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

PoliticsAugust 28, 2017

Winston Peters and the real mother of all scandals

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

The New Zealand First leader is paid almost $200,000 a year in public money. Shouldn’t he be leading the conscientious objectors rather than claiming superannuation, asks Duncan Greive.

This column was written in 2017, before Winston Peters was in government. As deputy prime minister, his salary is now $334, 734.

The “mother of all scandals” started as a tweet, became a 24 hour near-obsession for New Zealand’s politics nerd community and ended up being broken by the subject himself, with Winston Peters pre-emptively revealing there had been some sort of clerical error involving his NZ Super payments.

OK, it might turn out to be more than that, and he did sound flustered for the first time since 2008 or so in a series of broadcast interviews this morning. But for now the gap between expectations and reality on this scandal is as vast as Peters’ career has been interminably long.

Yet as it stands it is perhaps as scandalising that Peters was receiving the payments at all. Not just because NZ Super should be means tested, but because he volunteered to receive this very handy top-up to his huge parliamentary salary.

Winston Peters on the campaign trail

While NZ Super is a universal allowance – so it’s not means tested and available to all eligible New Zealand citizens and permanent residents – it’s not a compulsory one. Which is to say that everyone who receives it has to do what Peters did, and very deliberately assess their needs and circumstances before applying to receive it.

On April 11 2010, Winston Peters turned 65. He would have been 18 months out of parliament at the time, on his second break from the institution he first entered in 1979. His then most-recent register of pecuniary interests listed a family trust, property in Whananaki and the Bay of Islands, all without a mortgage. He was eligible for the quite extraordinary benefits for former MPs, including business class travel to the UK and a dozen domestic flights per year. As an MP elected prior to 1992 he was also eligible for the Parliamentary Super scheme.

Still, as a man used to a particular lifestyle who looked to be at the end of his parliamentary career, you can see his justification for applying for NZ Super. He’d worked hard for the public throughout his adult life, and was plausibly entitled to the benefits that go along with that.

Then 2011 came. He and NZ First were polling around 2%, and the campaign seemed like the vain folly of a political addict, unable to conceive of an identity beyond that life. It seemed doomed, until the teapot tapes scandal gave Peters an issue he could wrap his arms around. He and NZ First roared back into parliament with eight MPs.

With the revival came the salary: a base of $155,700, topped up by more than $10,000 thanks to the MPs he brought with him.

Which means that from his salary alone he is not far off the $200,000 figure which denotes the top 1% of income earners in the country. Add in the various perks and allowances of an MP and he would easily have had a lifestyle commensurate to that figure. Today he continues to draw the allowance; his salary is nearly $195,000.

And yet he continued to draw NZ Super right through. It should be noted that having enrolled in the scheme did not mean Peters was required to continue to draw on it. All recipients can opt in and out at their leisure, according to a spokesperson from the MSD.

Which meant that one of the most well-compensated people in the country had his already extraordinary income further topped up simply because he could.

The worst part is that the presumed justification – that he was only taking what he was entitled to – mirrors that which has accompanied his whole cohort as it has glided through life with a level of governmental support to which it has studiously taken care to deny its children.

WINSTON PETERS at a TVNZ leaders’ debate. PHOTO: Getty Images

Peters was born just prior to the end of the second world war, so is thus not quite a boomer. Instead he has acted like a kindly uncle to that generation, benefitting from all the same forces, yet present in parliament for much of the legislative changes which helped cement the inter-generational gulf.

He was a member of the National party, a failed candidate in fact, when Muldoon reversed the Labour party’s proto-Kiwisaver in 1975, replacing it with an extraordinarily generous universal scheme paying 80% of the average wage to all married couples aged 60 and over.

He was part of the National government when student loans were introduced, and the RMA enacted – the laws which ensured Generations X and on started their working lives with debt and commenced rampant house price inflation in earnest.

And he’s been the staunchest defender of the current universal and increasingly unaffordable status of NZ Super. Indeed, his signature recent legislative achievement is the Super Gold Card benefits add on pack, which has gifted us the modern grotesquerie that is wealthy Waiheke Island residents ferrying back and forth to the mainland for free, while a few kilometres away young families live in cars.

They do it not because they need it, but because they can. Because they assessed their needs and their means and elected to apply. It really is a choice. Even if you disagree with most governmental policies which benefit you, you’re essentially powerless to resist. If you think the top tax rate should be higher, you can’t donate the money to the IRD.

Yet NZ Super is near unique in being a draw on Crown resources which you as a citizen decide whether to deploy. Which is to say that the wealthy have the ability to conscientiously object – to effectively means test themselves.

Peters chose not to do that. As a result, more than $20,000 a year which would otherwise have been part of a surplus flowing into areas of real need instead finds its way to his $2.65m St Mary’s Bay home.

It’s not the mother of all scandals, sure – but it’s pretty obnoxious all the same.

Keep going!