NZ First's political donations: A creeping feeling of deja vu

8:20 pm on 19 November 2019

Power Play - Swirling rumours of dodgy dealings over political donations, Winston Peters full of bluster and denial, and potentially a drawn-out series of combative but ultimately meaningless exchanges with the parliamentary press gallery.

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Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

In 2008 it all went wrong for Mr Peters; the months of controversy around the Spencer Trust and attacks on his integrity resulted in a ballot box defeat, ejecting him and his party into the political wilderness.

The central allegation was around a $100,000 donation from businessman Owen Glenn - he insisted he made the donation to New Zealand First with the knowledge of Mr Peters - who said he knew nothing about it.

Let's not rehash the details, but the upshot was a parliamentary censure for Mr Peters. The police and the Serious Fraud Office would investigate and the party would be cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. The timing couldn't have been worse though; it was only a matter of days before the 2008 election that the police came out and said no offence was committed.

The fallout from the donations scandal had inflicted serious damage; the then-National leader John Key sealed New Zealand First's fate by ruling the party out as a potential government partner well ahead of polling day.

Mr Peters will no doubt disagree but much of the controversy was driven by his refusal to admit to any wrongdoing - however minor - which led to increasingly fractious exchanges with reporters, over weeks and weeks.

There were also theatrics - he summoned journalists to the party's offices in Bowen House where he brandished the infamous "No" sign - the reply to every journalist's question about receiving the Glenn donation.

Then there was the spectacle that was the Privileges Committee. A super-sized select committee room set up for the occasion with big screen TVs for prime viewing. Main antagonist and ACT leader Rodney Hide took up his position at the front of the public gallery each day as Mr Peters and loyal lawyer Brian Henry were put through their paces.

Mr Peters was censured by Parliament but in the end that was just a slap on the wrist.

More testing were his relationships with then-Prime Minister Helen Clark and Deputy Michael Cullen, who stood by Mr Peters until his resignation as Foreign Minister became inevitable.

The bonds of that political relationship were stretched to the limit, as Miss Clark and Dr Cullen argued party matters had no bearing on his position as minister - right up until they did.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion he could have avoided much of this had he admitted early to a mistake with the donation, and just amended the pecuniary interest register accordingly.

But has the lesson been learned more than a decade later?

With a gleam in his eye Mr Peters fronted to political reporters quoting his media release that had added little to the sum of public knowledge - "declarable donations were declared to the Electoral Commission", it stated.

"Read the press release," he barked in response to any questions about the Foundation, before sweeping through the throng of reporters.

There are perhaps lessons here too for Jacinda Ardern, as Prime Minister of the Cabinet, and who the opposition will ultimately hold responsible if these allegations gain momentum.

National has described the latest claims, if true, as the most serious of their kind in New Zealand history.

But as with internal political scandals, National will have to step carefully as its nose is not completely clean.

For years it used blind trusts to transfer donations to the party itself, a practice that ceased with a law change. Even now there is still an active Serious Fraud Investigation into the National Party relating to the disclosure of donations.

No reason, said deputy leader Paula Bennett, for New Zealand First to be let off the hook, and all signs are they will continue to pursue these latest allegations.

Simon Bridges could perhaps do more damage to New Zealand First by doing a "John Key" and simply ruling them out as a future governing partner.

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