When a politician apparently can’t get a fair hearing in the media, how do you get the truth out? Political commentator Ben Thomas braves the wobbly audio to watch Winston Peters’ efforts to clear up questions around the NZ First Foundation donations scandal by doing a Facebook live.
Private sector media companies have plenty to grouse about when it comes to publicly funded competition. A mooted Triple-J clone to contest the crowded youth radio market. A mega-merger between RNZ and TVNZ. And now add to the list a new state-sponsored rival for audience eyeballs in primetime: deputy prime minister Winston Peters.
The New Zealand First leader took to Facebook Live last night to, he said, “reveal the truth” about the New Zealand First Foundation donations scandal that was referred to the Serious Fraud Office on Monday after the Electoral Commission formed the view that the mysterious NZ First Foundation had received donations which should have been treated as party donations for the NZ First party.
It’s easy to focus on Peters’ theatrics, which wouldn’t be out of place on reality TV. Peters scheduled the stream for the exact time that the entire press gallery had been invited to drinks at Premier House with the prime minister. He made a great show of talking “directly” to his supporters, to make sure his statements weren’t “contaminated by interfering comment not associated with the facts” – the deputy prime minister’s own Diary Cam, to hold forth about the dramas in the (Parliament) House.
And just like reality TV, this is part of a longer story that its audience of 12,000 was following at home. But while reality TV shows are at pains to remind viewers of what they already know, with flashbacks and narration as constant reminders to keep the plot on track, Peters’ Q&A had no such respect for conventions of continuity. What follows is an attempt to provide context to some of the questions Peters answered.
“Is the Serious Fraud Office justified in launching an investigation into your party’s handling of donations and loans?”
Peters did not mention the Electoral Commission’s referral of New Zealand First Foundation donations to the Police at all. By his answer, it sounded as if SFO investigation was his idea. “Having seen the controversy out there” in the past months’ through Stuff and RNZ’s reporting of the Foundation’s affairs, he said, “we had decided, from my consultation with the party itself, that we should request the police’s involvement because they would have the powers to get out the truth.” Finding the leaker was only “one of the matters” that Peters desperately wanted resolved with Police (and now SFO) assistance.
Welcoming an inquiry by a law enforcement agency is a smart PR move – after all, why not welcome it if you have nothing to hide? Peters has embraced the tactic with such enthusiasm, though, it appears to have affected his short term memory. His claim that his party had resolved to seek an investigation into its donations is not borne out by any of his statements prior to the Electoral Commission actually referring the donations to the Police on Monday.
On Sunday, Peters released a statement saying that he was recommending that the Party’s president make a complaint to the Police based on a “massive breach of party information”.
When Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking asked Peters on Monday (before the Electoral Commission’s statement) what he was intending to ask Police to do, Peters’ response was “what we can do is get them to trace the person responsible [for the leaks] and charge them because it’s a criminal offence.”
“What does the NZ First Foundation do and what was it set up for?”
An excellent question, to quote Peters himself. “A group decided the National Party had a foundation and that we should duplicate that.” But a better question might have been, what is the relationship between the Foundation and the party? This is a key question. If the Foundation operates genuinely independently from the party, then many of the nascent issues raised in the investigation will be solved. But is it independent?
“My only involvement, then and all the way through, was to say at the start, you make sure it’s legal,” the deputy prime minister said last night. In other words, he and the party then had no operational say in the Foundation’s affairs.
Except remember that Peters on Sunday had described the leak of Foundation information as “party information” and said a complaint would be laid by the party president, not the trustees of the Foundation. Peters also said that the person he strongly suspects leaked the Foundation’s information was a former party member – rather than someone formally associated with the Foundation.
Peters also said he had “never seen one of the accounts” of the Foundation, but also reassured his viewers that “to the best of my knowledge it has only [received donations] from New Zealand legal entities and residents” and that he was “very confident” there were no donors linked to the Chinese Communist Party. It’s not clear how exactly he has this level of confidence, since he also said “Have I got any information that I can proffer to the Police or the Serious Fraud Office? No.”
“How do you respond to the horse racing industry donations to your party as the horse racing minister?”
“For 30 years,” Peters said, “I’ve been talking about the need to save this industry.” Why would there be any surprise that he was supported by individuals interested in the industry, and related companies, to the tune of $80,000 in 2017, according to RNZ?
Besides, Peters observed, the current racing policy is the result of an independent report by Australian racing expert John Messara. He omitted to mention that Messara’s report was submitted in July 2018, and two months earlier in May Peters had announced a $4.8 million in tax breaks for “high quality” horse breeders, which officials estimated may blow out to $40 million and which was the only tax cut in the coalition’s first budget.
The prime minister said on Monday that criticism of Peters over the donations was unfair, and that it is “no secret to anyone in New Zealand that Winston Peters has a strong knowledge, understanding and long-standing connection to the racing industry”.
Incidentally, a long-standing tactic for dealing with scandal in New Zealand politics is to say “of course, everyone already knew that”, where “everyone” usually means members of the Press Gallery and Wellington gossips. Anyone raising further questions is made to feel like a yokel or a square, as if suggesting a new TV series a year after everyone else has already seen it.
The public do in fact know that Peters has longstanding support in the racing industry – thanks to news media reporting that breeder and rich lister Sir Patrick Hogan paid for an electoral ad promoting the party in the 2017 election campaign that the Electoral Commission found should have been declared by the party. Again, however, last night Peters was reiterating that the public did not have a right to know the identity of donors to the Foundation from any industry.
After less than ten minutes, the moment of truth was over, leaving many questions. Just as Peters lamented, noting that 300 people had submitted queries before his broadcast, “I can’t answer them all, obviously.”