Scandalmonger

by Bill Ralston / 13 September, 2008
Winston Peters is truly hoist by his own petard.

It was, as best I recall, 1987 and I was sitting with Winston Peters in the garden bar of a hotel on Waikiki Beach, enjoying a drink in the colourful sunset.

A beautiful, young native Hawaiian waitress stared at Peters as he wandered back into the hotel. "Who is that man?" she asked curiously. "Is he your president?"

"Not yet," I replied, "but he'd like

to be."

It was still the first term of the Lange Government and Peters was an -Opposition National Party MP on the way up. He had captured public -attention with a series of hard-hitting attacks on the Government, backed by leaked -documents and information received from "sources" on a variety of juicy issues.

I had come to Hawaii to investigate his biggest scoop, the Maori Loans Affair. He had unearthed a proposed $300 million loan from some deeply dubious -financiers, negotiated by the Department of Maori Affairs with the aim of using the cash to fund Maori businesses.

The loan was unauthorised, as only the Minister of Finance had the power to sign off a foreign loan deal and, in any case, had never gone through. However, the whiff of fraud was enough to land Maori Affairs head Tamati Reedy, Maori Affairs Minister Koro Wetere and the Labour Government in deep trouble.

Peters was in Honolulu to dig up more dirt, as were TV1 news reporter Ric Salizzo and I.

Peters claimed to have further evidence, never produced, that the Lange Cabinet had prior knowledge of the deal, and he called upon Labour to resign.

We plugged away for a week and discovered he was partly right. The man who was sourcing the loan was a con artist. However, we also -discovered several of the key figures involved in the deal were clearly linked to the CIA and Office of Naval Intelligence. A private detective, a former FBI agent, handed us files that showed some had been involved in a previous court case in the US and the CIA had blocked evidence in court on the grounds of "national security".

The Maori Loans Affair bore a startling resemblance to the Australia Loans Affair a decade before, when CIA-linked con men ran a similar scam on the Whitlam Labor Government and helped bring it down.

In light of the ferocious US reaction to the Lange Government's anti-nuclear stand, it bore all the hallmarks of a botched US intelligence operation designed to discredit the rebellious Lange Government. I know Peters gained much of his information from a man subsequently identified as the head of the CIA headquarters in Hawaii, who was operating under a commercial cover as a businessman.

Today, much of this story looks like some weird John Le Carré novel. But these were still the days of the Cold War, the hardline Reagan era, and small Third World nations that stood in the way of US defence interests had suffered far greater interference and punishment.

Peters stubbornly refused to listen to any of the information regarding US intelligence links to the affair; it did not suit him to do so because he had enough material to embarrass the Labour Government. He did so very effectively, forcing the closure of the Department of Maori Affairs and blighting the careers of several New Zealand businessmen, public servants and politicians in the process.

As his career in Opposition continued, he went on to raise other accusations of wrongdoing by a variety of government agencies and business interests, most notably over the Winebox Affair.

In all of these cases, with the able help of his parliamentary researcher, Michael Laws, he would produce a juicy morsel or two of evidence, wind up a fury of media speculation and demand full commissions of inquiry into his -allegations.

I find it hysterically funny that Peters now howls in outrage at the "meerkat" media and Opposition -politicians who probe his own affairs, digging up -embarrassing financial facts and demanding inquiries into their -allegations.

This is how Peters built his own -reputation and power base.

There have been suspicions and allegations about Peters' political and financial affairs in the past, but it always seemed as if the Parliamentary Press Gallery gave him a relatively easy ride. Several journalists were old drinking buddies and most enjoyed his colourful buccaneering style.

However, over the past few years he managed to alienate those who were left, with petty arguments, sneers and smears. In this latest row over his and his party's funding, he finds a new generation of journalists unwilling to tolerate his evasions, blustering and somewhat myopic view of the facts.

Students of US political history will remember Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose accusations and inquisitions in the 1950s ruined thousands of Americans. When McCarthy died a political death by his own sword, few wept.

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