Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

< Columns

Winston and the Privileges Committee


Anyone watching yesterday's parliamentary debate about the report of the Privileges Committee into Winston Peters' dissembling over his knowledge of the donations that have been made to his legal expenses will realize that MPs took the matter extremely seriously. Peters was censured by the House for knowingly providing false or misleading information, and was ordered to file, within seven days, amended returns for his pecuniary interests over the last three years. The tone of the debate was careful and cautious, with most of those who spoke praising the way in which National MP Simon Power had run the committee. "Fair" was a word used by Michael Cullen, Russel Norman and Te Ururoa Favell about the conduct of the hearings. Knowing the Privileges Committee has the power to destroy someone's career, members usually act with due solemnity in such matters.

Given what could have happened to Winston Peters, the judgment passed on him yesterday by Parliament was very mild. In 1896 when the chairman of the Bank of New Zealand refused to answer certain questions from parliamentarians he was fined and detained in the Speaker's suite until the money was paid. In 1918, in what surely was a kangaroo court, the Labour MP Paddy Webb was stripped of his seat because he was absent from the House. Why was he absent? Because he'd been imprisoned for opposing conscription and refusing to wear a soldier's uniform when called up. A by-election was held to fill Webb's seat, and he was barred from standing again for many more years. Winston Peters suffered no such indignity. His sentence was the very least that the public could reasonably expect, given the fact that approximately 90% of New Zealanders believe that he did not tell the truth over the donation he received from expatriate businessman, Owen Glenn.

Peters, it seems, has no intention of complying with Parliament's order. With an election at hand and his low standing in the polls, he wants a soap box. He's already crying that he has been treated unfairly; if he's charged with contempt for failing to accept Parliament's order he'll lift the decibel level and scream persecution. That, of course, is his usual way of trying to get out of tight corners. When caught, he acts like one of those giant Canterbury Plains excrement sprays that revolve above the pasture, showering everything with you know what. My guess is that while the House would be quite within its rights to take further action against Winston, they'll probably hold back because to do so would only play into his hands. Peters, after all, has managed to exploit double standards most of his political life and right now just about everyone wants to be rid of him.

What worries me about this whole sorry saga is that the terms of reference of the Privileges Committee on this occasion were extremely narrow. Members and the wider public have a right to probe why so many people were ready to lavish money on Peters. Wealthy people don't all give money away in $100,000 lots. It seems that most of those involved with Winston have interests in the racing industry, an area known for its corruption down through the ages, here and everywhere else. Why have they been prepared to dig so deep for the Minister of Racing in recent years? What did they expect to get, and what might they have received in turn? At the end of July this year, Tony Wall of the Sunday Star Times reported that the minister had upended the taxpayers' cash register over the racing industry to the extent of tens of millions since 2005. This largesse with our money occurred with the knowledge of the Prime Minister, who appointed Winston Peters Minister of Racing after the 2005 election. When she gave him his warrant she must have known of the extent to which he was beholden to the racing industry for party, and possibly personal funding. Overtly buying political influence by giving large donations to parties and murky private trusts like the Spencer Trust appears on the face of it to be corruption of a kind that has been foreign to New Zealand, and which is always likely to bring any Parliament into disrepute. When will these matters be investigated by the Privileges Committee? Why has Winston, who has always posed as a friend of the old and the vulnerable, been spreading tens of millions of dollars of public money on wealthy racing magnates who don't need it, rather than on better health care and services for his supporters? And in particular, why has the Prime Minister been a party to all of this by allowing her ministry to fund Winston's backers? There is much yet that needs unearthing about this whole murky business.

Lots of other parliamentarians are involved in all of this. Will they escape investigation? This is a serious question: many people know more than they have admitted to about this sorry business. The integrity of Parliament will be the loser unless the investigation now widens.