Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Were the coalition talks skewed by Peters' secret utu plan?

Let me see whether I’ve got this right.

We learned yesterday that on the day before the September 23 general election, Winston Peters kick-started legal action against National cabinet ministers and officials over the leaking of his superannuation overpayment. He took this action without disclosing it to either the National or Labour parties.

Then, post-election, Peters entered into – indeed orchestrated – what were held out to be “good faith” negotiations with both parties on possible coalition arrangements.

Both parties believed they were in with a chance – in fact an equal chance – and Peters seemed happy to encourage this belief. It suited him to do so because that way, both Labour and National would be keen to do business with him.

But realistically, what chance was there of Peters going into coalition with National when he was simultaneously – apparently unbeknown to anyone but his lawyers – taking legal action against senior National ministers and officials? What sort of hopelessly dysfunctional government would it have been if the deputy prime minister (let’s assume his appointment to that role would have been one of the conditions of any NZ First deal with National, as it was with Labour) was suing the prime minister?

No, it’s inconceivable.

The obvious conclusion, then, is that Peters kept quiet so he could play the parties along, spinning out the negotiations and extracting maximum concessions, when he must have known all along that he would go with Labour. To put it another way, the negotiations appear to have been an elaborate charade.

If this was the case, National weren’t the only ones being played for suckers. Labour were deceived too. Ask yourself: what concessions did the Labour team make that they wouldn’t have considered had they known Peters intended to go with them regardless?

I’m not alone in thinking this. Veteran political editor Barry Soper writes: “Like all good gamblers, Peters kept a stony face, letting them [National] believe they were still in the game whereas in reality they'd been dealt out when the court papers were filed against them."

They were playing blind, says Soper, and so was Labour. “If they’d known of the court papers they might not have been so generous”.

Now Jacinda Ardern is left with little option but to play it all down by insisting it was just a “personal” matter between Peters and the people he’s going after. She says Peters gave her a “heads up”, although not until last week. All sorted, then; nothing to see here.

Of course Ardern has to maintain the line that this doesn’t affect the unity or stability of the coalition. But seriously, how can Labour trust Peters after this? They appear to have been shafted before they even had their feet under the cabinet table. At the very least, they were misled by omission.

On Morning Report today, political law expert Graeme Edgeler put a benign interpretation on Peters’ behaviour by suggesting he may have decided to proceed with legal action only after deciding to support Labour.

In other words Peters may have negotiated with National in genuine good faith, intending to shelve his legal action if they reached agreement. But if that were the case, why did his lawyers file papers in the Auckland High Court the day before the election? He would surely have stayed his hand while he waited to see how the post-election talks panned out.

I suppose some people might admire Peters’ mastery of the political dark arts (Soper seems to), but to me it just looks dishonest and deceitful. On the face of things, he has treated Labour and National with contempt, he has treated the electorate with contempt and he has treated democracy with contempt. 

And what a cute coincidence that he should have left the country to attend the Apec conference in Vietnam before the bomb went off, so that he was spared having to answer awkward questions. (I won’t comment on the irony of a foreign affairs minister who’s deeply sceptical about free trade representing New Zealand at a meeting of an organisation formed to promote it, but hey - who's going to pass up an opportunity to hob-nob with the big boys?)

Let’s allow that the leaking of Peters’ superannuation details was a political dirty trick, albeit a transparently clumsy one, aimed at embarrassing him ahead of the election. But the secrecy of his plan to exact utu, and the possibility that the coalition talks were skewed by it, can only add to misgivings about the integrity of the process by which the new government was formed. Am I the only one who thinks this is a whole lot more important than the entertaining gamesmanship in Parliament yesterday?


Owen Dyer said...

winston would have creamed a lot of party votes from national supporters who werent aware

of the hatred he had built up for national for a long time

so we have been tricked, but not again

Graeme Edgeler said...

But if that were the case, why did his lawyers file papers in the Auckland High Court the day before the election?

My understanding is that the document we have seen dated the day before the election was the affidavit that accompanied the application. I do not believe the date of filing has been made public, but given the rules around prompt service of legal documents, my suspicion is that it was some time after the election.

James Noble said...

I don't see why the legal filing (or not) really matters here.

The question is apparently whether Winston was negotiating in good faith with National. If he hadn't launched the lawsuit, he could still have had no intention of going with the Nats to extract utu. Or, alternately, he could have maintained his lawsuit even when going into government with the Tories.

The actual question is whether "good faith" negotiation is a constitutional prerequisite for forming a legitimate government. Seems to me it's not: the only criteria is whether the PM apparent is able to command a majority in the House.

Karl du Fresne said...

Gulp. I went to write "Jacinda" in the above piece but somehow it came out as Jessica, and I didn't pick it up. I've now corrected it.

Scott said...

There are so many problems with MMP and this election has brought them into the light. Basically we have the spectacle of a politician whose party received 7% of the vote telling the 93% who the government will be. That he was motivated by the desire for revenge just rubs even more salt into the wound. And the policies that the new government will actually enact are the product of horse trading between the various parties during the post election negotiations. These policies are inevitably going to be different from the policies the parties actually campaigned on. This all seems very undemocratic to me. It appears that MMP which arose in Germany to limit power and prevent the rise of another fascist government, is completely unsuitable to other environments such as NZ.