The New Zealand First leader displayed his usual bluster as he tried to wave off Serious Fraud Office charges over a foundation linked to the party – but even Winston Peters may not be able to talk his way out of this one, Sam Sachdeva writes

In a gallery room at the Cordis Hotel, a pack of journalists in front of him and waiting in anticipation, Winston Peters stood at a podium and watched the seconds tick away.

Was the New Zealand First leader contemplating the final days of a political career that has spanned five decades?

The truth was a little more prosaic. Peters was a little early, and waiting for the clock to strike 5pm, when suppression lifted on the Serious Fraud Office’s announcement that it had laid a charge of “obtaining by deception” against two people in relation to the New Zealand First Foundation.

The news amounted to a validation of an investigation by Stuff journalist Matt Shand published last November, and subsequent reporting from RNZ’s Guyon Espiner, reporting that financial records showed donations to the foundation had been used to fund an array of campaign and political expenses, but with the donors’ identities not disclosed.

Not that you would have learned as much from the first few minutes of the New Zealand First leader’s remarks.

The party had been “fully cleared”, Peters claimed – largely ignoring the fact that two people had been charged, and instead leaning on the SFO’s clarification that neither of those was a sitting MP, staffer, candidate, or current party member.

But that was just the start, as he launched into an extraordinary attack on the judgment and actions of the SFO.

It had acted “unreasonably and without justification”, Peters alleged, both in how it had carried out the investigation and the announcement of charges itself.

Comey comparison doesn’t hold up

He claimed “a James Comey-level error of judgement” had been perpetrated against his party, harking back to the former FBI director’s ill-fated decision to reopen an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server on the eve of the 2016 United States election.

But that analogy crumbles at the merest examination. The primary problem with Comey’s decision was that Clinton had already been investigated and cleared over the matter earlier in the year, with the FBI director publicly reopening the matter against official guidelines only to reach the same verdict.

The SFO has clearly found enough evidence to feel a prosecution is worth pursuing, and while the accused are certainly entitled to a presumption of innocence, a decision not to lay any charges whatsoever would have been another matter altogether.

The New Zealand First leader has habitually sought to distance himself and his party from the foundation’s operations, a strategy he turned to on Tuesday: “The foundation is an entirely separate entity [from the party] but that distinction will be lost on some, and deliberately confused by others.”

At a superficial, technical level, Peters is correct. But that ignores the broader truth: that the foundation appears to have funded a number of the party’s activities in recent years, from a guest appearance by boxer Joseph Parker at its 2017 conference to legal advice for an MP and a swish new website and donations platform.

The specifics of how foundation money was spent have yet to be tested at trial, but New Zealand First has not contested that it benefited financially from the trust – merely that it believed the foundation’s structure was legal, and in any case was separate from the party.

But separate does not mean independent, and if the party has benefited from the foundation it seems fair for it to take some responsibility for any wrongdoing, even if not in a strictly legal sense.

Winston Peters hasn’t made a habit of accepting accountability for any mistakes. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

In this term of Parliament, and throughout his career, Peters has made a habit of focusing on what is legally right, rather than ethically so.

Through that lens, his party’s fairly risible attempt to suppress (through the High Court) the news of the SFO charges not just until after the election, but until the formation of the next government, makes more sense.

Never mind that doing so would have been morally reprehensible, depriving voters of information in the public interest at the time when it is most important they be fully informed – they’re legally entitled to seek such an order, so why wouldn’t they?

As Justice Matthew Palmer noted, Peters and New Zealand First may have some justification for feeling put out by the timing of the announcement and the possible impact on their election chances.

But it is worth exploring the counterfactual: what if the SFO had acquiesced to the party’s wishes, and waited until after a new government had been sworn in to reveal the news?

Voters would have some justification for feeling hoodwinked, as would New Zealand First’s hypothetical coalition partners – both of whom may have benefited from knowing the party they backed had been at least partly funded by a foundation whose workings appear, in the minds of the SFO, to have breached the law.

Some self-reflection would not go amiss, and now is as good a time as any – after all, there may not be much longer to go.

If making an announcement about criminal charges linked to a political party before an election is in some way inappropriate, artificially delaying news of said charges until after the close of voting would be doubly so – and it seems reasonable to err on the side of public disclosure.

There’s not all that much of New Zealand First’s support left to be chipped away by the disclosure, either: the party hasn’t been above the five percent threshold in any public polls since February, and has been lucky to reach even half that in recent months (it was on just one percent in the most recent 1 News-Colmar Brunton poll on Monday).

While the February announcement of the SFO investigation may have played some role in its electoral decline, it is nobody’s fault but the foundation’s if (as the agency has concluded) it has a case to answer in court, while there are myriad other unrelated factors that have hobbled the party. 

Of course, that won’t stop Peters from blaming the SFO, and the media, and mysterious dark forces aligning against him, come October 17.

It is not unusual for politicians to dodge accountability, but the veteran has taken it to new heights during his long career.

Some self-reflection would not go amiss, and now is as good a time as any – after all, there may not be much longer to go.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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