One of the country’s most private couples is under the microscope at the High Court after Winston Peters pursued a breach of privacy case against the Crown and politicians. Tim Murphy watched as Jan Trotman stole the limelight.
By Jan Trotman’s own admission she can often fade into the background when out in public with her partner, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.
She stands aside or behind him on purpose, leaving him to the limelight.
Yesterday in the High Court at Auckland, where he is suing public servants, government departments and two former National ministers over the leak of his superannuation overpayment, Trotman had to counter evidence that not only was she in his shadow but that she had, once, been invisible.
Three Ministry of Social Development staff at the office in which Peters incompletely filled out his superannuation application in 2010 leading to seven years of overpayment, are to tell the court that Trotman was not with him when he messed up that form.
The case manager who sat in a room with Peters to receive the form says Trotman was not there and he was alone for the duration of their meeting, the receptionist says she was not with Peters and the centre manager “being an admirer, went to have a view” of Peters and did not see Trotman either. “She is very sure that Miss Trotman was not with you and she saw you sitting at [the] desk alone,” the Crown’s lawyer, Victoria Casey QC told the MP in court.
Trotman’s presence is key to Peters’ argument that although he did not tick a box saying he was in a de facto relationship, he had Trotman with him at the office and introduced her to the case manager as his partner. That, he says, was all the evidence the case manager needed to fill in his form correctly.
Peters told Casey: “Jan was there … Jan would have been to thousands of meetings where she has not been noticed.”
He was particularly exercised by the claim of the MSD receptionist that Trotman was not with him. “That’s an extraordinary claim and desperate, if I might say so – a receptionist, nine years later… unless she has a photographic memory and can remember every room she’s been in.”
The receptionist had escorted him to the ‘seniors’ waiting area, and said she could see him alone in the case manager’s office, Casey said. Peters responded: “That’s her evidence and she’s wrong.”
Trotman then had her own opportunity to deny the trio’s evidence that she wasn’t somewhere she says she was.
Taking the stand as a witness for Peters, the 67-year-old business executive said she had deliberately not built a personal public profile in the 17 years she and Peters had been together.
“I do not seek personal attention. I will intentionally stand off, away or behind Winston. Over 17 years there has been a minimal number of times I’ve been photographed with him.
“I value my privacy. Winston is, in my mind, the most intensely private person I have met in my life and I respect this of him.”
The pair gave different locations for their addresses, Peters saying Northland and Trotman Auckland as they started their evidence.
Trotman said she remembered driving him to the MSD office in 2010, where “he went to the reception desk while I was waiting off to the side”. She then went to the office with Peters and the case manager, where she watched the case manager work on her computer and Peters look at forms. Trotman did not participate in the discussion.
“I made a judgment as to when the interview was finishing and I left to get the car. Having the car outside lets him control the discussions with the public … A manager had asked to meet him and staff wanted photos. I did not meet, see or know who this manager was.”
Trotman said she returned days later to that same office to hand in material that was needed for Peters’ application. That visit might have explained an MSD staff reference to his ‘secretary’ having attended.
In cross examination by Casey, Trotman said she had no reason to put herself forward at the meeting. “It was Winston’s meeting. I’m there more as support.”
Peters had earlier in the day told the court he might have filled out part of the superannuation form in an area of the centre where forms were found. But Trotman said they walked directly to a waiting room for seniors and did not talk to or get introduced to anyone other than the case manager.
“I had not been in an MSD office. If was my first experience. I didn’t know that there is a separate section for Seniors. It doesn’t make you feel that good.”
Casey asked: “Mr Peters did not stop to fill in the form himself?”
Trotman replied: “I do not recall that. It is not a detail I can recall.”
She did not help fill out the form in the office but was there as support. “It is an unusual situation that we have. People will come to interrupt him, take photos, talk about policy or what party they should go to, when he is trying to do something else.
“My purpose is to judge and to see the environment is a safe environment – is it one he is actually going to have people come and do things?”
Casey suggested she was “kind of running interference”.
“Correct,” said Trotman. “Running interference? I’m just being mindful of the environment.”
Her chance to give evidence supporting Peters came after almost a day of being outside the courtroom as he was cross-examined. She missed him explaining that he had his former wife in mind, not Trotman, when he ticked boxes in the form that he was separated and living apart, and not divorced, and that he would fill in the form the same way today.
“Most people married would regard their wife or husband as a partner. It is the massive majority definition of this relationship,” Peters had said.
The Crown is painstakingly attempting to prove he is wrong in claiming MSD officers were responsible for accepting and processing the incomplete and wrong form. Further he claims the Crown acted in bad faith.
Casey’s cross-examination of Peters about his failure to complete the form was interrupted by the Chief High Court Judge, Justice Geoffrey Venning, who said the case was one of breach of privacy and it was accepted a mistake had been made on the form. He did not expect to spend much time on the form-filling in his judgment.
However, Peters’ lawyer Brian Henry acknowledged to the judge that the MP’s case also alleged bad faith on behalf of the department, so Justice Venning let the questioning proceed.
The first full evidence from an MSD witness is expected on Wednesday.