Yesterdaze: Sneers, jeers and suing your peers

James Elliott tries to make sense of a long week in the High Court where Winston Peters acted - just not as Prime Minister

The Rugby World Cup might have been over but there was still plenty of free-to-observe sport available to watch this week. That’s how I found myself in the front row of the public gallery of courtroom 13 at the Auckland High Court for the start of Winston Peters’ claim for breach of privacy over his overpaid and repaid superannuation. I had a prime seat in the middle of the front row with Winston himself at one end, Jordan Williams at the other, and my internal soundtrack playing Stuck In The Middle With You, Stealers Wheel's classic from 1972 ... “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right ... ”.

Before I could remember how the third verse starts, Winston Raymond Peters was standing in the witness box promising to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And as he did so, the fingers of journalists up and down the country hovered over their ctrl-alt-w keys, ready to enter the shortcut headline 'Winston Lashes Out At [Insert Name]'. Ctrl-alt-w is the most commonly-used headline shortcut in New Zealand media, followed by ctrl-alt-s ('Shane Jones Not Sorry For [Insert Everything]') and ctrl-alt-p ('Phil Twyford Fumbles [Insert Anything]').

Winston turned the witness box into a whine box as he lashed out in all directions at media, politicians and civil servants.

I can confirm that the witness Winston Raymond Peters did not disappoint those journalists and their hovering fingers. In his opening statement, Winston’s lawyer told the court that Winston had been subjected to “slurs, sneers and jeers” over the public disclosure of his superannuation overpayment. Now it was his turn to fire back. No stranger to slurring himself, Winston turned the witness box into a whine box as he lashed out in all directions at media, politicians and civil servants. Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy, not being sued by Winston, was a “long-time detractor”. TV3’s Lloyd Burr, also not being sued by Winston, had “questionable journalistic ethics”. And various staff at the Ministry of Social Development who had dealt with his superannuation were “covering their butts”.

And after the slurring came the blurring as it became increasingly difficult to determine even the basic facts of the case. On what date had Winston applied for his super? Which boxes had Winston ticked or not ticked on his application, and why? Was his partner Jan Trotman even there with him when he did his ticking and not ticking? And who was Winston quoting when he said: “If you put a feather pillow out of an airplane you might get the feathers [back] in 100 years but you will never stop a lie when it has gone that far."

To give Winston credit, my feathery inattention may have been the intent of his quote, in which case he had played his hand very well indeed.

I had to look that one up. It turns out that Winston was mangling a quote by American actress and singer songwriter Rebecca Pidgeon, who happens to be married to David Mamet and has appeared in several of his films. Pidgeon’s original quote is about gossip, not lies, and there’s no airplane. You slice the pillow open on a roof, preferably on a windy day. You also have to re-stuff the pillow with every single feather although there’s no time limit on this. While I was mulling over how many David Mamet films I’ve seen and how very on-brand it is for Winston to have his own unique version of the original, I realised I hadn’t been paying attention to a crucial part of his evidence for at least half an hour. To give Winston credit, my feathery inattention may have been the intent of his quote, in which case he had played his hand very well indeed.

When I managed to regain focus on the evidence, questions were being asked about why Winston went well out of his way to a particular MSD office to apply for his super when there were at least half a dozen MSD offices closer to where he lived. That’s when I suddenly remembered the start of the third verse of Stuck In The Middle With You – “Trying to make some sense of it all. But I can see that it makes no sense at all.”

At that point I figured that I had spent enough time down the rabbit hole of courtroom 13 and it was time to find out what else was happening in the corridors of power. I knew that PM Jacinda Ardern was out of the country because it was a Tuesday. So I needed to find out what the Acting PM was doing. Only Winston was the Acting PM, and he had been in courtroom 13 for the best part of two days, acting, but not as Prime Minister. I asked myself whether we’re even allowed to have an Acting Acting PM and if so who should it be?

That’s when the rest of the third verse came through loud and clear: “Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor? 'Cause I don't think that I can take anymore”.

Have a peaceful weekend.

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