These days, possibly due to one or perhaps both of us having grown, I don’t see eye-to-eye with Winston quite as much as I used to. But if there’s one thing I’ve always absolutely hated in politics, it’s an unvarnished and quite undeserved brouhaha-bandwagon-beatup.
And from where I’m sitting, that’s EXACTLY what certain figures on the right and in the media (but then, I repeat myself) are attempting to do to Winston over his superannuation overpayment non-starter of a non-scandal.
Let’s be clear about this. Yes, Winston received more money than he was entitled to. Nobody denies this – least of all Winston. And yes, Winston was notified about this by MSD with the story eventually being ‘broken’ by Newshub [who were presumably ‘scooping’ Newsroom for reasons we’ll go into a bit later], rather than “coming clean” of his own admission like Turei did.
But within twenty four hours of the Ministry of Social Development hitting up Winston about his seven years of overpayments, he’d arranged to sort it out with them and pay back the money. Exactly what Turei probably should have done *long* before she chose to go public with her own circumstances – although personally, I’m not quite sure how much of a reasonable comparison there is between an unemployed solo mother struggling to put food on the table and Winston’s personal circumstances circa 2010.
So why is this a story at all, then? What possible angle is there to hook leading political journalists up and down the country into devoting so many acres of celluloid and lakes of newsprint (as well as, presumably, the Chinese-owned paper-pulp forestry to print it upon) into covering an older New Zealander drawing his state-guaranteed pension, as is his right – but with a bit extra due to a paperwork snafu, that’s since been paid back.
Well, one explanation is – as the old Indian proverb goes – “the monkeys only shake the tree with the good mangoes”. Winston is ALWAYS news, with almost everything he does, particularly the more seemingly ‘controversial’ bits. And after some decades as a leading campaigner for ‘transparency’ in just about everybody else’s dealings, any whiff of a ‘cover-up’ [even if there is, pretty emphatically, no such thing actually occurring] is going to send the nation’s commentariat into an unholy frenzy that resembles nothing so much as airport sniffer-dogs who’ve suddenly developed an avowed cocaine problem.
And, as it happens, due to Winston’s long-standing championing of superannuation, its rates, and its accessibility, the fact that there is now a superannuation story STARRING the ‘king of super’ – rather than casting him as a noble champion for the Silver Horde [Cohen the Barbarian notwithstanding] – was also, always going to pique media interest. I remember the time he first used his Gold Card in 2010 [because I was there along for the ride to Waiheke and back as part of the stunt] and how much media attention THAT attracted, as a comparative example.
With this in mind, it would almost have been more intriguing had various breathless faux-“journalists” NOT seized upon this story to relentlessly parade about like a guy on a bogey around November 5th and on fire.
But there is another one. A better one.
Look “behind the curtain”, if you will.
The timing of events is, in politics, almost never coincidental.
Winston’s superannuation overpayment was picked up at some point in mid-late July – about the same time that Turei’s disclosure came out. It’s possible, albeit unlikely, that these two events are connected – and if I were a paranoid man (as opposed to actually having a number of folk out to get me), I’d have been wondering if the Nats had decided to go ‘trawling’ (or, perhaps in deference to Winston’s preferred hobbies, “fishing”) for data on various Opposition MPs which might be useful from MSD’s voluminous records, in light of Turei’s circumstances being such a goldmine. [Seriously – an “own-goal-mine” is probably the most charitable way to describe it. As compassionate as we might feel about her disclosure and its reasoning, it’s rather difficult ot argue that your poll numbers being halved and a pressurized resignation is a victory for National rather than the Greens]
However, the chain of events we now have to hand suggests a somewhat more ‘innocent’ path by which the National Party came into contact with the information in question – an MSD staffer informing Anne Tolley about the issue toward the end of the month under the ‘no surprises’ policy governing the public service. (It also appears, according to the same timeline, that Tolley probed Winston’s case again fifteen days later – perhaps ‘checking’ to see if there was an exploit in it for National)
And that’s where it gets INTERESTING.
Late last week, highly placed Beltway contacts of mine hit me up to ask if I knew anything about an impending scandal that was supposedly about to hit New Zealand First. I’m rather out of the loop when it comes to NZ First, so I had to confess that I did not.
I did, however, have the presence of mind to ask my associates just why they thought NZF was about to be in the gun. They bluntly stated that there was about to be a rather ‘large’ scandal concerning National due to come out early the next week, and that National was looking about to find something to ‘defuse’ the situation pre-emptively by putting out a DISTRACTION SCANDAL that would harm their adversaries and minimize the damage to their own side.
