Friday, May 15, 2020

Karl du Fresne: The Covid-19 pandemic came at a good time for Winston Peters

The coronavirus crisis has been very good for Winston Peters.

He came back from his Northland lockdown firing on all cylinders. If you wanted confirmation that this is an election year, there it was.

Perhaps he needed that spell of seclusion to recuperate from the bruising effects of a court case that blew up in his face and a donations scandal that refuses to go away.

Whatever the explanation, the Great Tuatara was quick to re-assert himself on the political stage. The Covid-19 pandemic enabled him to present himself as statesmanlike in his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs and made him look good as the saviour of New Zealanders trapped overseas and desperate to come home.

It also allowed him to promote himself as a Man of the People by disclosing that health officials had been rebuffed when they advised the government to close our borders, which would have left those travellers stranded.

It was inconceivable, Peters declared, “that we [would] ever turn our backs on our own”. He was thus able to parade as a patriot who stood firm against flint-hearted bureaucrats.

Normally such advice to Cabinet is kept confidential, but Peters went public. Did he do so in the hope that his own image, as the minister whose officials had successfully argued against the health advice, would be enhanced? Perish the thought. And shame on anyone cynical enough to suspect that Peters spoke out because he was feeling aggrieved that Jacinda Ardern was sucking up all the political oxygen and leaving none for him.

The virus scare also gave Peters an opportunity to unleash his inner Muldoonist by railing against globalisation and promoting  protectionism – all of which might have sounded appealing to anyone not old enough to remember what New Zealand was like when everything from shoes to cars was shoddily made and overpriced.

He was on equally safe ground advocating a trans-Tasman bubble, calling for greater state control over Air New Zealand and championing Taiwan’s bid, over China’s objections, for observer status at the World Health Organisation. All three moves played to populist sentiment.

Not only would Peters have been confident that the public would back his support for plucky little Taiwan, since China is seen as the nasty bully standing in the Naughty Corner, but it also had the advantage of differentiating his position from that of Ardern, who appeared less keen to buy into the controversy.

No one should be surprised if Peters exploits more such opportunities between now and the September election. Remember, this is a politician with a history of going rogue whenever he perceives the need to distance himself from his coalition partners.

All this couldn’t have happened at a better time for the New Zealand First leader. He’ll be counting on the Covid-19 pandemic to help the public forget a stream of highly damaging disclosures about his party’s dodgy conduct.

Those disclosures related to big donations made to the shadowy foundation that bankrolled the party. The donations, some of them made by ultra-wealthy individuals in fishing, horse racing, property and forestry, are now being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office – a fact that should be included in every news story about New Zealand First, lest voters succumb to amnesia.

Being subject to an SFO investigation doesn’t make the donations illegal, but it’s worth recalling that party president Lester Gray felt so uneasy about the opacity of NZ First's financial affairs that he resigned.

In any case, it’s one thing to pass a legal test and quite another to pass the sniff test, which is how voters decide whether something smells “off”. Going by what's been reported so far, the public is entitled to conclude that the NZ First Foundation was a mechanism for disguising the source of donations to the party, and thus making it hard to determine whether favours were bought.

Then there’s the small matter of the court case in which Peters sued former National Party ministers and top public servants over the leaking of his superannuation overpayment. Remember that? The case he kept quiet about, thus making nonsense of claims that post-election coalition talks in 2017 took place in good faith?

Peters may be hoping the lockdown drama will erase memory of those court proceedings, during which he backed down on his claims that Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley, whom he sued for $450,000, had leaked to embarrass him.

In the end, all the theatrical huffing and puffing came to nothing. The High Court dismissed all of Peters’ claims. But the taxpayers lost too, because the bill is expected to total more than $1 million. That’s a big price to pay for one man’s quest for utu.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at published in The Dominion Post and on

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