We deserve better than Winston Peters' legal stunt

by The Listener / 09 November, 2017
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Winston Peters. Photo/Getty Images

Winston Peters was all furious denials when a journalist alleged during the election campaign that he might use his likely kingmaker power to further a quest for utu. His opening salvo towards formal legal action this week points to just such a quest, and one that bodes ill for the effectiveness and reputation of this country’s first minority coalition Government.

It’s bad enough that the Deputy Prime Minister has filed legal disclosure claims against four senior MPs in the National Party, with which he negotiated, supposedly in good faith, to form a Government just last month. It’s also appalling that he has included a senior public servant and two former political staffers in his discovery claims, knowing, as he must, how hard it is for such employees to defend themselves in a politically charged situation. And it’s an ogreish and futile act for any politician, as Peters as done, to demand that journalists disclose sources.

But the fact that he reportedly filed the paperwork for the claim the day before the election reeks of bad faith. It’s now hard for him to defend his assertion that he went into coalition negotiations with National with genuine intent.

In a strictly technical sense, the timing and even the fact of the papers’ lodgment need not be significant. People often prepare claims on a contingency basis. Understandably aggrieved at the leaking of his personal pension details, Peters would likely have found much-needed therapy in a provisional High Court filing.

Indeed, he was grievously wronged by the disclosure that his superannuation had been mistakenly overpaid. Given the leak’s timing, it appears to have been malicious rather than inadvertent. It may well have damaged New Zealand First’s vote, and the leakers deserve to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

When told of it, Peters swiftly returned the overpayment, and Work and Income is adamant he was blameless. The affair reminds us how fine the balance can be between the public’s right to know a public figure’s relevant personal information and the catastrophic damage that can occur if the information is wrong or conveyed out of context. Peters’ reputation was damaged, and the subsequent contexting of the initial leak can never fully compensate him.

However, for him to proceed with this action now does far more to lower his reputation than the pension controversy – a quickly extinguished brushfire – ever could have done. It will fuel the worst fears of voters already uneasy about his role in the formulation of the Government. Peters is seen by many as having thrown his weight around to an extent unjustifiable by his party’s modest 7.2% vote share. This legal action confirms he harboured a material distrust of National. How can we not believe he simply used those talks for bargaining leverage, with no intention of doing a deal with National?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she was given a heads-up last week about Peters’ intentions. She is too tactful for now to say so, but he has put her in an invidious position, merely to avenge his ruffled sense of self-righteousness.

Three state agencies investigated the leak without finding its source, and it’s unlikely the discovery action will find answers. Peters will just make himself, and by extension the Government, look ridiculous. Given his repeated threats to release some of former PM Bill English’s private texts, the action risks looking like a hollow and hypocritical stunt.

It’s not the only front on which Peters exposes the Government to derision. His bizarre insistence on the Government pursuing a free trade agreement with the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union, in the teeth of global diplomacy and a very negative response from visiting European Union ambassador Bernard Savage, has never been satisfactorily explained. It underlines the further absurdity of having a Foreign Minister who vehemently opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement – although he has for now lost that battle – represent the country at Apec this week.

Given this election disclosed a sizeable mood for a change of Government, Peters began this term with every chance of earning the public’s respect – or at least the benefit of the doubt. That he has yet again been unable to show restraint or decorum, and is futilely pursuing a personal grudge, is extremely disappointing. His co-parties in Government, and the country, deserve better.

This editorial was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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