Peter Dunne says the controversy over NZ First's funding is already raising questions about how the reputation of the current Government may be affected

Peter Dunne says the controversy over NZ First's funding is already raising questions about how the reputation of the current Government may be affected
Winston Peters by Jacky Carpenter.

By Peter Dunne*

When the current coalition government was formed, there was some comment that this was perhaps New Zealand First's last chance at political redemption.

The party's two previous stints in government had failed to last three years. The 1996-98 coalition with National ended after Winston Peters was fired as Treasurer, and its 2005-08 stint with Labour came to a premature end when Mr Peters was suspended as Foreign Minister over what became known as the Owen Glenn affair.

Coming on top of Mr Peters' earlier sacking from a National Cabinet in 1991, less than a year after taking office, the omens were not good. But the general view was that New Zealand First would be different this time around, and there was unlikely to be any case of history repeating itself.

This week’s revelations about the shadowy New Zealand First Foundation and whether its activities are legitimate or a breach of electoral funding rules have raised afresh the question of whether New Zealand First and its leader can at last survive a full term in government, or whether leopards do not change their spots after all.

There are still too many unanswered questions about the Foundation and the way it works to be certain about its status, which may have to await the outcome of the Electoral Commission’s investigation now underway. But, in the meantime, the controversy is already raising questions about how, if at all, the reputation of the coalition government will be affected.

During the 1996-98 coalition, then National Prime Minister Jim Bolger took the view that New Zealand First’s travails at that time were primarily for that party to sort out, as they were nothing to do with the National Party.

However, over time that view became more difficult to sustain as some of the taint started to rub off on National. In the end, Mr Bolger was replaced as Prime Minister by Dame Jenny Shipley whose prime but unstated mission appeared to be to deal with New Zealand First, to quell the mounting anxiety of nervous backbenchers.

A few months later, Mr Peters was dismissed as Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, the coalition ended, and the government limped on as a minority government until it was defeated at the 1999 election. New Zealand First survived by the skin of its teeth, thanks to a very narrow win by Mr Peters in his then Tauranga electorate.

When, in 2007-08, questions began to be raised about the operations of the Spencer Trust and its relation to New Zealand First funding, Prime Minister Helen Clark initially took a similar hands-off approach as Jim Bolger had. However, as the saga dragged on, and a Privileges Committee inquiry began about a possible misleading of Parliament leading to evidence from Sir Owen Glenn contradicting the New Zealand First version of events, Prime Minister Clark’s patience ran out and Mr Peters was suspended as Foreign Minister. But the overall outcome was little different – her government was defeated at the 2008 election, and this time New Zealand First was tossed out of Parliament altogether.

As today’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern contemplates the allegations swirling about the New Zealand First Foundation, she should be mindful that, on the basis of her predecessors’ fates, she would appear to be damned if she does (in the Shipley fashion) or does not (in the Bolger and Clark approach). While her current instinct seems to be to follow the Bolger/Clark line, she must surely know that could become increasingly untenable, as this situation drags on, which seems highly likely. After all, the one certainty from history, is that events of this type are seldom as straightforward or easily clarified as New Zealand First continues to suggest. There are likely to be more twists and turns, enmeshing New Zealand First further in the mire, before a measure of clarity emerges.

While there is scant evidence this row is doing the Labour Party collateral damage at the moment, it is really only a matter of time, unless things are quickly tidied up. But the Prime Minister’s problem is that by then it may be too late for her. Already, she is being lambasted in some quarters for being too laid back in her dealings with New Zealand First Ministers and some of their more egregious behaviours, although this does overlook some of the realities of holding a coalition government together. Nevertheless, it could become increasingly difficult for her to maintain a dignified silence on this issue without looking weak and ineffectual, as is already being suggested – the last thing she would want as she heads into election year. Either way, the next few weeks are not going to be easy for her and her government.

