Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern (Getty Images)

As SFO probes NZ First donations, Ardern is visited by the ghost of scandals past

The Serious Fraud Office will investigate donations relating to NZ First and the NZ First Foundation. It sets a tone for election year, and the spotlight on her deputy prime minister is the stuff of nightmares for Jacinda Ardern.

The course of election year in Aotearoa never did run smooth. And so it is in 2020. Already we had the extraordinary news that the Serious Fraud Office had laid criminal charges against four individuals in relation to donations to the National Party. And this afternoon, the latest judder bar: the Serious Fraud Office will be looking into donations relating to New Zealand First, too. And it’s only February.

Since late last year the Electoral Commission has been assessing the legal compliance of donations and loans to the New Zealand First Foundation, a mysterious organisation that supports the New Zealand First Party, and which has been subject to extensive media reporting. Today it came out, by its own mild standards, blazing.

It said: “Based on the information available, we have formed the view that the New Zealand First Foundation has received donations which should have been treated as party donations for the New Zealand First Party. In the Commission’s view, the donations were not properly transmitted to the party and not disclosed as required by the Electoral Act 1993.”

It had therefore referred the matter to the police. They weren’t pissing around, either, announcing in quick time that they had reviewed the file and referred it directly to the Serious Fraud Office. It’s important to stress that the Serious Fraud Office has not determined whether it will lay charges – as it has it has against four individuals in relation to National Party donations – but we can safely conclude that this is an election year nightmare for the New Zealand First Party, just as the SFO charges in relation to National donations are a nightmare for Simon Bridges, even though he’s not one of those charged. It’s a nightmare, too, for Jacinda Ardern. To state the obvious: the party being investigated by the SFO is one of two parts in the formal coalition that governs New Zealand. The stories and suspicions will only swirl into September.

The starkest example of Ardern’s predicament? Asked this afternoon whether she could trust her deputy prime minister, Ardern couldn’t muster a direct answer. There was no simple “yes”, not even one printed in large type on a square of paper. Instead she chose to stress what an “excellent working relationship” they enjoyed.

The investigation follows reporting by Guyon Espiner of RNZ and Matt Shand of Stuff, and draws heavily on leaked documents from the NZ First Foundation – via mechanisms including a dumpster and, naturally, a wine box. It raised questions around a possible “slush fund” being used to support the party, and speculation that it might breach either the spirit or the letter of electoral law.

It looked like there might be another scoop from one of them coming into land when an intriguing press statement landed yesterday in the middle of a lazy Sunday afternoon. Winston Peters announced he had recommended to the NZ First party president that she “begin preparing a complaint to the police over the massive breach of New Zealand First’s party information”.

He continued: “Ongoing media stories using as their source stolen information are designed to skew an even political playing field. New Zealand First has so far been sensitive to the circumstances surrounding the theft of party information but can no longer tolerate the mendacious attacks against the party and its supporters.”

But it turned out that the Sunday statement was a pre-emptive strike of a different kind. Presumably NZ First had learned of the Electoral Commission’s imminent police complaint and decided – in keeping with modus Winstonus – that the best form of anything is attack. They’d jolly well lay a police complaint of their own.

Today, the NZ First statement was less combative. Peters welcomed the investigation. He called, even, for a review of the donations regime, and said NZ First would be “reviewing its arrangements for party donations”, though stressing, “this does not imply any impropriety but is intended to ensure the party, as with all parties, have robust arrangements.”

And while history doesn’t repeat, it rarely rhymes so acutely. In 2008, when the Serious Fraud Office set about investigating donations to NZ First, the prime minister stood down her senior minister Winston Peters. (He wasn’t sacked. He stood down, and if you doubt that, he has a document in his boot to show you.)

“Mr Peters has been thinking very carefully about this,” Helen Clark said at the time. “It’s been clear to me this would be the appropriate course of action but there hasn’t had to be a lengthy argument about it at all.” He’d be reinstated, she said, were he to be cleared (the SFO found no basis for fraud charges to be laid).

This time, in circumstances that are eerily similar, Jacinda Ardern told her post-cabinet press conference that she hadn’t discussed any stand-down. She had spoken to her deputy prime minister, she said, and “his response to me was that he welcomed the investigation”. She added: “I am awaiting the outcome of the SFO. I’m not going to make a judgement before they do.”

Of course, to stand down Peters would be hazardous, to put it mildly. It could trigger an early election. But the echoes of 2008 reverberate. To quote Danyl Mclauchlan from last year: “The scandal dominated the 2008 election. John Key ruled out working with Winston Peters. Helen Clark didn’t. Labour lost, and New Zealand First was voted out of parliament.”

Still, the question Ardern will face, over and over again, is why she isn’t doing what Clark did.

Not for the first time in recent days, Jacinda Ardern’s old boss and mentor had made life uncomfortable. This morning the prime minister was scrambling to do something about the shadow cast across the venerable New Zealand institution Concert FM. Her question now is what, if anything, to do about the shadow being cast over another venerable New Zealand institution – and his party.



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