Issues of integrity

Former National Party prime minister Sir Robert Muldoon used a well-worn strategy with his critics: get in first with the verbal punches.

If this does not work, try shouting down your opponents. Failing this, deny everything. Finally, ignore your accusers.

Winston Peters, who imbibed his political skills at Sir Robert's knee, is trying a combination of all four strategies in the worst crisis facing his New Zealand First party in its 15 years.

So far, we have had a succession of embarrassing - but unacknowledged - retreats.

There was the outrageous refusal to repay the $158,000 NZ First should not have spent in the 2005 election campaign.

Mr Peters himself played out this particular sham with relish, conceding only this year that "charities" had benefited, when the money belonged to taxpayers.

Then, more recently having denied he or NZ First had received any money from the expatriate billionaire Owen Glenn, it now seems he "did not know" that a $100,000 donation had been made to meet his legal expenses.

The latest allegations, that multiple donations were made to him and his party from a wealthy family associated with fishing and the thoroughbred industries, and that these might have been undeclared in an electoral law sense, will further shake confidence in Mr Peters' integrity.

Perhaps a majority of voters could not care less, but in the highly charged atmosphere of an election year, and at a time when many people are personally struggling, the familiar accusations of political hypocrisy and thoughts of a "plague on all their houses" will tend to stick.

Unfortunately for Mr Peters, he is left looking more hypocritical by the hour for this is, after all, the man who left the National Party to set up his own on the basis of "cleaning up" politics, ever ready to mount his white charger in the defence of hard-pressed "rorted" taxpayers, and to accuse every other political party of being funded by "secret donations", of having "slush funds", and therefore of being the captives of "big business".

The chief accusation of the latest reports involving multiple donations for amounts just under $10,000 from 1999 to 2003 are serious because donations of more than $10,000 or multiple donations of smaller amounts from the same company or person in one year have to be declared under our electoral law.

They may well have been so declared - NZ First says all money received is accounted for and audited - but not declaring donations is a serious matter, as the Prime Minister pointed out.

Complaints to the appropriate authorities, such as the Auditor-general, registrar of pecuniary interests, or Inland Revenue, would be investigated if such allegations could be substantiated.

The Glenn donation, said to have been used for paying Mr Peters' legal costs, might also fall into the category of needing to be declared in the ministers' register of pecuniary interests.

Mr Peters holds the offices as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Racing and Associate Minister for Senior Citizens outside the Cabinet, in a support arrangement with the Clark Government.

Although that might appear to allow the Government room to distance itself from any fall-out, should the allegations have substance and damage further Mr Peters' substantially diminished credibility, the Prime Minister must act.

She has publicly made a cautious caveat: "Until I think it's seriously affecting the job he is doing, and I've stressed he's done that job with integrity, I don't have a concern."

In the meantime, the Speaker has received a complaint from Act New Zealand leader Rodney Hide that Mr Peters should have declared the Glenn donation, and complaints have already been laid by members of the public with the Electoral Commission and Inland Revenue over the donation, but these may be outside the time limit on complaints.

The National Party's attitude is enigmatic and scarcely honourable: on the one hand it is busy condemning the Clark Government for supporting him as a minister and coalition supporter; on the other it is not ruling out dealing with NZ First should it be in a position to form a government.

In private, Labour will be concerned about the way this affair could eventually damage it.

Miss Clark risks the prospect of being accused of double standards in the way she treats ministers tainted by scandals: unless Mr Peters can provide a more convincing explanation than he has so far for the Glenn and other donations, his case will inevitably be compared with the memory-losses of David Benson-Pope.

It is drawing a long bow, but the risk cannot wholly be excluded of Mr Peters being invited to relinquish his ministerial portfolios - especially Foreign Affairs - and retaliating by withdrawing his party's support for the Government.

At that point an early election would be an inevitability, and should Mr Peters then be looking for another moral panic to attract the attention of voters in the election campaign he would need look no further than his own.

In the meantime, he is in a hole entirely of his own making.

 

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