Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

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Winners and Losers In The Winston Peters saga

July 28th, 2008

By Gordon Campbell


At half time in the Winston Peters latest scandal – which seems to involve several money trails complex enough to merit inclusion in the Winebox – likely winners are beginning to emerge. And the main beneficiary is undoubtedly….the much reviled Electoral Finance Act. If New Zealand First’s shenanigans don’t make a convincing case for cleaning up the system by which political donations were formerly made in New Zealand, then nothing will. Unfortunately, most of the nanny state mileage has already been wrung out of the EFA – but at least the Act may now be spared further pounding during the election campaign.

I’m not going to pretend to untangle the donation trails of Owen Glenn, the Vela family and Sir Robert Jones, or identify the various rabbit holes (such as the Spencer Trust etc) down which the funds long ago disappeared. Katherine Ryan on Radio New Zealand this morning was only the latest journalist to go MIA on that front.

With Rodney Hide stoking up both a privileges committee case and – possibly by week’s end a Serious Fraud Office investigation – the evidence may ultimately receive formal evaluation, but don’t hold your breath. Add together the inbuilt deficiencies of the privileges process, the effects of the old and porous rules on political donations, the constraints of lawyer/client privilege, and the fact that the potential for prosecutions expired long ago …and keep in mind that the search for truth is being refracted through the myriad personality traits of Winston Peters, Wayne Peters, Brian Henry and Sir Robert Jones…and any investigator would be quailing at the prospect.

In fact when you add in the obvious reasons why both Helen Clark and John Key are feeling less than keen about making an enemy out of Peters at this stage of the election cycle, then the Great Peters Donations Saga looks less like a definitive political scandal than a definitive Beltway beat-up. It needed stronger, more timely evidence. So far, the affair has been of immense interest to political players and media observers, while occupying a sub-Coro St level of reality for the rest of the country.

Nothing new about that. Many political scandals would probably be better off being analysed by drama critics than by political scientists. Some of the key contributions at issue here were made between 5- 9 years ago. Morever, even if the worst should finally be proven in black and white – namely, that rich people make donations to politicians in order to get something in return, while politicians deny it ever happens – this will hardly strike most of the voting public with the force of revelation. This affair never looked like nailing down its allegations and inferences.

Will the whole affair end up hurting Peters? It depends in which capacity. Peters has two levels of concern : seeing NZF get over 5 % nationwide, and winning back his seat in Tauranga. I think this affair will hurt him in Tauranga by making him look even more like the old, tainted goods that he was already portrayed as by Simon Bridges, the young National candidate and former Crown prosecutor standing against him. It is less clear the affair will hurt his party’s chances of getting over the 5 % MMP threshold in the election.

How so ? Peters will spin the criticism over the donations in exactly the same way that he spins the criticisms he gets over racism. Normally, around this point in the election cycle, Peters plays his triennial race card, and will attack ‘Asian’ migration – lumping together in the process Asians of all nationalities, brown people and Arabs into the same suspect category.

The donations affair has the same media dynamic. Conveniently for Peters, the media handling of his race gambit habitually assumes that Winston’s supporters are a bunch of rednecks, waiting only for the master manipulator to throw the switch. In fact, it is the response to this criticism that lifts New Zealand First’s boat, not the racism per se. What unites NZF supporters is their tribal dislike of Peters’ opponents, who are legion, and who include the big corporates and media commentariat. The trigger that fires up NZF’s poll ratings is the sense of persecution that these voters hold in common, rather than a shared belief system.

In previous decades, they used to call this the Citizens for Rowling syndrome. It entails an elite holding forth, unaware of how much it is disliked by the people that it aims to influence and enlighten. Rob Muldoon, Peters avowed mentor, would play those kind of critiques like a violin.

Racism and xenophobia have certainly been part of the New Zealand First brand. Equally though, so has Peters’ attack on the corporatisation of New Zealand society. That’s what made this donations scandal potentially dangerous for him. Lasting damage would be inflicted to Peters if the evidence could successfully tie him to the kind of corporates he attacked during the Winebox saga. Yet that was never really on. The tycoons of the corporate mainstream are simply not the sort of people who would ever donate to Peters – which was why he was consorting with the figures at play in this story, the swashbuckling mavericks like Glenn and Jones, and the horse racing Velas.

As it turns out, he needn’t have worried. The evidence so far has been old, inconclusive and technical. Lawyer stuff. It won’t re-locate Peters among the enemies that are loathed by his followers, and if he sinned – so his followers could legitimately argue – so did everyone else at the time. Short of any further bombshell revelations, this affair will play out as the usual ritual of mutual benefit. The corporate media will have looked worthily righteous, and will have done useful service as Peters’ allies in re-fashioning him as an outsider, in an underdog role just in time for the election campaign.

In particular, the donations affair will have helped bury what were Peters’ genuine weaknesses going into the 2008 campaign – his current ministerial salary and perks, and his long running tease play over paying the taxpayers back for NZF’s $158,000 election overspend. Some voters could well have seen that as selling out – but his followers will now be able to say, look the system still hates him and treats him by different rules. He’s still an outsider, still our man.

Why do I think this role will be harder for Peters to sustain in Tauranga than as party leader, nationwide? For one thing, the erosion of Peters’ support in Tauranga has been a long running affair. Up close and personal, the Peters mystique is looking rather moth eaten, and with National likely to be the government, having a local MP in the governing caucus will be a marketable argument for Simon Bridges to run.

To be sure, Peters will try to claim as his victories the concessions handed him by the Clark government as the price of having him inside the tent – on law and order and superannuation in particular and over an Immigration Bill that has been tailored to his obsessions. Yet these benefits will accrue more to NZF nationwide – even if Peters turns out to be a kingmaker in the election result – than to his electorate contest in Tauranga. Similarly, his hob-nobbing with Condi Rice will also be of scant value on his home territory.

As the race tightens, the prospect is that a National-led government may become beholden to Peters once again, jeopardising any revolutionary centre-right agenda. John Key can probably take care of his enemies – but what is he telling the boardrooms about how he proposes to handle his budding friend from Tauranga, post election? This week, what Key is telling the public is that he will wait for the election result. Thereby, National will be able to blame the public for landing him with the necessity of making an arrangement with Peters. In fact, both major parties can claim a reluctance to deal with Peters in future, but invoke democracy as the rationale for doing so. Neat.

So at half time and in a Graham Henry sense, who are the winners and losers?

Winners. for the reasons stated : New Zealand First, the Electoral Finance Act, and Winston Peters as party leader. Rodney Hide, who gets to play the indignant touch judge, in a situation where neither Helen Clark nor John Key can afford to complain directly to the ref. National, who were just starting to get stick for not releasing any substantive policy, when this affair obligingly swept everything else off the political agenda.

Losers: Winston Peters, as Tauranga candidate, for the reasons stated. Also : the New Zealand Herald, and the Dominion-Post. Both newspapers railed against the EFA, and – with a straight face – have now railed against the kind of arrangements practiced by NZF ( and in all likelihood, by other political parties who were laundering anonymous donations via trusts) that made the EFA, or legislation akin to it, essential. And oh, the public.

Who leaked the emails that set off this whole bunfight? Last week Audrey Young in the Herald, fingered a former disgruntled NZF senior aide, for some of them, and she should know.


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