Two former cabinet ministers take the stand in the Winston Peters super case, fending off suggestions the leaker could have been drinking and trying to impress a journalist.
Could someone from the National Party, stressed, and slightly or heavily intoxicated have told journalist Barry Soper that news of Winston Peters’ superannuation overpayment was about to leak?
That was an implication from a series of questions from Peters’ lawyer Brian Henry in the High Court at Auckland today to former National minister Paula Bennett.
He did not ask Bennett if she was that person.
But when he asked her if she had a view on the “inference” which could be taken from Soper’s evidence on Tuesday that he had been told by someone from National, she answered:
“No. I’ve had many allegations made as to who may or may not have leaked this but I see no more validity in this than any other.”
Henry, who had called the NewstalkZB political editor Soper to give evidence under subpoena, said: “Someone told him about this coming scandal for Mr Peters. Someone he is leaving us to infer is from the National Party.”
Both Bennett, who was briefed about the overpayment as Minister of State Services, and Anne Tolley, who, as then-Minister of Social Development similarly was told by her department chief, have denied they had anything to do with the information reaching the public. They specifically denied making or being involved in anonymous phone calls to Newshub and Newsroom in August 2017.
Peters was overpaid $18,000 over seven years after failing to correctly complete his superannuation application and receiving the single person payment rather than that for those in de facto relationships, which was his position.
He made news of his overpayment and repayment public after anonymous tips to the media organisations persuaded him the issue was about to become public a month before the 2017 general election.
He is seeking damages of $450,000 from the National MPs, the ministry’s former chief executive, the Attorney-General on behalf of the ministry and the State Services Commissioner for an alleged breach of privacy and for the public service acting in bad faith in sharing his information.
Tolley and Bennett gave evidence that they accepted the briefings from their officials under the public service’s ‘no surprises policy’ in which ministers are told of possibly controversial issues from their departments.
After being briefed, Tolley sought advice from a senior adviser (who later told three others on her staff, despite her instruction to keep it confidential), the former Prime Minister’s chief of staff, her husband and even told her sister – who had made the mistake of speaking positively of Peters in Anne Tolley’s presence.
The MP said she had full confidence in her office staff not to have leaked, (as found by an Internal Affairs department inquiry in the leak). She knew that the chief of staff and her sister found out after the anonymous media calls were made and she had complete confidence in her husband to keep such issues confidential.
“The person I regret that I gave any details to was my sister and that’s because I was tired and cross – and I regretted it instantly.”
As for Bennett, she told former Prime Minister Bill English and former National campaign manager Steven Joyce the day before Peters revealed his overpayment, because they were worried she might be the subject of an unrelated media scandal.
It was in Bennett’s cross-examination that Henry, for Peters, suggested a National person had been Soper’s source.
Despite Soper declining in court to reveal that source, Henry told Bennett: “He had been told by a source that we are left to infer was from the National Party.”
Justice Geoffrey Venning interceded to say: “That’s your inference, I think, Mr Henry.”
Later, Henry asked Bennett if she had started to feel stressed at that part of the election campaign, to which she replied: “No, I love a campaign.”
She agreed there had been other, personal rumours about her background and social welfare entitlements, “horrific allegations taking a toll on my family”.
Senior party colleagues had been concerned for her when social media news of a looming political scandal arose on Saturday August 26, 2017, when she was at the National Party’s conference. “That was in the context that it would not have just been me but it would have hurt my family.”
She had told both English and Joyce the media scandal would most likely be about Peters rather than herself but that was after social media speculation had already been rampant. “I thought that was the story that Newsroom was about to publish.”
Henry asked her: “People have confidential information that can be a bit juicy. I think you used the words ‘good gossip’ after [the Peters issue] went public.
“People under stress, perhaps slightly intoxicated, or heavily intoxicated who have such good gossip can accidentally leak these stories?”
Bennett: “I have no idea what other people may do when stressed. I’m a Westie. When we have something to say to people we say it straight to them.”
Henry asked if around Parliament having “the best bit of social gossip is important”.
Bennett: “I believe some people are like that, yes.”
“People who live for the buzz?”
Bennett: “I’m sure there’s people like that. They are not generally the people that I associate with.”
She did not accept the leak had greatly damaged Peters. “A mistake had been made and he had done the right thing and paid it back. When I heard I thought ‘Good on him and he had integrity for doing it’… I thought it could reflect well on him, not poorly.”
Bennett claimed to have been annoyed when the Peters story broke as it had the potential to steal the thunder of the National Party’s campaign launch event, which she had worked on. “The last thing I wanted was a different story.”
Both Bennett and Tolley disagreed with Henry that as ministers they ought to have quizzed the public service officials in advance on the type of information to be provided to them and declined to accept a briefing on such private matters.
“No,” Bennett said “when the most senior civil servant, with doors shut, says he wants to disclose [something] to me under the no surprises policy, I let him speak”.
The civil servants wanted to ensure the integrity of the public service had been upheld in that Peters had not been treated differently from any other person – but also realised that the matter could become public so under the accepted conventions they needed to brief ministers once the MSD inquiry had been completed and the matter closed.
Tolley said it was not a “titillating” briefing, as Henry had suggested, but was presented professionally.
The State Services Commissioner, Peter Hughes, and the former chief executive of the Ministry of Social Development, Brendan Boyle will give evidence next week.