Winston Peters returns to the stage. Photo: Getty Images
Winston Peters returns to the stage. Photo: Getty Images

PoliticsFebruary 14, 2020

Dirty Politics déjà vu as Peters says ‘we took the photographs’ on attack blog

Winston Peters returns to the stage. Photo: Getty Images
Winston Peters returns to the stage. Photo: Getty Images

The challenge keeps knocking on Jacinda Ardern’s door: is there a limit to Labour’s patience with its embattled NZ First partner?

Magic Talk serves up plenty of news stories to its parent website, Newshub. Usually it’s on-air tirades and flaming rows, amplified further online. But this week it hit the jackpot, delivering a big and serious newsline, albeit it one that surfaced more than 48 hours after the event, on a rival platform.

As RNZ Checkpoint revealed, Winston Peters had appeared on Magic Mornings with Peter Williams on Tuesday to discuss the controversy swirling around donations to the NZ First Foundation, a controversy which is now the subject of scrutiny by the Serious Fraud Office. The NZ First leader, who is also the deputy prime minister, was asked about photographs that appeared on a blog showing journalists talking to a former president of his party.

Peters knew all about them. “We took the photographs,” he said.

The journalists were Guyon Espiner of RNZ and Matt Shand of Stuff, and the former NZ First president was Lester Gray. The inference from the pictures was uncomplicated: the disgruntled ex-NZ-Firster was probably the source for the leaks that informed the reporters’ big donations scoops.

And, honestly, that wouldn’t be the surprise of the decade. What was more alarming about all this were Peters’ words. “We took the photographs – just to prove that that’s the kind of behaviour going on”.

These same photographs had found their way to BFD, the self-described “new home” for a blog called Whale Oil, which came to an ignominious end last year. A blog which found itself at the centre of a book that arrived like a grenade into the 2014 election, Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics.

How Whaleoil announced its ‘new home’, with a side serving of whale meat

At the core of that book, which drew on hacked messages, were accounts of the laundering of material via Cameron Slater’s attack blog, some of it coming from the office of the then prime minister, John Key. There was uproar all round. Including from one Winston Peters, who declared that a full commission of inquiry into what happened was a bottom line for any post-election agreement.

Those memories flooded back upon hearing Winston Peters declare a role in the furtively snapped photographs of two journalists – photographs which had appeared on an attack blog which, believe it or not, was staunchly defending NZ First against the scurrilous media attacks upon their integrity.

Among the mysteries of Peters’ remark: Who is this we? Not the royal we, clearly. And you’d assume he doesn’t mean the office of the deputy prime minister. We couldn’t surely be the New Zealand First Foundation; Peters has been clear about how little he has to do with them. Did he mean the New Zealand First Party?

And what were they (“we”) up to seeking “to prove that that’s the kind of behaviour going on”?

As a recent convert to the powers of direct communication via social media, Peters’ response came, naturally, on Twitter.

Last night he wrote: “NZF has no interest in following Mr Espiner or any other journalists. The very reverse applies. No private investigators have been engaged to follow Mr Espiner or anyone else. A supporter thought it odd seeing ex-president Lester Grey [sic] with Mr Espiner so took a photo. Simple.”

No mention of Matt Shand, a much less recognisable figure than Espiner. No explanation of the effort “to prove what was going on”. Nothing about the route by which they landed on Whale Oil 2.0.

Still, simple!

Much less simple is the predicament for the Labour Party, seven months out from the election.

Its coalition partners are already a furnace of controversy. In 2008, when NZ First was entangled in donations-related allegations, Helen Clark and Winston Peters agreed that he’d stand down as foreign minister. This time, Jacinda Ardern has said she’ll reserve any judgment pending decisions from the Serious Fraud Office. Since then there has been fresh reporting about donations coming from figures in the racing industry. Now the “we took the photographs” revelations. Who knows what’s next. Does Labour have a snapping point?

A new poll by Colmar Brunton for One News lays out the electoral calculus. There is, of course, an ocean of water yet to go under the bridge, but on the numbers produced last night it would be a one-term Labour government. National and Act would take power, albeit by a wafer-thin two seats.

Unless, of course, New Zealand First were to circumvent the 5% rule by winning a constituency – Northland, say, with a helpful nod from Labour . Then the incumbents would be back. Ardern has said she’s not interested in doing deals, but a Northland accommodation has to be a temptation. Unless, of course, Labour were to go the other way entirely, and decide that their current partners are altogether too toxic.

Keep going!