But already the media is talking up the return of Winston Peters. The media loves Peters; he's great for a headline. But is he good for the political scene? We reckon not.
Winston Peters said at the weekend that he will not go into coalition with either National or Labour. No-one believes him. He said in 2005 that he wasn't interested in the "baubles of office", whereupon he immediately accepted the role of Foreign Minister in Helen Clark's government.
Two of the final acts of Winston Peters' parliamentary career need to be given public scrutiny. One of the final acts of Helen Clark's government was to pass, under urgency, Labour's Emissions Trading Scheme with the support of New Zealand First. Without the nod from Winston, the legislation would not have passed into law. That makes NZ First's deputy leader Peter Brown's speech in the Third Reading debate really interesting; Brown said:
New Zealand First will support this legislation tonight. We will support the third readings. We say to the Minister, with due respect, that we think this is a move in the right direction. It is not completely right. There will need to be some amendments. I will not go as far as David Carter did when he said that this is not enduring legislation, and give the impression that it will fall over in a matter of months. I do not believe that. But I believe it will have to be addressed on a number of occasions to get it right, and I know that before agriculture comes in, before transport comes in, there will be quite some discussion. It will have to go through Parliament and get the seal of approval. In essence, New Zealand First is supporting this legislation because it has the framework there. It will be modified. It will need to be modified, in our view, but it is a move in the right direction and it has the support of New Zealand First. Thank you, Madam Assistant Speaker.
That's right; New Zealand First supported the passage of a flawed Bill, because it was politically expedient to do so.
The other issue to consider is the censuring of Winston Peters by Parliament on 23 September 2008. Members voted by a majority of 62 to 56 to censure Peters for knowingly providing false or misleading information on a return of pecuniary interests. The key word in that motion was the word "knowingly". The censure motion was supported by National, the Greens, Act, United Future, the Maori Party and independant MP's Gordon Coepland and Phillip Field. Only Labour and NZ First stood in support of Winston Peters, with Jim Anderton abstaining.
We commend the Greens for their integrity in this debate. And Russel Norman addressed the key issue with clarity and certainty when he said:
There were two principles around this, to my mind. One was the public’s right to know. The whole idea of pecuniary interest and what goes around it—and it is kind of paralleled with electoral law—is the public’s right to know who is giving money to politicians, and who is giving money to political parties. On the other side we had the basic right of Mr Peters to have a fair go. He had to have a fair go to present his side of the story to the committee. So basically we had to try to meet both of those principles—that the public had a right to know that the pecuniary interest register was being applied properly, and that we also had to give Mr Peters a fair go—and I believe we actually went through that.
In terms of the evidence, I can tell members that in my mind it was difficult to try to put the witnesses’ words one against the other. We heard numerous stories. It was very difficult to know which was the right story when one was sitting there listening to them all. So I think one of the key issues for me was the events around 14 December. That was one of the key bits of evidence, because regardless of who rang whom before 14 December, something very important happened on that day. There were two phone calls and an email. The first phone call was from the billionaire to the politician—if we want to take people’s names out of it—and they talked about something. We do not know what they talked about; there are different stories. The politician rang the politician’s lawyer immediately after, and they talked about something. Then the lawyer sent an email back to the billionaire and said: “Further to your conversation with the politician, here are my bank account details.” This series of phone calls and the email were compelling evidence—they were strong evidence. The thing about them is that nobody denied this evidence. Nobody said “Actually, this didn’t happen.” Those three pieces of evidence and the way they are connected together are a central part of why, I think, the majority of the committee came to the conclusion it did. There is a lot else around this, but we know that those three pieces of evidence were extremely strong, and nobody denied those three pieces of evidence.
The question we got to at the end was around what to do about it. Once we came to the point of view that there was some knowledge of the donation—and I believe that there was some knowledge, and that it was a gift—the question was what we do about it. There were those who were calling for Mr Peters to be suspended from Parliament, for all manner of things. I thought that that went too far. I thought that the report itself is sufficient penalty. It says, basically, that Mr Peters gave a false return. It says he is in contempt, he is censured, and he is required to give an accurate return. I think these are quite severe penalties, and I think that it is a step too far, and too much, to suggest there should be some kind of suspension of privilege, or anything beyond that. So the report, to my mind, was an appropriate response, and an appropriate penalty for what we found out.
Russel Norman nailed the issue of credibility in his speech in this debate, and it was Winston Peters' credibility that was found wanting by his peers, and on 8 November 2011, by the voters of New Zealand. But were the two examples we've described above linked? Was Labour's refusal to vote to censure Peters a "gift" for its support of Labour's flagship ETS? You be the judge.
When he announced the 26 November election date back in February, John Key stated that he would rather lose power than work with Winston Peters. The best thing that Phil Goff could say today is that he agrees with John Key, and categorically rule out doing a deal with Peters such as that which Labour did after the 2005 election.
Winston Peters has served at the pleasure of three Prime Ministers; Jim Bolger, Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark. That he has not once managed to complete a three-year stint as a Minister is telling. The mere possibility of him being able to hold the country to ransom again a la 1996 and 2005 is not worth contemplating. Let's hope that Phil Goff will do the right thing; failing that, New Zealand once again rejects New Zealand First.