With hindsight – or even you’d think, with foresight – it was not a great idea for Michael Cullen to be leading the Labour bloc’s attempt to dent Owen Glenn’s testimony to the privileges committee. It only made Cullen, Russell Fairbrother, and Paul Swain look like they were doing legal work for Winston Peters pro bono, by challenging Glenn’s powers of recall. That is not the position the Clark government should be taking, right now.
Wheeling up Cullen, Labour’s big gun and deputy chair of the privileges committee for the task of trying to trip up Glenn’s recall and command of detail only had a vague chance of triggering a meltdown – or boilover – from the billionaire witness. Tackling Glenn about who phoned who and spoke to whom back in 2005 also never looked like overturning the basic issue of whether Peters had gone out actively soliciting the money. The Labour effort just looked like nitpicking, or worse. True, Glenn at times did give a good impression of being a feudal lord unaccustomed to having his version of reality questioned – its pretty clear who steers his yacht – but then again, Glenn has a lot to be feeling annoyed about.
Being faithful to the laws of natural justice and due process is all very well. Yet the government’s fidelity to Peters is starting to look suicidal and willful. Leave it too late – and we have probably gone past that point already – and sacking Peters will just look like rats leaving a sinking ship.
That was why the Glenn appearance in person, was so crucial. Before then, there was still an outside chance that the committee could be plausibly uncertain on the issue of credibility between Peters and Glenn. If so, the committee’s findings would have split along party lines – thus leaving Peters an escape route with the voters. Not any more. The balance of credibility has tilted decisively, in Glenn’s favour.
So what proved to be so decisive ? Glenn was a credible witness, for one thing. The issue under investigation, as the privileges committee chair Simon Power once again reminded the room, is a very narrow one. It hinges on when Peters became aware of the $100,000 Glenn donation, and on his claims that he got this knowledge only in mid July 2008. Before that, Peters maintains, all contact in soliciting and responding to the Glenn donation had been made via the Auckland barrister Brian Henry, on behalf of an un-named client.
Given Glenn’s natural flamboyance – and given his prior talk of perhaps becoming Transport Minister, or the honorary NZ consul to Monaco – the issue of greater reliability in the Glenn vs Peters versions of events had looked like a toss-up between two prima donnas. And if it was only a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, the Labour leadership was clearly thinking, why should it be panicked into pre-emptive action against Peters ?
That wiggle room has now all but vanished. Barring miracles from Peters in his rebuttal testimony tonight, this episode is all but over. What Glenn produced was a timeline fleshed out by email and telephone records. While those records were incomplete on certain fine points – as in, was it Peters ‘or someone from New Zealand First’ who contacted Glenn in late November 2005 ? But from then on through the crucial period in December 2005, Glenn’s oral evidence and supportive email/telephone records were credible, and utterly damning to Peters. According to Glenn, Peters personally sought the donation, subsequently confirmed it had arrived, and thanked Glenn for making it.
We were given details of the crucial call on 14 December 2005 between Glenn and Peters that was followed – only minutes later – by a call from Henry providing the bank account details on behalf of his “ client” who, in the circumstances, looked very, very much like it was Peters.
The gist of the Glenn version is that Peters had solicited the donation – and that the $100,000 figure eventually arrived at between the two men was understood by Glenn to be a personal donation to Peters. tIt was NOT a donation to New Zealand First, or to Brian Henry. To close the circle, Glenn’s testimony was that the money had been gratefully acknowledged by Peters at the Karaka yearling sales in late January 2006, in a conversation overheard and attested to in a sworn affidavit by bloodstock agent Paul Moroney.
From the outset, Glenn’s prime motivation had been, he said, to help out the Labour government, by helping one of its allies. For that reason, Glenn testified, he had contacted Labour Party president Mike Williams before and during the process of making the donation – essentially, to gain a green light help to Peters was seen by Labour as being compatible with Labour’s overall strategy. The fact Williams knew about the prospect / intention of a Glenn donation to Peters back in 2005 does not prove that Helen Clark knew this background when she spoke to Glenn in February of this year.
Why not ? Because given the Chinese walls said to operate between the parliamentary wing and party organisation in every major party on issues about funding, there is room for plausible deniability as regards how much Clark’s knew, and when she knew it. All of which is relevant to when she had sufficient information to make a judgement call about the reliability of Peters assurance to her in February, that no such donation had occurred.
That point is something the privileges committee may now wish to explore with her. By way of collateral damage, the Glenn testimony has heightened the prospect of Clark being asked to appear before the privileges committee. It is unlikely she will want to do so before she has put more daylight between herself and Peters. Until now, her position has been that she cannot shed any light on the relevant details of when, and whether the Glenn donation constituted a gift under the rules governing the declaration of gifts and interests. She has maintained throughout that her role was a very limited one. In February she had asked Peters about whether there had been a donation, and she had received no compelling grounds then or since, to reject his assurances.
That is no longer the case. Unless Peters can produce a rather large rabbit from the hat tonight, his credibility on the Glenn donation will be past salvation. For lying to the public – and to the Prime Minister – he would deserve to be sacked from his position as Foreign Minister. That judgement is not something Clark needs to wait upon the final verdict of the privileges committee. Whether she sacks him or not is, and always has been, her call to make.
The Glenn testimony also achieved what the partisan politicking by National could not do. It has linked the Peters affair to Labour in detail and in spirit, and has made the government’s behaviour towards one of its main party donors look desperately shabby. As Glenn told John Campbell on TV3, these are not the sort of people you’d want alongside you in the trenches. Because they would push you out.
That sentiment rings as true as any other detail in the Glenn testimony. In December 2005, Williams may have given a green light for the donation only in general terms, and was almost certainly not privy to the subsequent transaction – but this happened in circumstances where he would have been fairly sure the transaction would proceed
The nature of the nine floor gossip mill also makes it inconceivable that the upper echelons of the government’s parliamentary wing would not have subsequently known informally about the Glenn donation to Peters – and the subsequent tactical choice by Labour to try and denigrate Glenn is unfortunately, all too typical. Someone, someday may make a list of the people the Labour government has abandoned over the course of this decade in the name of expediency, and its own survival. Karmically, one of those people who was being fitted for the dud parachute has now struck back. Winston, barring miracles, will be the next to be jettisoned.
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Ironically, the Peters testimony tonight will be taking place just as scientists in Switzerland will be turning on the giant Hadron Collider particle accelerator. Some people have been worried that this event could create an artificial black hole, into which the entire planet will be sucked. Well, the giant sucking sound you hear tonight before the privileges committee is more likely to be the sound of Peters’ political career disappearing down to a tiny point of darkness, of unutterable density.