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To understand Winston Peters and the New Zealand First Foundation is to understand how things really work

Business / opinion
To understand Winston Peters and the New Zealand First Foundation is to understand how things really work
Winston Peters by Jacky Carpenter.

Winston Peters once said the “malady of the ignorant is to be ignorant without knowing it."

Indeed. Because to understand Winston Peters is to understand how things really work.

Here’s a terrifying example.

On July 23 in 2014 Peters gave a speech in Parliament.

In this speech he accused a Christchurch businessman, wielding his untouchable absolute parliamentary privilege, of “a long list of fraudulent practices” that just happened to be “virtually identical” to claims made about this man by the director of a gang-linked debt collection firm, a high court judgement found.

Some of Peters' speech was conveniently broadcast on MediaWorks former current affairs show Campbell Live while the businessman's reaction was recorded, live, in an “ambush” by a MediaWorks TV crew.

In the original court judgement it was found Peters had defamed the man, but because he had ripped into him in the very place where our laws are made, he could basically say whatever he liked. That judgement is now the subject of more legal argy-bargy, with the judge agreeing to revisit her decision and the thorny issue of Peters' parliamentary privilege, and how she came to determine the man was defamed.

Peters was not even a party to the defamation proceedings issued against Ironclad Securities and its director Richard Freeman, who was in business with a Headhunters gang member, Lyndon Richardson.

In April 2014 Freeman/Ironclad made an assortment of outrageous claims about the man, on the Ironclad Facebook page. The claims included that the man was one of New Zealand’s most well-known conmen. He was “a clown”. He rips off people, he bullies people, he illegally taped a police officer, and even said “top blogger Whale Oil” exposed the man, the posts alleged.

The man was threatened, his clients saw the Facebook posts Ironclad had made, and were concerned.

He filed defamation claims against Ironclad, and its associates, and successfully got an interim injunction against Ironclad and co, forcing the removal of the offending posts and restraining them from “publicising any information in any way relating to this proceeding pending further order of the court”.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The order for Freeman to zip it from the New Zealand courts was just the beginning.

In July 2014 politician Winston Peters and Freeman, the court judgement showed, discussed a plan to shop the vicious allegations to media “to get an exclusive for them to run” and admitted “we want to try and get it on TV”.

Freeman mentions Peters has parliamentary privilege “and at the end of the day I’m gagged by an order”.

But utu via a point-and-shoot political takedown was taking too long for Freeman, who after a few weeks of waiting started bitching to Ironclad’s cabal that Peters’ “failed to deliver”.

Peters had handed information to MediaWorks and “waited for them to drop a bomb”, he moaned. But it hadn’t detonated.

The duo then had a “heated” phone call about a week before Peters unleashed in parliament. Freeman told Peters he had “given him a ride to this election … and all you’ve done is keep me out of the loop”.

Peters pushed back and said he had given the information to a “specialist person” at MediaWorks so he could “get the best exposure for you”. But Freeman countered that Peters had parliamentary privilege and asked: “Why aren’t you using it?”

“I fucken gave you my vote last year too Winston, that’s why I gave you the papers,” Freeman complained.

Peters agreed he would “expose the bastard with Parliamentary privilege but I want to get the story off first”.

Instead, MediaWorks, through its now-axed current affairs show Campbell Live, broadcast most of Peters’ speech in the New Zealand parliament where he used his position of power and right to say whatever the hell he wanted with zero repercussions, to attack a member of the public over a business dispute that had nothing overtly to do with him.

The businessman's reaction to the speech was also recorded by Campbell Live, and broadcast.

The businessman says everything changed when Freeman and his “Headhunter henchman entered his life”. His family was affected. His reputation was harmed. His mental health was impacted. His wife said it started a dark time for him and their family. Their world “came crashing down”. He couldn’t sleep. He was deeply distressed.

“Freeman,” the court said, “knowingly and cynically encouraged Mr Peters to make defamatory allegations in Parliament because parliamentary privilege would leave [the man] with no recourse”.

The businessman was originally awarded $350,000 in damages and costs. Freeman declared bankruptcy.

