David Slack: NZ First and its inscrutable leader Winston Peters

12:16 pm on 26 November 2019

Opinion - Winston Peters has asserted many times that he didn't leave the National Party, the party left him.

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Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Look at the two of them, 30 years on. Strangers, in many ways.

New Zealand First prizes enterprise but won't necessarily say no to a bit of protectionism; is particular about older New Zealanders; is determined to protect and preserve our existing way of life, no matter how little sense that might make.

National likes free trade, free markets, and long walks on the beach with leaders of Communist China.

The one thing they seem to have in common is a fondness for elegant opacity in political funding.

Let us be clear on this legal question: both parties assert there is no fault whatsoever in the way they gather political donations and report them. The National Party looks forward to having this confirmed in its present Serious Fraud Office investigation. New Zealand First is adamant the Electoral Commission will conclude, after investigating questions about loans made to the NZ First Party by the New Zealand First Foundation trust, that nothing is out of order.

It can be hard to make questions go away about the source of your funds. It can be extremely hard to run for office without any.

Maybe one day political parties will no longer need hundreds of thousands of dollars to mount a campaign. Maybe that day is near. In this dystopian media landscape where a politician can put anything you like on Facebook and they'll wave you through, you can go viral for vastly less than the sort of money it cost to make a dancing cossack TV commercial.

What political party would rather not have to go through the grind of getting people to put their hands in their deep pockets on the understanding they will be getting absolutely no pro for their quid?

If a property developer were to make a donation to a trust that then made a loan to a political party that then voted against a capital gains tax, surely it's obvious: that doesn't mean anyone did anything wrong. But this is the sort of inference some people will draw, especially if they are "journalists" or "psychos".

The same thing holds for the appointment of directors to boards, and the making of funding applications. This month we learned that a forestry company with close links to New Zealand First had applied, without success, for a $15 million loan from the Provincial Growth Fund, which of course is overseen by NZ First minister Shane Jones.

The company in question is New Zealand Future Forest Products. Brian Henry, lawyer for Winston Peters and judicial officer for the New Zealand First party, is a founding director. His son, David Henry, is another founding director and the company's managing director, and Winston Peters' partner Jan Trotman was made a director of the company in August.

It was set up in March, and was soon getting applications into the system for a $15m loan from the Provincial Growth Fund and also funding from the billion trees project.

The Provincial Growth Fund bid was in due course considered and rejected by Labour ministers after Shane Jones recused himself from the process.

Why you wouldn't want to get out, as comms advisers like to say, in front of that story is puzzling. Especially given that what emerged about New Zealand Future Forest Products once the requisite press releases and website belatedly appeared, was a pretty positive story about talented young New Zealanders coming home after doing big things in the world and seeing if they might apply their expertise to an enterprise with excellent 21st century green credentials. The plan is to add value to local timber rather than shipping out raw logs. Jobs, exporting sustainability. What's not to like?

There is the Caesar's wife thing, of course. Even if your ends are admirable and it's all above board, there are questions about proximity and influence that might be provoked, so why would you not anticipate those questions and address them?

But the most obvious and direct route tends to be the one less travelled by Winston Peters.

Perhaps his enigmatic and inscrutable intent here has been to function as a sort of pathfinder; to lead us to revelation.

For example: political funding reform. By presenting us with a confounding spectacle of contortions in trust donations, is he leading us towards saying "there must surely be a better way for political parties to be funded, what is it?"

By leading us into the world of regional development funding, is he ensuring we get to see just how robust the system is? And is he also perhaps piquing our interest in the green economy?

With Winston Peters, everything can seem opaque. But perhaps he simply understands that we still have much to learn.

* David Slack is an author, columnist and speechwriter. He was speechwriter for prime ministers Geoffrey Palmer and Jim Bolger.

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