Pity poor old Brendan Boyle, chief executive of the Ministry of Social Development.
Somehow, up the chain of command comes news from his staff on June 19 that they’ve discovered New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has been taking higher superannuation payments than justified for up to seven years.
Bureaucratic and political alarms don’t go off any louder than for that. Peters. Money. Documents. Secrecy. The certainty of allegations of conspiracy and political treachery. And an election two months away.
On one hand Boyle has to ensure his ministry treats Peters exactly the same as other New Zealanders, both in investigating the reason for his application form’s mistake and pursuing every dollar of overpayment. This they do, and he is advised on July 27 the matter is resolved to official satisfaction.
But on the other hand Boyle has an insidious ‘no surprises’ policy he and other government department heads are bound by, via the State Services Commission, which says their political masters must be told of anything sensitive that might require their attention in, say, Parliament.
The ‘no surprises’ policy is not new to this National-led government. Helen Clark’s Labour administrations choked the life out of possible surprises from the bureaucracy with a take-no-prisoners zealotry that National has built on.
So Boyle takes this radioactive dilemma up the chain again to the State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes, himself a former MSD chief.
Hughes in turn wheels in the Solicitor-General to ensure any move to brief the incumbent minister is defensible under law and the Cabinet manual.
In the end this heavyweight trio of mandarins decides it is okay to inform the Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley, but conditional on all decisions on Peters’ case having been made and resolved.
Peters says he was advised by the ministry, “over a week” after Greens leader Metiria Turei announced on July 16 she had over-claimed benefits while on the domestic purposes benefit many years ago. Peters breaks off a day in Wellington to return to Auckland and deal with the matter.
By his telling, a meeting with a senior ministry official handling such matters is unable to determine how the mistake on his application forms has occurred.
Acutely sensitive to what people he calls his “political enemies” can do with such information, he asks for a grand total owed to be provided to him, not worried about the breakdown between overpayment, interest and penalties, and that money is paid back with great rapidity.
He claims to have a letter from the ministry thanking him for his speedy action and saying the matter is closed.
An issue sorted on the quiet
On August 9, Turei stepped down after intense political, family and media pressure over her having taken too much from the state.
According to Hughes’ statement today, only after all decisions on Peters had been made at a ministry level were Tolley and her colleague, State Services Minister Paula Bennett told about the matter in what he termed a ‘limited briefing.
“There was an expectation that these matters would be held in confidence by ministers.”
So, the departments seem to have covered their butts, and Peters’ unfamiliar courtesy towards MSD subsequently seems to show a mix of raw nerve and relief at his predicament being handled quickly.
Crucially, Peters himself did not go public with his “mistake”, overpayment, inquiry and repayment. Had he done so, the issue would have flared and died within a news cycle or two.
Instead, a whistleblower contacted news organisations, providing the critical information to show the leading proponent of superannuation and accountability had quietly sorted a longtime, repeated overpayment from the state.
Peters refused to talk about the matter to Newshub on Saturday when quizzed on his overpayment and repayment. The story was about to break when on Sunday night he issued a low-key statement revealing he had put a mistake right and everyone was happy.
Newsroom reported on Monday he had been billed $18,000 after taking the single entitlement while living with his de factor partner Jan Trotman in their $2.65m St Mary’s bay home.
That day, Peters was claiming Newshub reporter Lloyd Burr had claimed the leak had come from the Inland Revenue Department. This, Peters alleged, was a crime.
Today, he and his surrogates are implying the leak came from National, via one of the ministers’ offices or out of the Prime Minister’s department, as Tolley had in turn told Bill English’s chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson.
The Kim Dotcom of this election
The various National Party ministers, the Prime Minister and the campaign chief Steven Joyce all denied any involvement, and in the PM and Joyce’s case any knowledge, of the affair. English even said he had been assured this morning that no leak had come from his Beehive or party.
Peters was predictably red hot. The IRD allegation from yesterday was seemingly set aside as he went after the ‘no surprises policy’ and refused to believe English did not know.
He said he had been warned National was going to go after him over the overpayment.
It is unclear what benefit National might think it would get, at this critical stage of the campaign, by damaging and humiliating perhaps its only likely partner to get across the line to govern from September 23.
Even if it harmed Peters’ vote, that would in almost any scenario harm National’s chances too.
For Labour, the affair is prima facie positive. Peters at war with National. National caught by its ‘no surprises’ control freakery and made to look guilty even if it is not. But as Jacinda Ardern danced around matters this morning, she made it clear talking about Winston Peters was not her priority at a big spending education policy launch.
There are those in the public service apparatus plainly irritated by the unseemly hounding and demise of Metiria Turei.
But like Boyle, everyone is on edge. A political fifth alarm has sounded and Peters’ superannuation case has become the Kim Dotcom of this election – burning all who come into contact with it.