Some have suggested she might call a snap election, but this seems a little fanciful. New Zealand does not have much of a tradition of early elections, unlike Britain or Australia, and, as Sir Robert Muldoon found out in 1984, having an early election because of problems within the government is not a winning strategy. Others say New Zealand First may be about to quit the coalition anyway to give it more freedom to campaign in the lead-up to the next election, but this makes little sense either. Why prove the accuracy of the latent claims your party cannot be relied on, by pulling out of the coalition several months early, and still expect people to vote for you as a reliable check on the big parties?

Meanwhile, National’s approach to the emerging omnishambles is puzzling.

On the one hand, National says the allegations of electoral financing rules being abused by New Zealand First are potentially of the most serious kind, which is why it wants an independent inquiry, over and above the Electoral Commission inquiry. But on the other hand, the National leader says that while this incident makes it less likely his party would seek to work with New Zealand First if in a position to do so after the next election, he is still not prepared to rule them out altogether.

If ever there was a time to be decisive as Sir John Key was in 2008 and say there is no way National would seek to work with New Zealand First after the next election, this is surely it. Such a statement would make it clear that New Zealand First is now solely Labour’s problem, making things even more difficult for the Prime Minister.

But National’s ambiguity leaves the lingering suspicion that if political power beckoned National would be still be willing to overlook what has happened. In so doing, it will not only further embolden New Zealand First, but also open itself up to facing all over again the same problems that bedevilled Prime Ministers Bolger, Shipley, Clark and now Ardern.

It is true after all – leopards do not change their spots.

*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.

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If past behaviour is any measure of likely future behaviour patterns, then we all should have known that Winston Peters cannot be trusted

Tell that to the boomers who keep voting NZF in

Boomers are at maximum 73 years old. I think main demographic is older than that.

... perhaps there is a split in NZF ranks ... a division desperate enough to leak intimate details of the parties business dealings to the media or to the Gnats ... dildo head Joyce was rock solid is his thinking that he had Winnies number prior to the 2017 election ...

Try starting at 65 (Gold Card and Baubles) and work your way up..

Tell the 18 year olds and slightly older to stop voting for the damn Greens!

Why? the greens aren't slimy sleaze bags like Winston, Shane Jones et al.

@Pragmatist .........LOL so you think the Greens are angels in green .

How about its former leader openly advocating benefit fraud ?

No, she did not "advocate" benefit fraud - she explained how desperate people do desperate things. in advocating for the need to increase sole parent benefits to a level that provides children can be raised in a decent and healthy home environment.

I recently heard a news story about a spate of NZers (mostly elderly) getting scammed into completing international money transfers. The question is - what motivated them to partake in this activity? The answer is the same as above: desperation and insecurity. They weren't making the transfers in order to benefit some charity. I assume they thought they could make easy money/unearned income. No different than benefit fraud to my mind. These are the actions of desperate people.

Leopards do not change their spots? So says the caption. Perhaps then he is a Cheetah?!

... the Gnats ought to look at their toxic history with Winston , and accept they cannot work with him ... never could , never will ... just say it like it is guys , a vote for NZF is a vote for a Labour led coalition government ...

Free up Gnat time to focus on giving Vernon Tava's blue-greens a much needed leg up ... they'll need to win an electorate seat ... the 5 % threshold is beyond them...

I don't get Simon Bridges call for an independent investigation - isn't the Electoral Commission independent? And what is happening with the police referral of the National donations saga to the SFO? Did the Electoral Commission look at that one too? There seems to be so much skulduggery in political party finances... I can't keep up!

My guess is that the matter the SFO is investigating relates to whether the $100,000 actually came from the CCP via a NZ operative;

As surely the SFO isn't the place for investigating Electoral Act fraud.

Common practice, by the look of it! I'll wager we could go to any pacific island, as well as Australia and New Zealand, and see similar...
"a $100,000 donation allegedly delivered to party headquarters in an Aldi shopping bag by the banned donor and Chinese billionaire""

Yes, one does wonder whether the Greens are the way to go next election. It's possibly the only way we might have a chance to get overseas money interests out of our national politics;


Reform electoral funding.

1. Concentrate on policy for jobs and rising incomes for our country's inhabitants.

If you have time look at the rational thought and philosophical body of work that your favoured party is based upon (after considering point 1 above).