Why would the Rt Honourable Winston Peters viciously verbally take down a Christchurch man over what was a fairly pedestrian commercial dispute?

The gang-linked debt collection firm’s boss, Freeman, asked him to, appears to be the answer.

"We once had a country where one was innocent until proven guilty. Now it is guilty until proven innocent," Peters once said. "Sadly, a lot of people don't have the resources to clear their names, whether in the media or in the courts."

Indeed. As the man's lawyer pointed out in the latest legal skirmish, it was important to remember he had suffered real loss and harm to his reputation. The court's judgement was the "only justice" he has received. 

How things work part 2

Which brings me to capital gains tax (CGT), Peters redux, New Zealand First, the New Zealand First Foundation and the infamous case of who killed the CGT. 

Again, we get our revelations via the court system. It is the only place in New Zealand where there can be true clarity and transparency on what happened when, who did it, and why.

The Serious Fraud Office claimed two men (who were given name suppression) raised up to $750,000 through the NZ First Foundation that was actually meant for the NZ First political party, but the cash was spent by the pair without the authority or knowledge of key elected party officials. 

The men were acquitted of any wrongdoing, as per Peters' typically florid quote above.

But what we did receive from this prosecution was an insight into how things really work when you are rich and you see things happening that you don’t like.

Here’s an example

New Zealand’s richest man Graeme Hart, his son Harry Hart and his son-in-law all donated to the New Zealand First Foundation while New Zealand First was supporting Labour and Peters was enjoying the baubles of office and riding shotgun next to Jacinda Ardern in the House.

How did the Hart whanau come to donate to the NZ First Foundation?

Hart’s son-in-law Duncan Hawkesby said he met members of NZ First in March of 2019 in a meeting arranged by PR consultant Thomas Pryor who previously worked in parliament for the National Party.

Media reports from the case detailed how Pryor emailed Hawkesby and said he'd met NZ First's then-MP Clayton Mitchell "re CGT" and "overall was a really positive conversation and their thinking is very much aligned". 

A meeting was then arranged between Mitchell and Hawkesby with billionaire Hart himself dropping by, but only briefly.

After a conversation about the party’s needs to cover bills including for election costs, another meeting was organised and then Hawkesby was given a bank account for the NZ First Foundation.

Hart, his son and son-in-law all donated via companies to the NZ First Foundation under the financial limit that ensured (barring of course legal action) they would remain anonymous.

The case also exposed how another rich New Zealand businessman, Robert Holden, who founded controversial apartment developer Conrad Properties, also donated to the foundation. Holden was worried about Labour making moves to ban foreign investment in apartment developments like Conrad’s, which rely on selling significant chunks of their often shoebox offerings offshore.

Again, the declaration threshold was not breached by using entities to make donations under $15,000 with multiple payments made to the foundation.

I must stress, there was no wrongdoing found by the New Zealand courts by the two accused men and the NZ First Foundation. And Peters, just like in the ongoing defamation case, wasn’t charged with anything.

When the decision was handed down by the court Peters made a bombastic media statement, gleefully referring to Michael Cullen’s catchy quote; we won, you lost, eat that.

But what these cases have done is given us information, although we might find it unpalatable to digest.

What we see from these cases is how things work at the top of the political and business food chain is not how things work for the rest of us.

With the right connections and influence in New Zealand you can tear down the reputation of a man you don’t like. 

You can work the rules and ride right up to legal lines to hide who you are supporting, you can try to use your financial might to try and influence political decisions, and even when you are exposed you can double down, again and again.

Winston Peters can call people losers. He can say others are lying, defaming and traducing.

But much like the former US president it often appeared Peters was projecting.

He accuses others of bias, of “malignant positions” and most recently reminded the critics of his party it is better “to remain silent and remain a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”. 

Perhaps, putting aside the absolutely real and devastating impacts to the Christchurch businessman Peters’ bullying actions had, at least we know more because Peters didn't remain silent.

If we look, we can see how things work.

And like Peters said, to remain ignorant would indeed be a malady.

We need to ask ourselves, now that we know how things work, what is the cure?

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