Gordon Campbell on the latest Peters Saga / 28.08.08

How ironic that Helen Clark chose in 2005 to create a governing bloc with Winston Peters for reasons of stability, to ensure that her government would run its full course. Serves her right, really.

“Winston Peters” and “stability” are words that you put in the same sentence at your own peril, and Clark now has to decide whether the allegations against Peters are so convincing that she should pre-empt the deliberations of the privileges committee and sack him outright, or alternatively suspend him until such time as the privileges committee reaches a conclusion. The third option of course, is to do nothing at all in the meantime and let the privileges committee inquiry play itself out – and then act, if and when Peters is finally condemned by a process in which nearly everyone in Parliament will have had their hands on the dagger.

So far, Clark has chosen not to intervene. Beyond that is, today’s pre-emptive concession that she knew in February that Owen Glenn had made some kind of donation, had rung Peters in South Africa to enquire about it, and had accepted his denial Her stance, in all other respects is that a process is now in train before “Parliament’s court” and she will await its outcome. I think she’s right not to pre-empt the privileges committee – especially given that Peters and his lawyer Brian Henry have yet to formally respond in person to the Owen Glenn claims that are the basis of Peters’ current round of woes. That does not prevent her from suspending Peters in the interim – and nor does it stop the privileges committee from bringing forward its next scheduled meeting, currently set for Thursday, 4th September.

One obvious reason why it suits the government – and suits the Greens Co Leader Russel Norman, who is on the privileges committee and has been one of its most effective members – is that the New Zealand First vote next week is crucial to passing the Emissions Trading Scheme legislation. That’s really a side issue though when it comes to any posturing on the moral high ground – and the air is thick with that right now – over the course of action that Clark is somehow felt to be morally obliged to take at this point.

Currently, it is an utterly defensible position to allow the privileges committee investigation to run its course – provided that this inquiry is completed sometime during September. For reasons of public confidence, the deliberations cannot be allowed to drift on towards the election campaign proper. Right now, could the committee make a ruling based simply on the Glenn letter without examining Glenn in person, or by videolink ? No, of course not – not if the proceedings are to be anything more than a kangaroo court. Glenn contradicting Peters does not prove that Peters is a liar.

The National Party and Act – having pressed so hard for the privileges committee investigation to take place, are also now in a very weird position. John Key’s refusal to deal with Peters post election ( on the basis of Peters’ alleged wrongdoings effectively prejudges the decision. Clark now has a point when she questions how the National members of the privileges committee can credibly continue to sit in judgement on a complaint against someone whom their leader has publicly declared guilty, mid process.

There are no precedents that fit the case, exactly. In the past, Clark has suspended Labour members of her own Cabinet, while investigations were pending. A different disciplinary standard and process could be claimed, when it involves the conduct of a Cabinet Minister belonging to another party, and with which one has a confidence and supply arrangement. I’m not saying different standards should apply – merely that there is some wiggle room. IMHO I think that suspending Peters from Cabinet in the interim is the option that Clark should be taking. It is a course of action that would still allow Peters, if he was so inclined, to support the ETS Bill in his capacity as the leader of New Zealand First, in the House next week.

What can the public be making of all this ? Contrary to Laila Harre on RNZ this morning, I don’t think NZF are mortally wounded, and they could still bounce back over the five pre cent threshold if any room remains at the end of this controversy for Peters to don the mantle of martyrdom.

Some of the mud may stick – and on the evidence so far, some probably should stick. Lying , as Richard Nixon found out, can have worse repercussions than the original . misdeed. Is this an issue that the public cares more about – more so than an economy in recession, or fuel and food prices or the future management of the country? Probably not, but it helps to forge attitudes and impressions. At this stage though , the saga still smacks of the Beltway obsession with Peters. His apparently cavalier system of dealing with donations made some years ago – in a climate where similar kinds of corporate cosiness was seen to be rife – is not likely to be widely seen as novel, or as a hanging offence.

In that respect, it is worth keeping in mind that the Glenn donation at the core of Peters’ problems had to do with the legal fees for the electoral petition in Tauranga – well after the governing arrangements conducted in the wake of the 2005 election had been completed. Even at their worst, Peters sins – so far at least – do not relate to donors trying to have direct influence on the election outcome, which lay at the heart of the controversies about National’s 2005 election campaign. Given the contents of the Hollow Men, it is pretty brazen for National and Key to be now acting as the moral guardians of Parliament’s integrity, over Peters.

Who benefits most from the Peters affair? Parliament loses – and Labour will remain vulnerable, so long as it does not suspend Peters while it defends the process that is dealing with him. National and Act gain, at least in the short term. John Key’s stated refusal to deal with Peters, post election – a cynical, and hedged statement, aimed more at de-stabilising Clark, than at admonishing Peters — has been very warmly greeted by the mainstream media. Incredibly, Colin Espiner in the Press even saluted Key’s statement as “one of the most courageous decisions of his political life.” With enemies like this in the media, who needs friends ?

That aside, the Peters kerfuffle has at the very least, usefully deflected attention from National – and usefully numbed any fears about a change of government that the public may have otherwise had room for, during this prelude to the election campaign proper.

Is the committee likely to agree to censure him? I don’t think so. Amid the current excitement, it is easy to forget that Peters only has to muddy the waters in order to avoid censure – and even then, he could claim with some justification , that any eventual censure by the privileges committee will have been tainted ( as usual with this committee) by party political posturing. We are, by my count, only at the half way stage – we have not heard the Peters/Henry counter attack, and we have not seen Glenn put under any pressure, bydirect testimony. There’s plenty of time left for the public to decide that Peters, whatever his faults, is not their Public Enemy Number One.