Politics

Expert surprised by Peters’ claims

Former top civil servant Sir Maarten Wevers has thrown doubt on three claims by Winston Peters that governing conventions were ignored by two chief executives who told National ministers about Peters' superannuation overpayment.

Wevers, an expert witness called by the Crown defendants in the breach of privacy case brought by the NZ First leader, backed each of the two chief executives' decisions and conduct in the affair - and told the High Court Peters was wrong on three claims he had made in court.

Peters is seeking $450,000 in damages from the State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes, the former chief executive of the Ministry of Social Development, Brendan Boyle, the Attorney-General on behalf of the ministry, and former National ministers Anne Tolley and Paula Bennett over what he claims were "bad faith" breaches of his privacy.

News of his seven-year overpayment and repayment of $18,000 to MSD was revealed in August 2017 by Peters when he feared it was about to made public by news organisations alerted by a whistleblower. The two ministers had been briefed by the officials, who had sought advice from the Solicitor-General, to ensure the ministers knew his case had been handled the same as for any other citizen.

In court today, Wevers, who was chief executive of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet between 2004 and 2012 under both Helen Clark and John Key, said he had not heard of a test that Peters claimed existed that required public servants to answer three questions before giving a 'no surprises' briefing to their minister.

Peters had said officials needed to ask if they were briefing the minister because the matter needed assistance from the minister, whether it needed assistance from the Cabinet or if the matter had been resolved. He said if the answer to the first two tests were 'no', then the briefing could not be given.

However, Wevers said: "I have not heard of these [tests], nor have I seen them in practice. I know they are not in the Cabinet Manual." Briefings did not require action by ministers or Cabinet but could be given, and had been in his experience, for ministers' "information only".

He also disputed a claim by Peters that officials could not brief ministers on "operational matters". Wevers said: "This statement is incorrect. Ministers are accountable for such matters to the House. The suggestion a 'no surprises briefing' or any other kind of briefing is not permitted for an operational matter is not correct."

The third claim by Peters, that 'no surprises briefings' could not be given in a restricted period in the three months before an election, was also contradicted by Wevers. 

"I disagree with Mr Peters that ministers are not entitled to receive no surprises briefings inside three months of a general election. Ministers have full authority until such time as their warrant is revoked and remain fully accountable for their portfolio." No caretaker governing situation existed until after an election or, pre-election, if a government has lost the confidence of Parliament.

Wevers said it was important for public confidence in the integrity of the state service that chief executives did not act as gatekeepers and decide what ministers should and should not be told, other than on the timing of such briefings.

The 'no surprises' system had been active since at least the late 1970s.

Wevers backed both Boyle's decision to brief his minister, Anne Tolley, and Hughes' decision to brief Paula Bennett. 

"A high-profile, notable, and very public figure had received money through the state benefit system that he was not entitled to. That followed an error he had made on a statutory declaration he had made.

"The individual was a former Cabinet minister, sitting senior MP, leader of a political party.

"There were issues in play as to the integrity of the system," Wevers said.

That the overpayment had not been a one-off transgression but had lasted a considerable period of time, plus the disclosure around the same time that Greens co-leader Metiria Turei had also received welfare payments above what she was entitled to - an issue that received a lot of media attention - made full accountability even more important.

"Together, the facts meant the overpayment of Mr Peters and the Ministry of Social Development's response to it was very significant and could call into question the MSD operation of the benefits system."

The looming election had made the matter even more sensitive.

Boyle had not rushed to judgment, Wevers said, but consulted with the State Services Commission - whose advice was the appropriate "buttress" in such a situation between a department and minister. His briefing to Tolley met expectations and "given what was going on with Metiria Turei, this was a matter with potentially high public interest. "That was the context - if Mr Peters had become public, another MP had received money they were not entitled to.

"Ministers expect to be forewarned about this and to be assured that MSD had handled the matter appropriately and to defuse any suggestion there had been preferential treatment."

Wevers said in his opinion Hughes' briefing to Bennett had also been appropriate. "In the same position I would have taken the same course."

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