Week in Review

Peters allegations another political toothache for PM

Serious allegations about New Zealand First’s approach to electoral laws are some way from being established - but there is enough in the claims to concern both Jacinda Ardern and the public as a whole.

The source of New Zealand First's funds has long been a topic of speculation.

In recent years, the party has made notably few declarations of donations that require the identity of a donor.

Instead, a mysterious 'New Zealand First Foundation', with no online presence but trustees closely tied to Winston Peters, has been loaning the party tens of thousands of dollars at a time.

Rumours have been thrown about, but there has been little substance to back them up - until now.

RNZ’s Guyon Espiner opened a crack in the door with a piece asking important questions rather than providing answers about the foundation.

Now, Stuff’s Matt Shand has busted it down with an investigation alleging a concerted effort to cloak hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from “primary industry leaders, wealthy investors and multi-millionaires”.

Shand’s story suggests the donations were used to finance election campaigns, pay for legal advice, and even hiring Joseph Parker to speak at the party’s 2017 conference.

So far, Peters has done little to refute the substance of the article.

A press release he claimed would put the record straight amounted to little more than a dodge of the allegations, along with the tautological statement that “declarable donations were declared”.

Jacinda Ardern has spoken about "the spirit of the law" when it comes to donations, a phrase that puts her in an awkward spot regarding the allegations made against New Zealand First. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The inference to be drawn is that if any donations were kept secret, that is because they did not need to be made public under the law.

That may yet prove to be the case - although a number of experts have taken a different view - but it certainly seems to fall foul of the spirit of the law, a phrase used by Ardern about National’s own donation controversy earlier this year.

Peters was predictably dismissive of that concept when the Opposition threw it back at him during Question Time, saying: “The law is the law and it has no reservation or codicil such as ‘the spirit of’ - it’s either the law or it’s not, get some legal advice over there.”

That highlights the contrast between Peters’ realpolitik approach and Ardern’s attempts to claim the moral high ground - and the risk that the latter will be eroded if the Prime Minister is continually forced to answer questions about New Zealand First’s murky dealings and approach to political conventions.

When confronted with the supposed misdeeds of her New Zealand First ministers, Ardern is fond of saying that hers is a true MMP government - the implication being that she cannot be held responsible for the positions of other parties.

That may be true, but as with the recent immigration furore, just because the Prime Minister sees something as a party-political problem doesn’t mean the public will.

Deja vu all over again

To borrow another tautology, this is deja vu all over again for Peters.

In 2008, a cascade of claims about donations made to New Zealand First by wealthy businessmen such as Sir Robert Jones, Sir Owen Glenn and the Vela family - but concealed from the public - sparked numerous investigations and contributed to the ousting of the Labour-led government at that year’s election.

Over a decade later, Peters remains unrepentant and insists his name was unfairly dragged through the mud, noting that the police, Serious Fraud Office and Electoral Commission all decided against taking action.

But that is not the glowing exoneration he makes it out to be.

While SFO director Grant Liddell said there was no basis for laying fraud charges, he suggested there were unanswered questions about other possible electoral breaches - essentially punting the matter to the police and the Electoral Commission.

The Electoral Commission’s final ruling on the matter noted that the party’s 2007 return was “materially false” but not illegal, as the party secretary had no intention to misstate or conceal the facts, while the 2005 and 2006 returns fell outside of the time limit for prosecution.

It noted specifically that the decision was about the party secretary’s actions only, and not any other members of the party - such as Peters himself.

The police investigation also cleared the party secretary specifically, rather than New Zealand First as a whole.

Sir Owen Glenn's donation to Winston Peters sparked a suite of inquiries during the 2008 election campaign. Photo: Getty Images.

That is of course because of how the law is written, but it also offers a layer of plausible deniability which makes it harder for allegations to stick.

Party officials, rather than politicians, would likely be on the hook for any alleged breaches of electoral law.

But there would be broader reputational damage to New Zealand First’s ministers, and the Government as a whole, if there were even the perception that they may have been influenced by private donations without declaring a conflict of interest.

Of course, there is not enough evidence in the public arena for that conclusion to be drawn just yet - and breathless talk of a snap election before Christmas is premature to say the least.

But if Stuff does indeed have the documentation it claims, a steady drip-feed of information will ramp up the pressure on Peters to explain himself, and for Ardern to take action.

An investigation by the Electoral Commission, and perhaps a referral to the police or SFO, would allow the Prime Minister to cite ongoing investigations as a reason not to take action - but that would also drag the affair into election year and place an unpalatable decision in her hands closer to polling day.

Faced with a similar predicament in 2008, Helen Clark at first stood by Peters but eventually accepted what was described as his offer to stand down from his ministerial portfolios.

Whether Ardern would be able to secure a similar outcome if necessary remains to be seen, given this is almost certainly Peters' last stint in government.

National leader Simon Bridges has been quick to pour pressure on Ardern to act more decisively, as did John Key on Clark.

Bridges will come under pressure himself to take action and rule out New Zealand First as a coalition partner come 2020, something Key did in 2008. He did not go that far on Tuesday, saying the scandal was still on "day one", but did not rule out a similar decision.

Unravelling the claims seems set to take months, rather than days or weeks - and is yet another political toothache that Ardern would rather not be dealing with.

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