Politics

Public servants challenge Peters

Should an MSD officer have filled out Winston Peters' superannuation form for him? And is there a closed period before an election where departments can't tell their ministers politically sensitive information? 

Lawyers for the Crown say senior public servants deny they have policies cited by Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters in his court action over a leak of his superannuation overpayment details.

Peters is seeking $450,000 from the Attorney-General (on behalf of the Ministry of Social Development), the former chief executive of that ministry, States Services Commissioner Peter Hughes and former National cabinet ministers Anne Tolley and Paula Bennett for breaching his privacy when his super overpayment of $18,000 was made known to media organisations.

On day two of his evidence to the High Court at Auckland, Peters was challenged by Crown lawyer Victoria Casey QC over his claim that it was standard practice for welfare officials to fill out superannuation application forms with those seeking the payment. An experienced case manager, a centre manager and the former ministry chief executive would all say no such policy existed and superannuitants regularly filled out the forms by themselves before appearing at an office to submit them.

The issue is pertinent to Peters' case as he claims an official who handled his form should have completed it properly and it was not up to him to know it was incomplete before signing it as true and correct.

Casey also said evidence would be given by former head of the Prime Minister's Department Sir Maarten Wevers and the State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes denying Peters' assertion that public servants entered a non-disclosure zone to ministers three months before an election.

The New Zealand First leader claims the officials acted recklessly and in bad faith in briefing the two ministers under the public service's No Surprises policy about Peters' seven-year overpayment.

He was paid the higher amount as a single superannuitant rather than for being in the de facto relationship he had been in with Jan Trotman for eight years by the time of his 2010 application for superannuation. His overpayment was revealed when she turned 65 in 2017 and applied for the pension herself.

Peters claims he sat with a case manager at an Auckland MSD branch (its location is suppressed to protect the identity of the officer) when filling out his form, and had Trotman with him in the room at the time - in his view making it obvious he was in a relationship. He alleges his form "was filled out by [the case manager] as well on that occasion... There's a deficiency which was not brought to my attention and I have got a processing officer sitting there. There was a shared mistake."

Casey told him the case officer from that time had 14 years' experience and it had never been a policy for her or her colleagues to fill out forms. Her manager, with 24 years' experience, also said it had never been practice to fill out forms for clients. 

It was the ministry's view that Peters, by choosing to record on the form his situation with his former wife rather than his domestic situation with Trotman, had completed it adequately, if wrongly, and there was no failing by the ministry and no sign of "bad faith" in failing to pick it up.

Peters told Casey he had claimed in evidence it was MSD policy to fill out forms with applicants because "that's over the years what I've understood to be the case .... [but] whether or not that's the norm, I cannot answer for that".

When told the former chief executive of the ministry, Brendan Boyle, believed the form had been adequately completed to be processed, Peters said: "That's a convenient explanation that Mr Boyle has subsequently arrived at when he saw what was coming...."

After news of the overpayment broke a month before the 2017 election, Peters implied in a news report that his form may have been altered by someone other than him.

In court, Casey said the case manager denied that she altered the form, and the MP retorted: "As the famous [quote] in the Profumo case: 'She would say that, wouldn't she?'". [The Profumo case involved the downfall of a British cabinet minister in the 1960s after he was found to be having an affair with a woman also having relationships with a Russian military attache. Another woman involved in the scandal, when told in court that a Lord denied having an affair with her, said: "Well, he would say that wouldn't he?"]

Casey later said Wevers would tell the court Peters' claim that under the cabinet manual no ministers had responsibility for operational matters in their departments was wrong. Further, Wevers and Hughes had the view there was no rule that there could be no sensitive briefings to ministers from departments within three months of an election.

The case is expected to hear from Bennett and Tolley on Thursday and other Crown witnesses through to next week.  

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