Who cares about that stuff if you can't even swim in the rivers?

1. A universal Basic Income

Nobody should be forced to work.

And rely on handouts? Who do you suppose pays for all the free stuff? Last time i checked, swimming in the rivers didn't put food on the table.

Nobody is forced to work and also, nobody should be forced to provide someone else with a living.

1. Concentrate on policy for jobs and rising incomes for our country's inhabitants.

I'd have thought that the PGF is the Coalition's main fiscal policy initiative addressing the former, and the pay equity legislation and Future of Work programme are two initiatives aimed at addressing the latter.

And if you point me to the specific philosophical body of work referred to, I'd be happy to read it. I've never really equated our NZ Greens with a single philosophical work as its basis. Very keen to understand what you know.

It's also quite ironic to see Simon Bridges making a big song and dance about donation practices.

looks like we have already forgotten about simon and jamie bending the rules.isnt the beehive full of tickets to events,free beer suppled to the fridges in the MPs offices.only those in the beehive bubble will get exercised over it and of course the herald.

It is almost as if WP has a predilection for own goals. The exit from Bolger’s coalition was thanks to largely,the performance of too many NZF MPs simply not being up to standard. The underpants etc. Since then there have been others. The ex weatherman, the false passport for instance. Surely it cannot be too difficult to vet thoroughly the likely calibre and performance of your candidates? And then again, why exactly is it so necessary to play secret squirrel over donations? If, and I reiterate if, after the daft affair of the Glenn donation, NZF are caught out again on the same ticket, frankly then, they are not fit to be in office.

This one seems different than the Glenn donation, as the Foundation's loans to the party have been declared as such and accepted by the EC over a number of years;

So it seems the EC are completely aware of the Foundation's part in NZF party funding.

Correct... Come election and will again go after immigration.

Please remind him that under their rule immigration has been as high as under National, so stop talking about it in coming election for a change (Voters memory use to be short but not any more in digital world).

I think Peter overlooks an aspect of this issue - a portion of the electorate sees the need for a maverick in Parliament. We used to have Rodney Hyde, but Winnie has a well founded reputation for telling it how it is, and most annoyingly for the rest in government, being right. His ability sit astride the red/blue fence and influence Government is important within the MMP structure. To that end he has been given some degree of tolerance for his 'foibles' (or is that 'baubles'?). The question is, will the electorate continue to give him that tolerance in the wake of what is emerging? Without Shane Jones they just might. However SJs ego and intolerance seems to be getting a little too 'out there' and many are beginning to see him as just a clown, and he might just be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Winnie is getting on and sooner or later must step down. Who will replace him? Ron Marks has potential, but is not visible enough. The question for the rest of the country is do we want a government of sycophants, as the current party political system delivers? Or do we appreciate mavericks who are not afraid to challenge the current conventional wisdom (there is a risk we could get a Trump)?

I think you're right there. Shane Jones is as big a maverick as Winston. What I like about both of them is that they bring to Parliament a 'call-a-spade-a-spade' type of personality, and that relates to dealing with tangata whenua issues as well. Much as everyone bemoans the PGF - I like it. It's the kind of fiscal policy injection that has to be good in the longer run.

The MPs NZF brought in this term are in my opinion their best contingent ever. All hard working, knowledgeable in their portfolios, pragmatic and sincere.

Similarly, David Seymour is another type of maverick that I think may be missed in future. Neither of the major parties would go near a topic so controversial as euthanasia. Without the Greens we'd never have made the progress we have with respect to improvements to our existing housing stock.

To me, it is the minor parties in an MMP environment that drive social/economic change. For that, we are really lucky.

The PGF is a good idea, but Shane Jones isn't the person to lead it, him being a lazy narcissist.

NZF also has a good record for keeping election promises. Some oldies I know vote for him religiously because of the gold card. I don't necessarily agree with the policies but if National and Labour kept theirs more often, there might be no NZF.

What? You must be joking!

Their whole election platform is about limiting immigration.

Have the done that? No. Have the said ANYTHING about it in the last 2 years at all? No.

