Peters: overpaid and under pressure
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters will not blame the Ministry of Social Development for his seven year-long overpayment of superannuation - but he will not blame himself, either.
Peters confirmed, after media inquiries and speculation, that he had received superannuation at a higher rate than he was qualified to receive as he lived throughout with his longtime partner Jan Trotman. Her application for superannuation preceded the ministry's blowing the whistle to Peters of his unwarranted windfall.
Peters gave three broadcast interviews today, to RNZ, Newshub and TVNZ and refused in each instance to say how much he had to pay back once the MSD wrote to him pointing out his over-payment.
He did try to discredit the figure of $18,000 published by Newsroom.co.nz - calling it "demonstrably false" - but took great care to say the superannuation 'over-payment' was lower than that total. He then said interest ("which is very high I might add") and penalties had been added. Newsroom did not claim that his payment back to the state was for the superannuation over-payment only, and stands by the bill of $18,000.
Peters said he had received a letter from the MSD alerting him to the overpayment. This letter is believed to have contained the amount, which the MP is determined to keep secret. It is the single document which Peters appears under most pressure to make public.
He attended a meeting with a senior ministry official after being alerted to its findings - and claims no one could work out how the mistake had occurred.
But his admission to paying interest and penalties struck some in the know in the public service as a clear indication that any mistake made in Peters' application for superannuation in 2010 was made by him rather than the ministry.
Peters told Newshub's AM Show host Duncan Garner he had realised what his political enemies might try to make of the overpayment issue so had told MSD to provide him with a figure to repay, irrespective of the calculations, and had paid as soon as possible. In an interview with Susie Ferguson on RNZ's Morning Report he said: "My paramount concern was to get this matter off my plate as fast as possible."
He rejected calls to waive his rights to privacy to allow the ministry to disclose details of his application, of the letter he received and the payment made. "I've never thought about it," he told Ferguson. "I don't know why you are asking me that question."
The privacy issue could be complicated by this case having arisen out of Trotman's superannuation application, with her privacy also under consideration.
Peters said the rate he had been paid at turned out to be too high, sitting sixth on a ministry scale of seven levels of super payment.
He repeatedly declined to blame MSD for the mistake in his file and payments. "Let's not blame MSD any more than blame me," he told Garner. "I would love to be able to say who made the mistake but I cannot."
To TVNZ's Breakfast host Jack Tame, he said: "MSD are the people acting on your behalf and behalf of the taxpayer. They thanked me for my speedy cooperation. I have nothing to hide whatsoever."
Peters said he had never had to re-affirm his relationship status. "I was in the same relationship when I was sitting there in front of her [the first MSD officer]," he said on the AM Show. "You have to say only when you change, not when things stay the same."
That original MSD officer had now left the ministry, he said, "I have got a witness but they [MSD] have not, not that you would remember."
He received the first superannuation payment in 2010 with a notification but did not look at it again. "I have never had a cause to check it. Why would I?," he said on RNZ.
He says he was notified "over a week" after former Greens co-leader Metiria Turei confessed publicly on July 16 to taking higher payments for accommodation and benefits when she was on the Domestic Purposes Benefit many years ago.
He paid the money in July, but did not make that public until a press statement issued at 7pm on Sunday after media inquiries into his payments and the MSD bill had been made.
Peters earns $195,000 as leader of a party with NZ First's number of MPs, before allowances. He lives in a $2.65 million dress circle St Mary's Bay home with Trotman and their chocolate labrador Beau.