Winston Peters: 'Tea-Gate' again

One of the biggest issues - or sideshows - of November's general election was the "Tea-Gate" saga.

This arose out of the symbolic meeting in an Auckland cafe between Prime Minister John Key and leader of Act New Zealand John Banks.

They were there to take a "cup of tea" together.

This mere act, in the context of the pre-publicity surrounding the meeting, including reference to historical precedent, would confer favoured status on Mr Banks and confirm the National Party's message to its own supporters in the Epsom electorate to vote for the Act leader, thereby ensuring a return to Parliament of a party to its right.

The opinion polls suggested Mr Banks was trailing National's own candidate, Paul Goldsmith, who had done his best, in vain, to prove inconspicuous.

Thus the meeting was always likely to prove a significant event.

But what began as a ritualised piece of political theatre became considerably more controversial when a cameraman, who like other media had been alerted to the meeting by the participants, left a recording device on their table when the media were asked to leave the cafe.

Ironically, a conversation that had little political import - given the meeting itself was construed as the critical event - became the talking point of the campaign.

In particular, was it a private conversation or not?

And could the participants be reasonably entitled, given the public situation, to expect privacy for its duration.

The main points of the subsequent media storm are well known: the recording device was discovered; the freelance cameraman, Bradley Ambrose, who said he had not intentionally made the recording, nonetheless passed it on to the Herald on Sunday newspaper; there followed much discussion about the legality of the recording and eventually the Herald, and other media outlets, declined to publish.

The police were left to decide whether there was sufficient evidence to charge Mr Ambrose over the recording, and the chief High Court Judge Helen Winkelmann rejected an application by the same as to whether the conversation was in fact private, pending the criminal investigation.

The implications of this ill-managed affair, which produced some uncharacteristically heavy-handed responses from Mr Key, are yet fully to play out.

(At the time, for example, he compared it to the kind of tactics deployed by the News of the World in the United Kingdom, seeking to condemn the recording by an association considered carelessly exaggerated by many).

Last week the matter acquired fresh impetus.

It could yet resurface in the new parliamentary term in February. If it does, it will in no small part be due to the Government's own actions - and to the unerring scent for political opportunism of Winston Peters.

Arguably, it was his skillful exploitation of the "Tea-Gate" affair that gave New Zealand First its much-needed momentum in the campaign - and its unexpected return to Parliament.

When Mr Key and the National Party sought police action over the matter, which included "visiting" the offices of various media, and possible charges against Mr Ambrose, it was not surprising that some perceived this as an ill-tempered response to a "stunt" that had blown up in National's own face.

Now, following Mr Ambrose's seeking of the declaration in the High Court as to the privacy or not of the recording, the Attorney-general has announced his intention to seek costs of almost $14,000 against the cameraman.

One political commentator has already labelled this as "incredibly dangerous" and "political vindictiveness".

This was followed by Mr Peters claiming the Attorney-general cannot claim court costs from Mr Ambrose because the case does not involve the Government - rather, the National and Act parties.

Regardless of the legal niceties, he has - in the court of common sense - a point.

The event occurred during an election campaign and involved the two parties doing "a deal for the Epsom electorate".

Mr Peters alleges that the National Party, "acting for political purposes", is now using taxpayer resources to take on a private citizen which, he says, is not only an abuse of power, but illegal.

The Attorney-general may win his court costs claim, but the Government might yet rue giving Mr Peters more of the ammunition on which he so effortlessly thrives.