Winston Peters goal last night was simple survival. And if the rules of natural justice rules still apply, he did manage to shake Owen Glenn’s testimony just enough to avoid summary execution. Glenn’s account of events may still sound like the more plausible one – but this is a quasi-courtroom, not a soap opera. Its not about which character we like or trust the most.
Peters big achievement last night was to keep the Glenn vs Peters credibility issue alive, and on the committee table. Strictly on the evidence put so far before the privileges committee, it is hard to see how either (a) a unanimous censure recommendation for contempt or (b) a sacking from his post as Foreign Minister could be justified. That would put more weight on the Glenn testimony than it is able to bear – especially given the examples already on the public record of Glenn’s um….colourful recall of history, old and recent.
Of course, no one can know the mind of Helen Clark. She may have already decided that the best way of blowing this circus off the front pages is to call an early election. Or at least stop the tease about the date. That possibility aside, the Peters testimony last night had only very limited goals – he had to raise reasonable doubts about Glenn, and had to begin to restore faith with just enough of his support base to put the elusive five per cent MMP threshold back in view.
I think he succeeded. Peters dented the Glenn testimony just enough to keep his own parallel reality alive. That in turn, may have been just enough to save his job, and to give him some breathing space.
Like most of the mainstream media, I did rush to judgment last night and bestowed more credibility on Glenn’s email/phone record than it actually held, on closer examination. Its easy to see how it happened. If one had presumed Glenn to be reliable, then the email/ phone log re-inforces that impression, and then in a utterly circular fashion, this justifies the initial leap of faith. The trouble is – when you look at each individual call and message the detail of who called who about what, starts to evaporate.
During one of the crucial periods – around 5 December 2005, when it seems the initial soliciting for a donation may have occurred – the log record is virtually non-existent. In his testimony on Tuesday, Glenn speculated that an initial caller who left a message was either Peters ‘or someone from New Zealand First” [ Brian Henry ?] and he assumes that he called the person back – because he says that he would have done so, even though he also concedes there is no record he actually did. Why this is relevant is that if this exchange – if it occurred – was actually with Peters’ barrister Brian Henry, this would cast a quite different light on the exchange of messages on 14 December 2005 that is so central to the case against Peters. To Peters, that explains why the log record suddenly goes opaque around December 5.
You get the general point. Glenn’s message log is useful and detailed when it serves up circumstantial evidence that backs up his narrative – but then it gets incomplete just when we reach gthe actual soliciting of the donation that is at the heart of the committee inquiry. That’s why I think Peters still has some mileage left in his tank, when it comes to his claim that he only learned of the Glenn donation on July 18, 2008.
Not surprisingly, the privileges committee decided from the very outset – and with some tough questions posed by Labour MP Paul Swain – to focus on the 14 December 2005 exchange where Glenn’s narrative sounds most plausible, and is best documented.
The narrative goes like this – after having brunch with Labour president Mike Williams, Glenn phoned Peters. Only mere minutes after this Peters/Glenn call concluded, Glenn’s log shows that Peters’ barrister Brian Henry emailed his bank account details to Glenn. The Glenn version is this – Peters solicited a donation, they discussed it. And then only minutes afterwards, Henry emailed his bank details on behalf of his ‘client’ in order to facilitate the payment of the donation.
Peters version, repeated last night, was that the donation was not solicited by him, and that the 14 December phone record shows Glenn calling him, not vice versa. Henry and Peters claim it was Henry who solicited the donation on December 5, in line with the usual separation of the fundraising role from the parliamentary leadership of NZF, practiced by other parties as well. If and when Glenn asked for the Henry contact details at the conclusion of the December 14 call, this would then be consistent with Peters’ account – as a follow up and finessing of the Glenn/Henry contacts initiated in the wake of December 5.
In his evidence, Glenn also claimed that Peters later thanked him for the donation at the Karaka yearling sales in January 2006 and produced as corroboration – an affidavit from bloodstock agent Paul Moroney backing up that story.
Last night, Peters challenged the accuracy and the plausibility of the Moroney affidavit on a couple of interesting fronts. For one thing, Peters queried the plausibility of him being asked by Glenn about such a donation – and of him then confirming it – in such a very public place, in front of a long table containing what he recalled as about 14 people.
Labour MP Lianne Dalziel also helpfully raised other problematic aspects of the Moroney affidavit – which does not refer to thanks for money, but to thanks for “ help given.” This, she suggested, may easily have been a reference to gratitude in relation to Peters role as Racing Minister.
Furthermore, the Moroney affidavit also relates that Glenn had told Moroney shortly beforehand that Glenn was going to be talking to Peters over lunch about the donation. This reference, Dalziel suggested, might have misled Moroney into thinking that the subsequent reference to ‘help given ’ was a reference to a donation – when again, it could have been a reference to anything. Given the very public setting, it was unlikely to entail a vocal exchange about political donations given and received.
Finally, Peters maintained, the affidavit details were implausible, given that Glenn could have had no way of knowing that he would have been having lunch that day with Peters. In a related attack on Glenn’s reliability, Peters mocked Glenn’s inability to recall the name of the two hosts where this alleged encounter occurred. The hosts were, he confirmed, the wellknown Vela brothers, and could not credibly have been unknown to Glenn, giving his racing background.
You get the picture. Peters swarmed all over the Glenn testimony looking for contradictions between the two letters sent by Glenn to the committee, and with his testimony this week. Today for instance, Peters recounted, Glenn had told the media that Labour president Mike Williams had arrived uninvited earlier this year, on Glenn’s yacht – yet tonight, Peters pointed out, Williams had produced the invitation.
