THIS LATEST POLITICAL “SCANDAL” involving Winston Peters reminds me of The Godfather. Not the famous scene in which Sonny Corleone is assassinated at the toll booth, but the earlier scene in which Michael Corleone realises that there are no staff on duty in the hospital where his wounded father is being treated. The empty nurses’ work station, the silent corridors, the overwhelming sense of something being “off” – all of it communicates a single, unmistakeable message to Michael. This is a hit.
Unfortunately, New Zealand’s mainstream news media lacks the instincts of the fictional mafioso. Thrown a large chunk of red meat by … oh, that’s right, the scandal-mongers have told us nothing about the source of their accusations other than to locate him/her/them “within a concerned public service apparatus” … the media dogs have all, as intended, started baying for more of Mr Peters’ blood.
How strange it is that, at the time of writing, only Jordan Williams from The Taxpayers’ Union, has felt moved to observe: “Winston Peters has either been the victim of a political hit-job, or there is a serious flaw with the Ministry of Social Development’s systems which saw Mr Peters accidentally overpaid”. Clearly, Mr Jordan recognises “dirty politics” when he sees it – so why can’t this country’s leading political journalists?
We must hope that the answer to that question is not the same in 2017 as it was in 2008. Nine years ago, when Mr Peters was similarly under fire for alleged financial irregularities, there was open collusion between the NZ First leader’s political opponents and members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Politicians on the Right wanted Winston and his party out of Parliament. Political journalists were desperate for the sort of information that keeps the punters coming back for more. A biologist would call it a “symbiotic relationship”.
Is the need to preserve and nurture that symbiotic relationship the reason why our leading political journalists have not reacted to the inflammatory “Co-habiting Peters billed $18,000” headline, by demanding to know from which “concerned public service apparatus” that $18,000 figure originated? Is that why the two most obvious suspects: The Ministry of Social Development, which administers NZ Superannuation; and the Inland Revenue Department, which processes New Zealanders’ tax returns; have not been pressured for answers?
For those of us with no skin in this game, that is the question that must not only be asked, but answered. Because, if the information comes from MSD, then a scandalous breach of a citizen’s privacy has occurred. And if Mr Peters’ communications with Inland Revenue have been leaked by someone working inside that particular “public service apparatus”, then whoever received that information has made themselves party to a serious criminal offence.
Always, the critical journalistic question arising out of this sort of political hit is: “Cui bono?” (Who benefits?) Which political party would benefit the most by embarrassing Mr Peters and driving down his party’s support?
Richard Harman, proprietor of the Politik website, has (almost certainly unwittingly) identified one possible beneficiary in his latest posting, “National Sees Path To Power” (28/8/17) in which he states: “National is now going to target Winston Peters and NZ First in the hope of winning one or two per cent of his vote back off him. They believe that will be enough to hold on to power.”
If it is even remotely possible that the so-called “scandal” of Mr Peters’ superannuation overpayments could have been set in motion by persons either within, or aligned to, the National Party (which is certainly, as the party in government, best placed to organise such a “hit”) then why isn’t that the story?
After all, no one is disputing that, upon learning of the MSD’s overpayment of his pension, Mr Peters’ responded by repaying the sum of the overpayment (plus interest) immediately. Also undisputed is the claim that Mr Peters and his partner visited the MSD together in 2010, and that Mr Peters’ details were entered into its database by a senior MSD staff-member. It stretches credulity to suggest that the de facto relationship between the NZ First leader and his partner could somehow have been missed – except by accident. Certainly, Mr Peters is clear that any such “accident” was the MSD’s – not his.
What we have, therefore, is the story of a senior politician who, as a simple citizen (Mr Peters was not an MP in 2010) and accompanied by his partner, registered for NZ Superannuation in person at the Auckland offices of the MSD, and soon thereafter began receiving his pension. Seven years later, that same senior politician is informed by MSD that he has been incorrectly designated and, therefore, overpaid his pension. Immediately, the senior politician makes good the overpaid amount
And yet, we see the same media dogs who tore Metiria Turei to pieces, now bounding after Mr Peters. They are demanding that he release to them all personal financial records pertaining to his pension. His comfortable personal circumstances are being waved before the public, as if he was some sort of latter-day Marie Antoinette. Once again, Mr Peters is being showered with mud by politicians and journalists bound together in what can only be described as an ethically deficient political symbiosis. And, as we all know, mud sticks.
In the movie, Don Corleone survives because his son convinces the hit-men sent to kill him that he is under the protection of men who will not hesitate to fight back. If Winston is looking for a way to both relax and rearm himself in the midst of this politically-motivated and media-driven “scandal”, then he should, perhaps, sit down in front of the nearest TV, with a decent-sized measure of single malt, and take some lessons from The Godfather.