Hard News by Russell Brown


The Spiral of Events

I'm stuck for a metaphor for Sean Plunket's extraordinary, impromptu interview with Winston Peters this morning. I'm also very little the wiser as to the true nature of Peters' Byzantine financial affairs after hearing it. But I do feel secure in saying that Peters will have been firmly offered the opportunity to stand down as Foreign Affairs minister by the end of the day.

Such is the spiralling nature of events that the news that he is being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office late yesterday afternoon has, paradoxically, moved the agenda on from Helen Clark's revelation only hours earlier that she had been told back in February by Owen Glenn that he had donated $100,000 to Peter's legal defence fund.

Perhaps we should deal with that first. Why on earth would Helen Clark have decided not to implicitly trust Owen Glenn when he told her that? One reason is simpler than you might think: Glenn had recently given interviews in which his recollection of the timing and purpose of his donations to her own party was demonstrably off the planet.

Shortly before Glenn told Clark that he had made a donation directly to New Zealand First, he gave an interview to the Dominion Post's Kim Ruscoe in which he said he had donated his $500,000 to Labour's 2005 campaign because he was concerned about the "sneaky" influence of the Exclusive Brethren on the election.

This simply could not have been true: the Brethren flap blew up only weeks before polling day 2005. Glenn's donation was made -- and properly declared -- in two chunks in 2003 and 2004. It was all cheerily reported in the Herald in June 2005 -- four months before anyone outside the Brethren and some people in the National Party knew that the Brethren was involved in the campaign at all.

And yet here he was, in February 2008, giving an account that seemed to have sprung entirely from his imagination. In the same interview, Glenn also made the unlikely claim that Clark had seriously suggested he could be her Minister of Transport if he would but return to New Zealand. Glenn subsequently admitted he'd been big-noting to a lady reporter.

So if you'd been wondering -- as Messrs Farrar and Hooton have been doing very loudly -- how Clark could possibly have doubted the recollection of a prominent party donor over the word of her foreign minister, that's it. Glenn, successful businessman and excellent philanthropist that he is, had been demonstrating that he was not necessarily a reliable witness. Clark did, we now know, take the matter seriously enough to place an urgent call to Peters in South Africa. But we can perhaps understand her reluctance to pull the pin by calling her minister a liar.

And yet … Glenn's odd interview did include a statement that did prove to be demonstrably true: that he had loaned Labour $100,000 after the election, in order that it could set up a more robust fund-raising structure. There was nothing illegal or improper about that, and the forgone interest that constituted a donation was not large enough to meet the threshold for a statutory declaration. But Williams lied by omission to journalists, and the political cost of that was a demonstration of the folly of not actively advancing relevant information. Clark is reaping the same, even if she had quite good reasons for not implying that her minister was a liar.

But, of course, a verbal claim from Glenn is different to a careful, clear letter from Glenn to the select committee saying the same thing, and it's likely that things began to turn with the receipt of that letter. A possible heads-up on the SFO's intentions may also have hastened the disclosure.

The SFO inquiry doesn't -- yet -- cover the most incendiary allegations around Peters: that he requested $50,000 from the Simunovich family return for covering up alleged corruption in the fishing industry.

But it would be wise, for the moment, to bear in mind that that allegation was made under privilege by Rodney Hide, who is currently in throw-stuff-at-the-walls to see if it sticks mode. Another claim by Hide -- that TVNZ had deliberately destroyed evidence supporting that allegation -- has been shown to be entirely fanciful. Earlier in the week, Hide made another wild (not to say despicable, cynical and unpleasant) public allegation -- that the EPMU, which was respecting its duty not to speak publicly during its employment negotiations with surprise Act candidate Shawn Tan, only had a problem with Tan because of his race.

There may be a great deal more to come, but the fact that Rodney Hide says so most surely does not make it true.

I said this affair demonstrates the political perils of not volunteering information. It also underlines the problem of parties chasing donations from the likes of Glenn. And it underlines the role that a free and lively press plays in a democracy. Chris Trotter makes the staggering comparison of the press pursuit of Peters to a "gang-rape". I'm saying that whatever the upshot here, we owe a debt to the likes of Audrey Young and, in particular to the Dom Post's Phil Kitchin, for the shedding of light.

But I'll give Winston one thing: for all his barking and flailing, he has not accused Kitchin, whose stories appear to be based on New Zealand First documents, of "theft" of leaked documents, or of "hacking" party systems. The Opposition Party, whose own wealthy donors, and their quid pro quos, have been hidden behind carefully structured, opaque trusts, should really count its blessings. And to think a little harder the next time it is inclined to smear its own troublesome journalist.

Last call for our Stories: The Internet thread. I'll dish out the prizes early next week. They include, as previously noted, five copies of Keith Newman's NZ internet history, Connecting the Clouds, five big bags of Eden Coffee, and one Nokia 6121 mobile phone (which we have by way of promotion for Vodafone's new dollar-a-day mobile internet plan).

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