11 Oct 2008

Winston Peters says NZ First cleared

1:52 pm on 11 October 2008

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is adamant that all matters regarding his party's electoral returns have been resolved.

The Serious Fraud Office has found no basis for fraud charges to be laid, but it says questions remain about possible breaches of electoral law over the party's non-disclosure of donations.

It has referred information to the police and Electoral Commission investigations into the party's 2005 and 2007 returns.

But Mr Peters says the matter still comes down to the legal advice the party had at the time.

He says electoral law has since been clarified.

"We went to the Electoral Commission way back then, said that we had had this legal opinion; asked them for theirs." he says. "They didn't have one.

"They said to rely on your own legal opinion, which we did. That's where this matter started and still rests, and that's why I supported a change to the Electoral Act because the Electoral Act wasn't clear back then, it is now."

It is understood the Electoral Commission will meet on Wednesday to consider the issue.

The National Party says the SFO result does not change its stance that it will not work with Mr Peters, and the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, is not giving his ministerial portfolios back, with other investigations continuing and the election close.

Questions raised - Liddell

SFO director Grant Liddell said there was no basis for laying fraud charges relating to donations channelled through the Spencer Trust.

However, he said the way they were dealt with did raise questions about other possible breaches, relating to electoral matters.

Mr Liddell says a $25,000 donation from businessman Sir Robert Jones to the trust was used for legitimate party purposes. However, he says some of the other contributions may have been used to meet the cost of expenses relating to the 2005 general election.

Mr Liddell said information had been given to the police and the Electoral Commission, which are also investigating donations to the party.

Explanation still needed - Hide

ACT Party leader Rodney Hide, who sparked the inquiry into the New Zealand First Party, says Mr Peters still needs to explain why a secret trust was funnelling donations to his party.

"Why he took business donations, put them through a secret trust and used that to fund his legal costs and his party costs without even, it appears, his party knowing and certainly without declaring it as required by our electoral laws and by Parliament."

Waste of time - Peters

Mr Peters described the SFO investigation as a waste of time and money, insisting the party had done nothing wrong and saying he had been the victim of a character assassination.

"All those matters have been resolved in our discussions with the Electoral Commission, and these matters arise also from a variance in people's view of the law. We still haven't got clarity on that but we've put in a return in the alternative, should their view of the law be correct."

Mr Peters says he believes he has already declared a gift he received in January last year, which the SFO says was not declared.

Prime Minister pleased

Prime Minister Helen Clark says though she is pleased at the result of the SFO inquiry, Mr Peters will not be given back his ministerial portfolios.

Mr Peters had stepped down from his portfolios, including Foreign Affairs Minister.

Miss Clark says the police and the Electoral Commission are still looking into matters regarding New Zealand First. Given that, and the fact the general election is close, she says she will continue in the roles as a fresh mandate is sought.

The election will be held on 8 November.