Week in Review

Stonewalling on donations saga, but many questions remain

After days of pressure over the mysterious New Zealand First Foundation, Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters have stonewalled their way to a brief respite from inconvenient questions - of which all too many remain

In many ways, the New Zealand Police College was a fitting location for the final day of a political week fraught with allegations of illegality.

That was not just for the obvious jokes about Winston Peters turning himself in to answer questions about the New Zealand First Foundation - sadly, the Prime Minister’s office did not look favourably on the suggestion of a mock arrest as a photo opportunity - but the very reason for his presence, along with Jacinda Ardern and Police Minister Stuart Nash.

The latest graduation of new constables was ostensibly a chance for the coalition to celebrate meeting its commitment of adding 1800 new police officers in its first term - a “milestone” seemingly achieved through creative accounting and the shifting of goalposts on the part of the Government.

It is creative accounting (at best) that lies at the heart of the claims about New Zealand First’s loans from the foundation, while it is Ardern who seems to have shifted the goalposts on some of her beliefs.

The Prime Minister repeatedly brushed off questions about the allegations as “simply not for me”, deferring to the Electoral Commission as the arbiter of whether the law had been broken.

Ardern did not appear keen to weigh in on the ethicality of the foundation and its potential ramifications for Peters’ ministerial role, sticking doggedly to the more narrow confines of electoral law. 

“It would simply not be appropriate for a politician to investigate another political party or indeed another politician in the same way that I did not involve myself in the Serious Fraud Office investigation that's currently underway with the National Party.”

Of course, Ardern did in fact publicly claim a separate donation received by National was “outside the spirit of the law” - a concept she unashamedly backtracked on in Parliament on Wednesday - while she did not require proof of illegality to dismiss Meka Whaitiri and Clare Curran from their ministerial roles.

The Cabinet Manual requires ministers to “behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold the highest ethical standards”, and leaves the Prime Minister responsible for holding them to account.

Yet Ardern did not appear keen to weigh in on the ethicality of the foundation and its potential ramifications for Peters’ ministerial role, sticking doggedly to the more narrow confines of electoral law. 

“Again, ultimately, it's for these agencies to determine whether the law has been upheld and I don't think it's unreasonable to allow them to do their job.”

Of course, Ardern should not be expected to lop off Peters’ head at the first opportunity, given the tenets of natural justice - but it is fair to ask whether she would have been quite so evasive if similar allegations were made against a member of her own caucus, or even the Greens.

Winston Peters' lawyer and New Zealand First Foundation trustee Brian Henry (left) has threatened to take legal action against two National MPs. Photo: Getty Images.

Her job is not made any easier by the pugnacious nature of Peters and his associates, demonstrated by his lawyer and foundation trustee Brian Henry threatening National’s Simon Bridges and Nick Smith with legal action after their speeches in Parliament the day before.

In the letter, Henry took aim at Bridges and Smith for their allegations about “a New Zealand First electoral/loan scam”.

Oddly, he suggested that their claims were “no doubt based on the RNZ Guyon Espiner publications”, seemingly ignorant or dismissive of the more detailed reporting by Stuff’s Matt Shand on the foundation’s inner workings.

All loan activities were audited, disclosed to the Electoral Commission, and lawful, said Henry, providing the pair with details of a $73,000 loan to prove his point.

Then they were invited to ‘take this outside’ - not for a street brawl, but to repeat their statements outside the House and the protection of parliamentary privilege.

“Please note if you oblige with this request I will sue you for defamation for general damages together with special damages which from the consequences of your and Mr Espiner’s actions could be as high as $30,000,000.00,” he warned, every zero present and accounted for as if to display his fastidious accounting.

Asked at the police college about his close acquaintance’s legal threats, Peters professed ignorance.

“Look, I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not suing anybody at this point in time.”

So Henry was acting entirely on his own?

“Well, why don't you ask him? I mean, you're asking me about an action, the details of which I have not, I'm not privy to, and I think you should ask the person who is bringing the action not to court, not to someone who's not a source at all.”

'Werewolves' lie in wait

The distancing continued, as Peters spoke of “the administrative wing of the New Zealand First party”, rather than himself,  leaving investigations in the hands of the Electoral Commission.

He had also received new advice overnight, that the New Zealand First Foundation “has itself voluntarily written to the commission to make itself available for conversation and discussions and communications - that’s all I know”.

With that, it was off - although not without one last jab at his long-time frenemies in the fourth estate.

“Overnight, I've learned that we've had the biggest upsurge of volunteers and membership applications in New Zealand First, since 1996. And I want to thank you all and my friends in the media for making that possible.”

No doubt there will be as much transparency about that “upsurge” as with the source of the foundation’s funds.

Ardern and Peters both now have some time away from the spotlight: the former to have an impacted wisdom tooth removed (she could be forgiven for asking the anaesthetist to keep her under until Christmas), and the latter to “try and sort out the world” at the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Nagoya, Japan.

Parliament is in recess next week too, meaning no pesky questions from the Opposition and fewer chances for journalists to snap at their heels.

But the “werewolves”, as Peters has describes his critics, will be lying in wait.

Get it early – This article was first published on Newsroom Pro and included in Bernard Hickey’s ‘8 Things’ morning email of the latest in-depth business and political analysis. Get it early by subscribing now or starting a 28-day free trial.

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