Some time after this, I found myself on to Twitter [because apparently, that’s where all the meaningful opinion-shaping in this country takes place], and saw Newsroom editor Tim Murphy’s series of tweets in relation to the “#MotherOfAllScandals” which his organization was due to break on Monday. A quick bit of digging identified what this was likely to be; meaning when folk started posting material about Winston’s superannuation situation on Sunday, I didn’t think that this was the “MOAS” being breathlessly referred to. And, interestingly, SundayStar Times editor Jonathan Milne was also of the opinion that the Winston story was not the aforementioned Maternal Super-Scandal.
(no word as yet about what he might have thought of the suggestion from one scurrilous wag over on Twitter that the #MotherOfAllScandals concerned Winston working as a dominatrix to illicitly supplement his state-provided MSD income)
It did, however, fit the profile for the aforementioned distraction-defusion story which National would want out in preparation for Big Things hitting the fan on Monday.
Adding potential complication to the chain of events is that Newsroom appeared ready to break the story on Monday (and we can tell this via the rather more detailed writeup which appeared there, replete with things like an eighteen thousand dollar figure for the repayment etc.), yet Newshub’s Lloyd Burr was all over the story as early as Saturday night – which would have been mere hours after the Beltway/Commentariat/Self-
So here’s what I think happened – National freaked about what was about to come out about them (nothing yet has – officially, at least – with speculation that this is due to some rather high-powered lawyers), and then decided to play their *ahem* trump card by ‘leaking’ the information on Winston’s circumstances to Burr et co in a desperate bid to get the nation’s news media heading off in another direction to the one they were then sniffing upon. And, at the same time, hopefully diminish NZ First’s (again rising) vote … whilst also perhaps drawing in voters who’d switched over to Labour back to NZ First [the ‘battler-sympathy demographic’ – as my rather wise former NZ Politics lecturer, Patrick Hine suggested when promulgating this theory].
Although with that theory now out there … there are still some other questions. Like just why Lloyd Burr was so desperate to present Winston as engaged in some sort of supremely dodgy “cover-up” over this issue. Take a listen to what he had to say on Newshub Monday night, for instance. He is at pains to present Winston’s story as demonstrably changing between Saturday night and Monday.
And to be fair, it sort-of does. Winston basically goes from saying [paraphrased] “I’m not dignifying that with a response” through to “I’m not dignifying that with a response, you absolute idiot”. I could perhaps tell you more about what Winston says in Monday’s Newshub outing … except Newshub have conveniently chosen to have Burr literally talking over in voiceover form whatever it is Winston says by way of explanation during their “interview” with him on that evening’s program. What on earth IS this? Make somebody appear dodgy by claiming they’re not responding to your requests for explanation … and then literally show them explaining the situation but don’t allow viewers to judge for themselves the merits of that explanation by ensuring they can’t hear it for the voice of a so-called “journalist” endlessly repeating “HE’S DODGY! HE’S DODGY! HE’S DODGY!”
It’s literally a situation wherein we might as well have had Burr’s contribution to the coverage being “On Saturday, Winston said it was Saturday. On Sunday he said it was Sunday! WHICH IS IT, MISTER PETERS?!”
Like I said – there is an actual beat-up going on here from certain quarters, and I won’t stand for it.
And while it’s probably not new for errant press-fiends to be attacking and haranguing Winston about just about everything … it’s some of the other points of criticism he’s been getting – and, indeed, which the superannuation system at large has been getting – particularly from folk who at least nominally self-identify as being on the ‘left wing’ or in the center of our nation’s politics.
Apparently, this error justifies completely shifting the way we do pensions in this country – whether increasing the age to 67 (or further), shifting to means-testing superannuation, putting pensioners through the same demeaning, debilitating, and denigrating set of hoop-jumping we regularly subject our beneficiaries to, or just about anything else to subtly chip away at one of the last remaining bastions of our pre-Ruthanasia broad-base and equitable Welfare State.
Most peculiarly, it’s folk on the to-the-left-of-ACT end of politics who are getting seriously vociferous about all of this. And I can’t quite work out whether it’s simple animosity towards Winston or more insidious desire to carry out some sort of ‘intergenerational political war’ against the older generations of New Zealanders … by targeting some of the least well off in our society (pensioners) except pretending you’re somehow taking on the high and mighty (one particular not entirely poverty-stricken MP).
To be fair, Winston is not on a bad salary at the moment as leader of the New Zealand First Party. He’s worked hard for that, though; and it’s probably important to note that when he applied for superannuation upon hitting 65, he wasn’t thusly employed or renumerated. In point of fact, he didn’t actually HAVE a stable income of his own – and was frantically shovelling money into desperately attempting to keep New Zealand First ticking over til we got back into Parliament.