That's just clickbait. No-one is going to slow immigration. Our economy and superannuation sustainability depend on it. I'm ambivalent on immigration, but you've got to recognise the political realities. The best you can expect is some tinkering around the edges. No, NZF have been effective on the less pie in the sky policies.

NZF also has a good record for keeping election promises. Some oldies I know vote for him religiously because of the gold card. I don't necessarily agree with the policies but if National and Labour kept theirs more often, there might be no NZF.

Gawd that's right, NZF #2 has been done for misappropriating public funds as well. Power attracts the corruptable. Winston is only MP I can remember to ever be censured by parliament for lying. And here's a witness account of night Peters was ejected from National: Bill Birch (not given to using expletives) is quoted "There are many things I can accept about Winston Peters, but the one thing I cannot accept is he tells f**king lies"

Sir William Birch! One of David Lange’s great expressions, his valedictory speech, or an interview around that time, went something like all these years in parliament I had thought Mr Birch to be deceptive and venal. But you know he is not like that at all, don’t you think.

To put in a word for him, Winston Peters will be a loss in our foreign affairs. He is the only politician in a long time focused on building relationships for NZ in the the wider world, and he has the character to win friends for the country. After years of unprincipled and single-minded servility to China, we have gained new embassies here and there as well as renewed relationships throughout Scandanavia, the Pacific and elsewhere. We all know Peters can tell a tall tale. But, to my mind, he's better value than all this political virtue-signalling.

That is good and fair comment. But then, predecessors, McCully & then Brownlie?Embarrassing for all of us to say the least.

Perhaps the brouhaha over donations, and Winstone Ganders' furious response to journos who have done some Digging, is just part of the general War on Reasonableness that Z-Man notes here......

This is where the war on reasonableness must lead. Good men seeking compromise will indulge the unreasonable for as long as they can, perhaps long beyond where they should, but eventually they stop indulging the unreasonable. At that point, there are but two choices. One is peaceful separation and the other is those reasonable men embrace unreasonable solutions to the unreasonable men in their midst.

... Winston is out trumping Trump is his ability to bluster and obfuscate ... it's fake news... you're nothing but psychos...

And still ... still , the diehard supporters blindly believe in their man ... ...

Not a Winston fan, but in a previous life saw electoral funding irregularities all over the place, from political parties to local body councillors. Absolute can of worms. Full disclosure of every cent, and criminal penalties needed. But then we'd some big names in the dock.... Banks, Len Brown, Goff, Key. The NZF slush fund is peanuts.

Peter, you make the inferred assumption everyone elses electorial funding is a clean and clear as an alpine lake...which we all know is not the case. Me? I'm more interested in making sure the hard pressed beneficiaries at my winz office aren't forced into taking a loan the can't repay anyway in order to get their sore teeth fixed. Priorities huh!


Regards funding however, I do worry about foreign governments making political party donations.

Yes, thats a valid concern, I think the we definitely want to define more tightly if a corporation or a trust is really due the degree of influence it can exert via its donations compared to an ordinary citizen. Look at the USA, when the citizens act was introduced it gave corporations with 100 billion dollars resource the same influence as a real citizen....

Quid Pro Quo, Donations, Lobbying these are par for course in politics and governance, thanks to the American way taking over the world, especially the western democracies. See how Trump is dodging the bullets there.
Unless criminal intent/act is investigated, proved and charged with, the public won't be too bothered with all these drama in the MSM. Each group of voters will vote as per their specific interests and for the politician who appeals to those interests. The crossovers at the time of election are the ones who matter. Depends on whether they have the time and inclination to vote on the appointed day.

Thats right. Following the money its easy to see how the road transport forum pressed the Key Govt to corrupt the funding ratios for highways which enabled the RONS to be built where as previously they were deemed impossibly uneconomical...and conveniently the giant H rated trucks were also set loose on them only for the RONS to collapse in the face of the mega truck onslaught that ensued...not to mention the obsene wear and tear to lesser roads that the H rated trucks were also allowed to roam at will...thats real corruption right there!

I don't think people vote for NZF in the hope Winnie will change his spots, tbh