Damaged goods

The essential question now with regard to Winston Peters is not whether his recollection of events is correct or incorrect, but whether he has been so damaged by the political donations disclosures as to be too much of a liability for the Government.

Mr Peters is Minister of Foreign Affairs, and is thus the official face of New Zealand's international relations.

The role is so important that, over its modern history, New Zealand governments have almost always ensured the post has been held by the prime minister, deputy, or occasionally, by the third-highest ranked minister.

No country can afford to have its foremost representative below the head of the government to be other than scandal-free.

Mr Peters cannot now be regarded in this light, however successful he has been heading his ministry.

Nor can he be regarded by the Clark Government as other than damaged goods.

The Prime Minister may well be waiting for what she has called the "court of public opinion" to guide her response, but if she means the forthcoming election then she is arguing an irrelevancy.

The election, which may be some months away, will not be about Mr Peters' credibility as a minister, but a whole range of issues and policies.

The matter of Mr Peters' credibility is singular and current.

He has spent many months now giving various responses to published reports and journalists' questions regarding donations said to have been made, but not declared under relevant legislation, to him personally or to his party, New Zealand First.

That in itself has been damaging in the mind of the public; his explanation to Parliament's privileges committee has now been shown to be contradictory to the recollection of two donors, Mr Owen Glenn and Sir Robert Jones, neither of whom have any known reason for their memories to be inaccurate.

Mr Peters has argued that there have been no inconsistencies in his recollection of the key matters, and that Mr Glenn and Sir Robert are either wrong or confused.

On that basis Helen Clark says she must in fairness continue to take her minister at his word, but in the mind of the public that, if it has not already done so, will result in her Government being inextricably linked with the scandal and the damage.

Mr Peters has little public support and there is no reliable evidence to suggest his actions have inspired a prospect of change.

The public's nose for sensing hypocrisy is keen and Mr Peters has been judged a hypocrite - unfairly, perhaps, although that would be stretching matters by now - and the fine detail of who said or did what, and when, with whom, or did not, has long been generally irrelevant.

The "court of public opinion" most often judges matters not on careful consideration of evidence, but by instinct, and its instinct in this case does not coincide any longer with its faith in Mr Peters.

The minority Government's grip on power has also become more tenuous, because for Miss Clark to now sacrifice Mr Peters as a minister in her executive, she likely would also sacrifice NZ First's likely support for one of the legislative jewels in the Government's climate-change crown.

That would represent a severe political defeat, especially on the eve of an election campaign.

On the other hand, having decided, for the sake of political convenience, that she can live with Mr Peters and garner NZ First's support for her legislation, then she, too, will be damaged by the court of public opinion's derision.

Hers may have been a necessarily calculated judgement, for Parliament is sitting in its final effective session and once it rises neither she or Labour will owe anything to Mr Peters.

She has said that in the interests of process and fairness she will wait for the outcome of the privileges committee's consideration.

That, in parenthesis, at least seems to signal there will be no recourse to testing "the court of public opinion" with an early election.

Over the past nine years Miss Clark has on occasion suspended ministers who, for a variety of reasons, were judged to be either temporary or permanent liabilities.

In the interests of consistency she should exercise that option again - if, in fact, it is available to her under Labour's agreement with NZ First - until the privileges committee's report has been tabled.


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