So insisting he shouldn’t have applied for a pension in the first place is just a complete, woeful misunderstanding of his circumstances at the time. And in any case, it’s entirely legal and moral for an older New Zealander to receive the pension that they’ve spent pretty much all their working life paying into the tax system to fund in the first place. Indeed, one might argue that drawing a pension like that may even help to keep them more ‘in touch’ with some of the circumstances of those of their constituents who are also similarly funded.
It’s a matter of genuine anger for me, reading lines like these in Duncan Grieve’s Spinoff editorial from earlier in the week – which attempt to make out that Winston is somehow personally responsible via his pension for “studiously [taking] care to deny [our] children” an appropriate level of state support.
Because even a cursory look over New Zealand First’s record in office (where the party was responsible for securing free healthcare for under 6’s, for a start) and policy in the manifesto, suggests that if anything NZ First has been leading the charge in direct OPPOSITION to the undeniable trend towards underresourcing our kids which Grieve comments upon.
The unearned vitriol towards Winston is also not simply to be found from the benches of the commentariat, either – an absolute minority of whom, if any, presumably have to get by on an ordinary, unvarnished superannuation cheque per week.
I’ve seen a reasonable number of much younger, hipper [rather than hip-replacement] “lefties” deciding to take it upon themselves to do National’s dirty work for it and take Winston to task for something that pretty much everybody outright agrees probably wasn’t his fault.
Amongsts the worst of these was somebody whom I usually have a bit of time for castigating both Winston for allegedly “committing fraud”, and pretty much the entire political and media establishment for letting him off scot-free for the aforementioned criminal conduct whilst crucifying Metiria Turei a month earlier.
And to be fair, I think many readers of this site will agree that what happened to Turei was needless at best if not outright horrifying. But there’s simply no easy comparison to be had between Turei’s circumstances and Winston’s. Not least because to commit “fraud” – even the noblest of intentioned fraud as in the case of Turei – requires “intent”. Something which even Lloyd Burr was at pains to mention there was no evidence for Winston having possessed as applied his pension overpayments.
And yes, there an array of very unfair reasons why Winston’s experience in this regard has been and will continue to be different to that of Turei. For starters, there’s the “realpolitik” calculation – both National and Labour are going to need New Zealand First to form a Government next month. Neither party was ever especially wild about dealing with the Greens (except during the brief, halcyon days of the Memorandum of Understanding, I suppose). Winston’s circumstances are therefore referred to as “a private matter for Mr Peters” by both Bill English and Jacinda Ardern – in marked contrast to Ardern ruling Turei out of Cabinet.
For further, there’s the general disparagement with which beneficiaries are regarded by much of the voting population of New Zealand – the perennial “acceptable targets” of all manner of political (or policy-economic) abuse. Retirees, by contrast [or, more properly in this instance, folk who are 65+ but still working], get a much smoother ride from everybody other than ACT, the extreme right wing of the National Party, and occasionally Labour when it’s wishing to appear “fiscally responsible” at the expense of others whom it doesn’t think will be voting for it anyway.
And beyond that, well .. to put it bluntly, it’s Winston. Even leaving aside the issues of gender, class, and solo-motherishness (race, for obvious reasons, is a bit difficult to sketch a duality on here), Winston is always going to at this stage in his career, get less bludgeoned about the head due to a ‘scandal’ than another politician in even exactly the same situation – let alone a loosely comparable one. Part of that, no doubt, is because he’s become this endearing grandfatherly figure for the nation at large; and another part is due to that ancient Pratchettian maxim [*also* voiced by a man running a Silver Horde as it happens] … “don’t get into an arse-kicking contest with a porcupine”.
But like I said. That definitely doesn’t mean that Turei’s situation was “fair”. It also doesn’t mean that Winston’s situation is “fair” – on grounds that it’s very difficult to conceive of a universe in which MSD being used as a political weapon by the Government *is* fair. Not least because this definitely isn’t the first time National’s done this – recall all those instances of Paula Bennett disclosing information about folk criticizing her and her Ministry? National refused to apologize then, too…
Yet absolutely NONE of this justifies folk going around attacking or outright defaming Winston over this situation, in some sort of mistaken belief that if they just slander him hard enough or take the belt-sander to him vigorously enough … that this will somehow make the Turei resignation *un-happen*, or ensure “fair” treatment for both of them via the typical gold standard of applying liberally unfair treatment to the one who’s perceived as having gotten off ‘easier’ in both political stakes as well as the court of public opinion.
