24 Jul 2020

Week in politics: A sense of fear in the corridors of power

7:55 pm on 24 July 2020

By Peter Wilson *

Analysis - A disgraced National MP resigns and a cabinet minister gets the sack, Winston Peters launches NZ First's campaign with an attack on his partner parties and has to explain why two wealthy friends visited Antarctica at the taxpayers' expense.

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Winston Peters taking media questions at parliament this week. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Two down, and are there more to go? Tit-for-tat dobbing in, if that's what it was, must be catching. It's a stretch to believe the Andrew Falloon train wreck and the sacking of Iain Lees-Galloway in the same week were coincidental.

"Many have wondered about the timing of the Lees-Galloway sacking," Stuff said in an editorial. "If the affair was well known and finished months ago, why was it only just brought to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's attention? It was obviously connected in some way to Falloon's folly."

The record shows Ardern received an email about Falloon having sent an indecent picture to a young woman. With the sender's permission, she passed it to National Party leader Judith Collins.

Collins received an email from a third party about Lees-Galloway's affair with a former staffer. She passed it on to Ardern.

There was one difference. Ardern didn't reveal she had received the email until after the Falloon story broke. Collins went public about hers when she told the AM Show she had received information about a cabinet minister.

She then told Morning Report: "I haven't actually put it in the public domain. I've been asked a direct question this morning on another news media about whether I have received anything like that and the answer is yes I have."

It's been a bad week for MPs and for Parliament. Labour's Poto Williams used her general debate speech on Wednesday to appeal for better behaviour, saying the sleazy actions of a few tainted all of them and voters were sick of it.

National MP Andrew Falloon (left) resigned after it emerged he allegedly sent explicit images to at least four women and Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway was stripped off his ministerial portfolios after it was revealed that he had a 12-month-long inappropriate relationship with a former staffer.

National MP Andrew Falloon, left, and Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway both fell from grace this week. Photo: RNZ

Lees-Galloway could consider himself unfortunate. His affair doesn't seem to have been much of a secret around Parliament, and liaisons like that seldom are. Nothing happened to him before this week.

Ross Vintiner, former prime minister David Lange's press secretary, told Checkpoint: "In my time it was a hub of sexual activity. I have known over the years ministers and MPs who have had affairs and who have not had to resign."

Lees-Galloway was outed during the turmoil around Falloon, and Ardern had to act.

She said at her dismissal press conference she would have handled it the same way regardless. "This is the Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety. I expect behaviour here that is appropriate."

Party leaders are reported to have told their MPs to front up if they've done anything that could get them into trouble, and anyone who has done something scandalous should be very worried.

Stuff's Henry Cook said there was a palpable sense of fear in the corridors. "Rumours about the personal lives of MPs are rife, and while plenty of them are utterly untrue, enough have been borne out to make any party leader nervous."

By the end of the week, five women had complained about Falloon sending them offensive material and police had re-opened their investigation.

If these political tragedies hadn't been playing out, the week would have belonged to Winston Peters, in ways he did and didn't want.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters at his 2020 election campaign launch.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters at his 2020 election campaign launch. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Peters began it by launching NZ First's campaign, making sure he got media traction by attacking his partner parties Labour and the Greens and talking about the way he had opposed their "woke pixie dust".

Before the launch, some commentators had said he wouldn't be able to campaign on immigration this time because there wasn't any. They got that wrong. "Winston Peters took to the stage to the same theme songs and the same policies from years gone by," RNZ reported.

Those policies were fewer immigrants and more frontline police. The immigration re-set would be that no more than 15,000 people coming in each year and one of his MPs would hold the immigration portfolio.

"We were bringing immigration down but not nearly fast enough, because we weren't in charge," he said.

With his party polling below 3 per cent, Peters needs a spectacular campaign. He's promising "explosive new ideas".

Political commentator Bryce Edwards doesn't think he will succeed. "It's hard for a party in government to attack that government and what that government is doing," he said.

"The main pitch of the campaign launch was 'we will stop things' and it's a very negative way to try to get votes. I don't think it's going to work."

Peters, as usual, won't say which party he will work with after the election. Until 2017 he had sided with the party which won the most seats, but that changed when he went into coalition with Labour.

Edwards thinks that's another reason NZ First will fail. "Those on the political right will punish him for that and those on the left that want to reward him are just going to vote for Labour anyhow. He's lost both sides."

On Monday Peters was ordered to pay nearly $320,000 in costs for his failed attempt to pin a privacy breach on top civil servants and former National ministers. He has appealed the decision

On Wednesday he said he knew who had leaked the details of his pension overpayments to the media. Under parliamentary privilege he said former National Party press secretary Rachel Morton was the original source. He claimed she had told ACT Party leader David Seymour, her partner at the time, who passed it on to Jordan Williams of the Taxpayers' Union.

"Williams, who is no stranger to dirty politics, told John Bishop - father of National MP Chris Bishop - and the details were then leaked to Newsroom's Tim Murphy," Peters said. The whole thing had been "an ACT-inspired hit job".

All those named flatly denied having anything to do with it. Seymour said Peters was desperate and delusional.

Scott Base redevelopment design.

A redevelopment design concept for Scott Base in Antarctica. Photo: Supplied.

That wasn't the end of Peters' week. On the same day, RNZ broke the story: "Foreign Minister Winston Peters directed Antarctica New Zealand to give two highly-prized seats on a trip to the icy continent to two women closely linked to one of South East Asia's richest families."

The investigation showed Bee Lin Chew and her daughter Su Arn Kwek, who hold joint Malaysian-New Zealand citizenship, travelled to Scott Base at taxpayers' expense. Bee Lin Chew said in an interview she was a friend of Peters and his partner Jan Trotman.

Documents obtained under the Official Information Act showed Antarctica NZ pushed back against the request but eventually complied with the "firmly held views" from Peters' office.

Peters' explanation was that he had been trying to help Antarctica NZ raise $50 million in private sponsorship to offset some of the cost of a $250 million Scott Base redevelopment.

A spokesman said Antarctica NZ had done nothing to raise money and Peters was "trying to shake it out of its torpor".

Stuff reported it didn't get a donation from the women.

The much-anticipated question time head-to-head between Ardern and Collins didn't really catch fire, although the prime minister livened it up with a clever one-liner.

Collins chose the government's failure to deliver on its Auckland light rail promise. Ardern said if she was going to go on about that, she would know that "sometimes it takes a little longer to get what you want" - a reference to Collins repeated attempts to gain the party leadership.

* Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, spent 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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