Bill Ralston: Peter Dunne, leaks, and the Winston Peters vortex

by The Listener / 13 June, 2013
The spin doctors will drag their feet and try to block it but eventually the Dunne emails will pop out
“He was a strong voice for yes-men everywhere.”

Alas, poor Peter. His fall from grace has unleashed a string of puns: Dunne and dusted, Dunne like a dog’s dinner, Dunne and out.

Worse, the media is full of speculation as to his motives: “No fool like an old fool”, “besotted”, “infatuated”, were some of the descriptions mooted for his relationship with Fairfax press gallery reporter Andrea Vance.

But what kind of “relationship” was it? Professional or personal? What exactly was he apologising for if, as he claims, he did not leak the Kitteridge report to her? He said he was bereft of any explanation as to his behaviour “not befitting a minister” but what was the “not befitting” behaviour he could not explain? Why release only an edited half of his email exchanges with the reporter to the leak investigation if he has nothing to hide?

His accusers are scarcely any clearer in their charges. Interviewing Winston Peters is always a trip through the looking glass. First, he urged the Government to check the pair’s phone records; the truth lay there. Then, when it emerged there were several dozen emails between Dunne and Vance, he demanded the Government release them because he knew what was in them and they were the smoking gun.

Did he have copies – if so, where did he get those from? Had he seen them – if so, who showed them to him? Did someone simply tell him what was in them – if so, who? Or was he just taking a punt, a calculated guess based on common gossip?

We’ll never know the answers. An interview with Winston Peters is a journey into a black hole of rhetoric, blustering babble and evasion that renders a journalist’s question line into tiny meaningless atoms.

Labour wants a Privileges Committee hearing into the alleged Dunne leaks but – please – no investigation of its own leaks. The Greens, as usual, want an inquiry and if they don’t get that, they’ll demand an inquiry into why they never get an inquiry.

Let me join the speculation (and speculation it is, because only two people, Dunne and Vance, know the truth of the matter).

As to the “relationship” angle, I prefer the “Old Fool” theory. Dunne was showing off to a young woman to gain her attention. Vance is an extremely able journalist and unlikely to say to him, “Drop dead, you silly old bugger, I’m about to get married and do not appreciate your adolescent advances.”

More likely, she would sigh inwardly, smile, have a coffee and a chat with him and milk him for everything he knew about what was going on.

I spent most of the 80s and much of the 90s in the press gallery. Journalists and politicians of all genders exchanged information to their mutual advantage in places as diverse as the Green Parrot and Bellamy’s Bar. Vance, I am sure, was doing no more than following the age-old tradition of pumping a good source for information.

Did Dunne leak the Kitteridge report to Vance? He denies it. Maybe he did not directly leak it. He could have simply left the report on a desk somewhere, gone off on his aimless walkabout along Lambton Quay and Vance, by chance I’m sure, spotted it and read it. Note the original Dominion Post story never said the paper “had” a copy, only that it had “seen” it.

What is in the 86 emails? Don’t ask Winston; I’m sure he doesn’t know. Don’t ask Dunne, who cites “privacy” as a block. Don’t ask Vance, who cites “protecting sources”, and don’t ask John Key, whose line is, “No way, Jose.”

Show some patience. Dunne was a minister and his emails are subject to the Official Information Act. The spin doctors will drag their feet and try to block it but eventually they will pop out – in many months’ time, when no one is really interested any more.
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