As a great man once said … “two wrongs don’t make a right”. I’m pretty sure that’s how that proverb’s supposed to go, isn’t it?
So let’s be clear about this, shall we?
Once more, from the top.
Yes, it appears that Winston was overpaid a state pension for a period of seven years.
Yes, it appears that somebody stuffed up to make this happen – albeit in a non-malicious/intentionally-
Yes, it appears that the situation was resolved to MSD’s satisfaction at some point prior to the National Party’s high-ups becoming aware of it.
Yes, it appears some seriously improper things have happened between there and Saturday Night to lead to what should have been a humdrum administrative matter becoming front-page news for what’s probably going to be a dominant portion of this year’s Election.
And Yes, Metiria did get a lot more of a harsh reception over her issue than Winston has had on his.
Not least, presumably, due to them not actually being the same issue at all – despite attempts to present them to the contrary – and because it’s now rather swiftly become National’s issue rather than Winston’s.
But No, Winston’s situation does NOT make the case for seriously monkeying with the superannuation system this country presently has in place. Although it’s quite probable that the “No Surprises” policy is going to get some at least strenuously cosmetic adjustment going forward.
And No, no social justice interests are meaningfully advanced – from ANY side – by attempting to lay into Winston because you don’t think he’s being hacked at aggressively enough.
The only people who benefit from folk seeking to do that, are the Nats and some of the Media – because that’s exactly what they wanted to have happen right from the get-go. Why give it to them.
So in summary … if you REALLY WANT a serious scandal to look into – it’s not Winston’s overpaid pension. It’s not even the outrage from the right and their partisan plants in our commentariat.
Instead, it’s the fact that we’ve got a Third Term government who’ve evidently chosen to WEAPONIZE the petty tyranny of state apparatii and surveillance/oversight in a bid to try and significantly impact the outcome of this year’s General Election. (and yup, again, this is something which ordinary beneficiaries and other welfare recipients have to put up with on a daily basis – it’s just that they don’t usually get to decide the Government)
I’m almost tempted to get my popcorn out of the pantry that was hitherto being saved for the ACTUAL Mother Of All Scandals to tide me over while this one plays out.
Whether you’re of the Left, the Right, or that mythical tfwtoointelligent political alignment, the “center” … you DESERVE to be ABSOLUTELY OUTRAGED at the way this whole thing has unfolded.
When it comes to this ongoing imbroglio’s narrative subject … Nobody (other than Winston, and yes this is actually in Hansard) has ever declared him to be without fault.
But it’s one HELL of a Crosby-Textor Deceased Feline And/Or Monty Python Post-Mortem Parrot that we now find ourselves in a situation wherein people nominally on the progressive side of politics – and everywhere else for that matter – are more interested in attacking the victim of some seriously dodgy practices by the state (or for that matter, beating allegedly “told you so” hobby-horse longstanding matters of policy), than they are in calling out the deplorable Government conduct which has been exposed in its course.
In fact, for the minds of some, it’s virtually a bloody albino pachyderm presently domiciled in or about one’s cranial lounge.
DON’T lose sight of the real issue here.
If you’re angry about Metiria, or angry about Paula Bennett, or angry about welfare, or angry about pensions, or angry about journalists, or angry about (perhaps even if just “at”) Winston … well, I’d like to think there’s one thing we can ALL agree on.
What’s happened to Winston is deplorable, disgusting, and actually outright dangerous for our democracy.
If you’ve ever found yourself subject to the state improperly exercising its powers over you and your personal information, then you presumably know where I’m going with this. Particularly if it was for some barely concealed political gain – and especially if it was actually a politician or political party who sought to use privileged information against you.
We need a hashtag. #IAmWinston
But more than that – we need real change.
If you’re a Nat reading this (unlikely, I know – but hey, stranger things have happened) … then please, next month, remember all the hatred you had for the “nanny state” or whatever it was back under Helen Clark, and vote AGAINST the same craven crew who seemingly have no issue finding out whatever it is they like about you, and then leaking it to the press should you even start to look like a threat.
And if you’re an anti-Nat reading this … well, take some solace in the fact that given Winston famously blocked the Green Party out of Government in 2005 as a direct response to, inter alia, Rod Donald basically calling him Hitler – just imagine how cold he’ll be on the possibility of supporting a National-led government after all this has blown up.
Gosh, all this excitement and there’s still 24 days to go! Following on from her odd comments to the media about putting on a different voice down a phone-line, has anybody checked on Paula Bennett recently…?
Tick, tick, tick…