On a more substantial point of credibility, it is Glenn’s current position that his donation was to Peters – and very explicitly, was not to New Zealand First or to Brian Henry. Yet in his February 21 2008 email, Glenn describes himself as having given money “ to New Zealand First.”
Is this nitpicking ? To some extent. Yet Peters current aim is not to turn black into white – but to create enough grey on the narrow issue that is before the privileges committee, so as to preclude a unanimous decision against him. Anything less than unanimity is a victory for Peters, on this front at least. It is entirely plausible that the committee could finally decide that it cannot make a definitive call between the two scenarios put forward by Glenn and by Peters, sufficient to justify any recommendation of censure.
Unfortunately for Peters, the standard of proof required for complaints to the privileges committee is not the “beyond reasonable doubt’ standard of our criminal courts. It is only the civil court one of a ‘balance of probabilities’ – and that probably explains why the sanction of imprisonment has never been applied here. The process isn’t fair and sturdy enough to support that kind of sanction – given there’s a relatively low standard of proof and no right of judicial review. In sum – Peters, for all his alleged faults, doesn’t deserve to have his parliamentary career torpedoed by a panel of fellow MPs putting all their eggs in the Owen Glenn basket of reliability. Not at least – as Peters also argued, when Glenn has been describing himself publicly as a “lush” and a “womanizer.”
Under trying conditions, the committee is doing its best. As mentioned before, it was at its best when grilling Peters about the December 14, 2005 sequence. In the best question thread of the evening, Greens Co-Leader Russel Norman traced the ‘who phoned who’ sequence – Glenn to Peters, fine. Peters defence last night was that Glenn “ may” have asked him for Henry’s contact particulars, but he couldn’t recall for sure. He mainly remembered Glenn asking him about getting an honorary consul post in Monaco – which would give Glenn a diplomatic passport and make it easier for him to transit through overseas airports.
BUT, Norman asked, the next contact had not been from Glenn to Henry as you would have expected, but vice versa. Someone, and maybe it was someone in NZF – maybe Peters himself – must have told Henry to go full steam ahead and contact Glenn with the bank account details. Who could that have been ? In reply, Peters confirmed to Norman that he hadn’t been in Henry’s office in Auckland, but had been in Wellington on the day – at least according to his sometimes unreliable diary. And there the point rested.
To follow up Norman’s point, it could be highly informative to find out who DID alert Henry on December 14 , as soon as the Peters/Glenn conversation had ended. It should be easy, given the very tight time gap of mere minutes that is relevant on 14 December 2005. Surely the New Zealand First office could collec t and forward its phone/email logs to the committee for that brief time period, to see if these reveal who called Henry, to tell him to contact Glenn. Because it is straining credibility to suggest that the tight time between the Glenn/Peters call and the Henry email was entirely accidental.
It is Peters contention that his contact with Glenn – and Henry’s contact with Glenn – were on parallel tracks that never intersected. Much was made by the committee – especially by National MP Gerry Brownlee – that Glenn would hardly have asked Peters for Henry’s contact details without Peters asking him – why ? True, this would normally be so. But in a climate where the party leadership consciously avoids knowledge of the details of donations, a don’t ask/don’t tell regime does seem to exist. Unlikely, but possible.
It will be fascinating to see how the media do depict and assess the Peters testimony over the next few days. Once he had finished his testimony there was a palpable sense that the media’s narrative – that had been forged and re-inforced since the arrival of the boisterous Owen Glenn – would now damnit, have to be reset somehow. Thank God, I heard one journalist say, that I’m not on deadline on this.
The privileges committee is not on an explicit deadline either. But it can’t hang around for too long either. Currently it is only one of three dangerous inquiries into the ( lack of) funding declarations that Peters and NZF are currently facing. If she was so inclined, Clark could sack Peters on these more general grounds – that there is a prima facie case that NZF culpably failed to file accurate returns in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and her Foreign Minister has to take some responsibility for that. The 2005 and 2006 returns are part of a Serious Fraud Office investigation, while the 2007 returns are the subject of a police investigation.
It is that police investigation that must concern Peters and for different reasons, Clark. The SFO may find NZF broke the law, but it is obvious that the statute of limitations has been passed – so Peters could escape with little more than a lot of dirty looks from the SFO. The police inquiry is something else again, though. If Clark sacks Peters – or skirts that option by calling an election – she still has to declare whether she would refuse on principle to , enter into post election negotiations with a party that is under police investigation. The police need to decide by November 16 whether to press charges. If they do – and on the evidence they certainly should – Peters will become a currency that Clark can hoard in the meantime, but never spend. Clark may yet have to join John Key and – pre- election – rule out any deals with Peters and his party.
At the conclusion of the evening, Peters framed the situation in the terms of the martyrdom that his supporters best understand. In years past, NZF have played the honest broker, the party that will keep the others honest, by not being in thrall to big corporate donors. Obviously, that image has now taken a hammering. Yet that didn’t stop Peters from conjuring up the glory days of the Winebox investigation, once again with feeling.
Owen Glenn’s testimony, Peters claimed, had been prepared by the very same people – he cited a former Russell McVeigh lawyer for Fay Richwhite – that he had been fighting in so many other battles down the years. “ I have spent my whole political life,” Peters concluded, “ to preserve New Zealand for New Zealanders. This is an attempt to undo the peoples’ will, bring down a government, then govern alone. My enemies and an elite media have surely proven that.“ Classic Peters. When he looks bad – he conjures up his enemies, and hopes they’ll look even worse. Often enough, they do.