpayment had been quietly tidied away.”

In another article, Murphy reports on the trial discussions of how Peters came to claim the wrong level of superannuation, together with the role of Peters’ partner in the issue – see: Trotman forced out of Winston’s shadow.

Despite all the focus on who filled in Peters’ application form, and who was at fault, the article notes that the Chief High Court Judge, Justice Geoffrey Venning “said the case was one of breach of privacy and it was accepted a mistake had been made on the form. He did not expect to spend much time on the form-filling in his judgment.”

Finally, given that the Peters’ court case involves the politicisation of the public service, it’s useful to reflect on the fact that today is New Zealand’s first official “Public Service Day”, celebrating the anniversary of the day the Public Service Act 1912 became law, establishing a politically neutral and professional public service – see Minister of State Services, Chris Hipkins’ Celebrating NZ’s first Public Service Day.