Yesterdaze: Nonsensical threats and swirling allegations

It was not a great week for NZ First - stuff that Prince Andrew would describe as conduct unbecoming of a political party, but which is very much becoming of NZ First. James Elliott  gets slush fund, secretive and coterie all in one sentence about Winston Peters. 

Hundreds of dead rats washed up on a beach near Westport this week, baffling scientists as to where they had come from and how they had died. I reckon they had simply drowned having abandoned the sinking ship the SS NZ First.  

It was not a good week for Captain Peters and his mostly motley crew. First there were allegations of dodgy electoral funding involving NZ First - and not just allegations, they were “swirling allegations”, the most serious kind of allegation there is. And unfortunately for NZ First there was more swirling to come. There was also news of conflicts of interest at the Shane Jones-administered Provincial Growth Fund in relation to an application for funding by a NZ First-connected forestry company. And then Shane Jones threatened the CEO of the Ports of Auckland. All in all the sort of stuff that Prince Andrew would describe as conduct unbecoming of a political party but which is very much becoming of NZ First.     

The electoral funding allegations swirled around a newcomer to the news cycle, the NZ First Foundation. So the questions of the day on Tuesday were who or what is the NZ First Foundation and who or what was it funding? Also how, why, when, and was it legal? Stuff news broke the story and set the scene for the answers to some of these questions. We learned that a “secret slush fund” was “hidden” inside the “secretive NZ First Foundation” that in turn was controlled by “a coterie of Winston Peters’ closest advisers”. To get slush fund, secretive and coterie all in the same sentence with Winston Peters is the journalist’s trifecta of trickiness, guaranteed to keep the reader reading. So I did.

Putting to one side the question of whether something can become a saga within 48 hours, it needs to be noted that the only thing you can be embroiled in is a saga.

It turned out that there was quite a lot of information about what the NZ First Foundation had been doing, most of it centred on spending that may have benefited NZ First the political party. For example, the NZ First Foundation spent about $325k in an 18-month period on items like renting campaign headquarters, paying staff overtime, and $920 on what was described as “a picture of lost sheep”. These spending disclosures posed a number of serious and troubling questions. First and foremost, what does a picture of lost sheep look like? Is it a picture of sheep after they have been lost, in other words a picture of a sheepless paddock, in which case why describe that image as lost sheep? Is describing a sheepless paddock as lost sheep intended to make us think more about what’s not in the picture and why? Or is it a picture of sheep before they became lost, in which case what did the person taking the picture know about the sheep’s subsequent disappearance? Or was it just a coincidence that the sheep became lost after the picture was taken? And in any event could the picture be helpful in efforts to locate and identify the lost sheep? I suspect not because – and I know I could be accused of being blatantly sheepist for saying this – sheep do all look the same to me.   

While I was wondering about the sheep, journalists and politicians were asking more technical questions about where the NZ First Foundation funds had come from, whether they had benefited NZ First and should there have been declarations of political donations. Some of those questions were put to PM Jacinda Ardern who was reported as becoming “embroiled in the saga”. Putting to one side the question of whether something can become a saga within 48 hours, it needs to be noted that the only thing you can be embroiled in is a saga. So it’s more concise to simply say that the embroiled PM Jacinda Ardern was able to fend off questions about the NZ First Foundation with a repeated catchphrase answer of “It’s a matter for the Electoral Commission”. The PM is particularly good at this in both embroiled and non-embroiled situations - she formulates a catchphrase answer and repeats it word for word to any and all questions about a particular matter. It’s a sound approach - she can’t get caught out giving inconsistent answers, the media give up on asking more questions and it gives her more time to spend on TripAdvisor.      

Meanwhile the permanently embroiled Winston Peters had his own stock answer to another set of questions, this time about an application for $15m funding from the Provincial Growth Fund by a NZ First-linked forestry company. Winston labelled the journalist asking the questions a “psycho”. The PM wasn’t asked about the appropriateness of that description and so didn’t have to interrupt her Webjet booking session to answer repeatedly that it was a matter for the Mental Health Foundation. 

Which brings us to the self-embroiled Shane Jones who recently advised the CEO of Ports of Auckland not to put his head “in a political noose”. I’m not sure what that threat is supposed to convey but it makes less sense than a picture of lost sheep.           

Have a peaceful weekend.

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