Mistakes in Winston Peters’ application to be paid national superannuation – and in the paperwork for his court action over the leak of his seven-year overpayment – dominated the opening day of his High Court testimony yesterday.
Deputy Prime Minister Peters, aged 74, is seeking $450,000 in damages from five defendants over the revelation before the 2017 election that he was overpaid for seven years after being recorded as single when he was in a de facto relationship. He had to repay $18,000 to the Ministry of Social Development.
His lawyer, and his own evidence, focused on the leak, the spreading of the information about his overpayment from the bureaucracy to two former National ministers, and the slur and damage to his reputation resulting. They said he had applied in 2010 for the superannuation payment in the company of his partner, so could not have been more transparent about his status.
But the Crown’s lawyer, representing the Attorney-General on behalf of the Ministry of Social Development, its former chief executive, and the State Services Commissioner, concentrated on evidence of multiple mistakes by Peters in the completion in 2010 of his original application for the superannuation payment. And on upcoming evidence from welfare officials that contradicts Peters’ version of events.
During the first day of evidence, Peters bristled at an MSD note he had seen under discovery claiming he had used “the Aaron Gilmore explanation – ‘Do you know who I am?’” – to a staff member. Gilmore is an ex National MP who was reported to have used the phrase at a restaurant in a dispute over food and wine.
Peters told the court: “I do not behave like that,” and challenged Victoria Casey QC, for the Crown, “if you can find anyone in my whole history who has heard me say: ‘Don’t you know who I am’?”
The MP also argued hard against Bruce Gray QC, acting for two National MPs Peters is suing, that his case was completely different from that of former Greens co-leader Metiria Turei, whose admission she was paid welfare she did not qualify for led to her standing down around the time Peters’ overpayment was brought to his attention.
Peters said a suggestion that Turei had been in dispute with Peters and labelled him “racist” at the time, was an “enormously serious allegation which I will never accept”.
He acknowledged he guarded his privacy keenly. “I am a private person … correctly private, British private. Yes, more than average. I happen to be from a Scots, Māori upbringing and from both sides privacy and sanctity of information within a family is very important.”
In an intense afternoon of questioning, Casey’s questioning of the NZ First leader disclosed Peters had:
– answered a question on whether he had a partner instead with a response about his long-ago wife, by ticking a box saying they were separated and lived apart. He never addressed the question of whether he had a partner at the time of the 2010 application, despite being with de factor partner Jan Trotman “for many years”.
– signed the application form and gave the date beside his signature as the date of his birthday, but that was incorrect. Peters said he was puzzled and surprised that he had done that but it was actually completed the following day. “I cannot explain that,” the MP said, but added later he signed “scores and scores” of letters for which his staff would later insert dates.
– did not read all the explanatory notes on the form as “all government departments have preliminary material” like that and he was at an MSD office with an official as he filled the form out. “Maybe I should read every definitive explanation on this form from start to finish but I did not.”
– did not fill out a series of questions relevant to whether he had a partner
– declined a ‘living alone’ payment and believed that showed he was in a relationship
– travelled across Auckland, beyond eight other ministry offices, to apply for the payment (he says because it had easier parking than elsewhere)
– asked an interviewing official in 2017, when the overpayment was discovered, why someone in a relationship should be paid less than someone who was single, as he had two people who had been dependent on him
– cited in evidence that 23 other cases on relationship status like his had been discovered in the month his was sorted and none had been referred to a minister – but that figure was for 23 cases over 11 months, not one, and they did not relate to the wording of the form, as his had
Casey said there had been only one answer to the question: “Do you have a partner?” for Peters at that time. But Peters said he saw subsidiary tick boxes about whether he was separated or divorced and thought he had to answer about his former marriage. He said he was not divorced from his wife Louise and they were living apart, so he had answered correctly.
He said as he filled in the form he believed there would be a segment further on to address his current status. But Casey said he had not raised that with the MSD official and had signed the form as true and correct without ever addressing his current status.
Casey told Chief High Court Justice Geoffrey Venning that evidence would be given by a ministry staff member that Peters told her he had gone to the distant MSD office (the location is suppressed to protect the identity of the staff member) to make his application because he was on his way elsewhere. But Peters said in court he went directly there, and directly back, choosing that office because of a perceived availability of parking and lack of queues. The area was “extraordinarily well-known to me for thousands of reasons”.
The exchanges between Casey and Peters involved her repeatedly putting the same question to try to get a direct answer. At one stage, he said he had been asked something 50 times. “For the 51st time, yes.”
At one point, Justice Venning suggested Casey need not pursue further questions over Peters’ use of the 23 cases supposedly similar to his claim. “It may fall away in evidence, I would think,” he said.
During cross examination, Peters said he would today fill out the superannuation application the same way, answering about his former relationship with his wife rather than current one with his partner. As it was written, the form had deficiencies and in his view had to be answered as he had done.
Earlier, Gray, QC for former National Party ministers Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley who were told of the overpayment, asked Peters why he had chosen to sue the defendants for $450,000. His initial action, listed under the Privacy Act, would have sufficed without such penalty, Gray said.
Peters replied: “Am I here as an expert on the law? I did not make that claim.”
“You are seeking a lot of money, Mr Peters. You are asking the court to award in your favour a lot of money to be paid mostly by private individuals.”
Peters: “But they applied to the cabinet for taxpayers’ funding. I have footed this myself. I’m putting the money up here because I believe in the principles here.”
“You are suing four private individuals for very large sums of money.”
“Some would regard it as large, some would regard it as small,” Peters answered. “You spend a lifetime trying to build a reputation and a character and defend it as hard as you can. For someone to destroy it in seconds is just wrong.”
Gray quizzed Peters about the Cabinet Manual and its section on the No Surprises Policy by which departments notify ministers of matters which may arise that are controversial or could provoke public debate.
“What was the surprise the ministers needed to be told about?” the MP responded, repeatedly.
He said the two ministers ought to have asked officials if the key tests of the no surprises disclosures had been met: Did the issue require assistance from the minister, or from the Cabinet, and was the matter resolved? Gray said in this case, officials had instigated the briefings, not ministers, and there was clear provision for briefings on a ‘for your information’ basis.
Gray asked Peters what harm he had suffered by having been questioned by Newshub journalist Lloyd Burr about his overpayment.
Peters issued a press release the next day revealing his extra money from the state and his repayment before it became public.
“What do you say had been published in the press before you put out your press release?”
Peters claimed Burr’s questioning, plus tweets by the writer of this story (“a long-time detractor”) and conversations allegedly overheard at a National Party meeting had prompted his action.
“If you put a feather pillow out of an airplane you might get the feathers [back] in 100 years but you will never stop a lie when it has gone that far.”
Peters’ lawyer, Brian Henry, cited the case of entertainer Sir Cliff Richard where news of a police investigation had been leaked to a news organisation. “A suspect has a reasonable expectation of privacy when an investigation is under way. The fact of an investigation as a given will very often carry some stigma. The Richards case was a sex investigation. This was a fraud investigation.”
Justice Venning intervened: “The Richards case was a police matter. That didn’t happen here.”
Henry: “Fraud is just as bad a slur on your reputation as sex, your honour. People are now running around town saying Mr Peters has somehow chiselled MSD on his benefit.”
He said Peters’ case was an example of a political smear, with the information coming to light four weeks before an election. “The Latin saying ‘cui bono’ points to the high probability those who stood to gain are political opponents.”
Trotman, who is set to give evidence today, had to leave the court for the duration of Peters’ testimony. His cross examination by Casey resumes this morning.