Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is continuing to defend Winston Peters, despite coming under renewed pressure to stand him down from his ministerial duties, as the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) confirms it will investigate the New Zealand First Foundation.
The SFO made the announcement on Tuesday, following the Electoral Commission on February 10 saying it believed donations made to the foundation should’ve been treated as party donations. The Commission referred the matter to the Police, which passed it on to the SFO.
Peters stood down as Foreign Affairs Minister in August 2008, under then-Prime Minister Helen Clark, as soon as the SFO confirmed it had enough evidence to investigate a donations scandal related to New Zealand First.
Reaching this same pivotal point on a different matter, nearly 12 years later, Peters is refusing to step down as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Disarmament and Arms Control, State Owned Enterprises and Racing.
Peters effectively told media the difference between the two situations was that this time it was the New Zealand First Foundation, not him personally, being investigated.
“If the Electoral Commission didn’t speak to me, why would I do that [stand down]?” he said.
“[Last time] they said they were investigating me, I stood aside and got it cleared by three official bodies.”
Peters has, from the start of this scandal, distanced himself from the foundation. Last Tuesday he said: “I don’t expect that anyone at the SFO is going to be talking to Winston Peters. Guess why? I was not involved in any way, shape or form.”
Ardern won’t intervene, sticking to her line that this is a party matter for New Zealand First.
She also said Peters deserved "natural justice".
According to the latest 1 News Colmar Brunton Poll, done earlier this month, Labour and the Greens wouldn’t have enough seats to govern if there was an election tomorrow.
Polling at only 3%, New Zealand First wouldn’t get into Parliament without winning an electorate seat. New Zealand First MP Shane Jones will run in Northland, where the party has done much spade work in recent years, allocating a substantial amount of Provincial Growth Fund funding to projects in the area.
Grilled by Opposition Leader, Simon Bridges, during question time in Parliament, Ardern said she believed Peters was both upholding and was seen to uphold the highest ethical standards as required by the Cabinet Manual.
She also accepted that ultimately ministers are accountable to the prime minister for their behaviour, as per the Cabinet Manual.
Ardern then hit back at Bridges, saying: “I image the public right now sees the deep irony of this line of questioning from the National Party.”
The Serious Fraud Office is prosecuting four individuals (who have name suppression) in relation to National Party donations.
The investigation came after former National Party MP, Jami-Lee Ross, accused Bridges of asking him to collect a $100,000 donation from businessman, Yikun Zhang, and then split it up into smaller amounts to hide it.
There are now media reports the investigation involves a second $100,000 donation.
Bridges said neither him nor the National Party had been charged.
Peters, leaving the House on Tuesday, had this message for the media:
NZ First Leader Winston Peters back at it again.— Jason Walls (@Jasonwalls92) February 18, 2020
Instead of answering media questions, he played Queen’s ‘Radio Ga Ga’ before walking off. pic.twitter.com/T4wrb3VzUp