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September 15, 2008 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Lion in Winter

Vultures Circle

Charged with contempt of Parliament, the Rt Hon Winston Raymond Peters, former Treasurer, Deputy Prime Minister, and Foreign Affairs Minister, appeared last Wednesday night before Parliament’s Privileges Committee for what may prove to be the last fight of his political life.

At issue is a donation of 100,000 sparkling dollars to New Zealand First from Owen Glenn, what Peters knew of it, and when. A wealthy shipping magnate, Glenn gave the money to help New Zealand First pay court costs associated with an unsuccessful 2005 election petition. For some time, Peters, apparently incurious about his good fortune, denied knowing the origin of the money.

It is these denials, made publicly, repeatedly, and with helpful visual aids, which are in question. On Tuesday, testimony from Glenn, along with phone and e-mail records, suggested not only that Peters knew of the donation, but also that he solicited it.

Peters, jacket characteristically doublebreasted, marched into the committee room armed with papers and flanked by aides. A dozen cameras circled. Peters glanced to the upstairs gallery before seating himself. A slight wobble rippled across his right hand. A spectator’s speculation: either delirium tremens or a rare display of apprehension.

Simon Power, chair of the committee, opened proceedings.

Battle Scars
It is best to be both feared and loved; however, if one cannot be both, it is better to be feared than loved. Niccolò Machiavelli

Litigation has always been a part of the Peters political strategy. 1978, 1999, and 2005 all saw election petitions concerning Peters, and a 1992 court case dealt with his rejection by National as candidate for Tauranga. He’s the acknowledged master of this stuff. But for once, he seemed nervous.

If Peters was fearful on Wednesday, perhaps he had good reason.

Alone and cornered, the man is dangerous. He is nothing if not effective on counterattack. He has a telegenic charisma. Coupled with slight paranoia, it was entirely possible that Peters would play the besieged hero, or even the victim.

If Peters was fearful on Wednesday, his antagonists perhaps had good reason to be as well.

Peters Blusters, Committee Blunders
Are you stalling for time, or are you just senile? Clancy Wiggum

The prepared statement was full of the usual Peters bluster and accusation. He spat out and disputed paragraph references faster than the committee could follow. All of this was as expected; it was the manner of delivery that came as a shock. Perhaps unable to summon his usual grasp of the material, he seemed to be rambling. He read his statement so poorly it was hard to understand what he was saying.

When questioned, Peters alternated between the irrelevant and the more irrelevant. He tried to invoke the word “winebox” at every opportunity, referring to a fraud investigation closed over a zillion years ago, but was shut down by Power.

Then, in an audacious tactic, he claimed faulty memory, both on the part of Glenn and himself. Claiming Glenn’s evidence was “coached” by his lawyer, he went alarmingly close to suggesting that Geoff Harley, QC, implanted false memory in Glenn’s mind, presumably in some fiendish plot to bring Peters down and avenge dishonour over the Winebox Inquiry. Maybe I misunderstood what was being said. I’m not an expert; I was just there on Wednesday.

Concerning his own memory, Peters displayed impressive recall on irrelevant facts—what was served for lunch at the Karaka Yearling Sale in 2006, even seating arrangements—and one absolutely astonishing blank spot, which I’ll get to soon.

Could it be that, deprived of the vigour and strength of youth, able no longer to hold his own in a battle of will, Peters has developed senility into a method for clouding his opponents’ minds? He surely confused the committee. The questions were fumbled, the sequence of events was fumbled. Hell, even some page references were fumbled. Confusion reigned, and on style, Peters may well have wriggled himself off the hook.

Six Missing Minutes
He was wearing a beige sweater at the time. I remember this because I thought it was curious. Winston Peters

The testimony hinged on a phone call from Glenn to Peters in December 2005, and an e-mail six minutes later to Glenn from an NZ First lawyer, replete with bank account details and a reference to the call.

It is hard to imagine how the e-mail could be unconnected to the phone call, but this connection is the subject of a memory blank for Peters: a memory blank of the sort that most of us can only get from tequila. In a piece of genius political theatre, from the same testimony that supplied this section’s epigraph, comes six missing minutes.

The call itself, even in the Peters version, must rank as one of the most curious moments in New Zealand’s political history. Glenn contacted the newly-minted Finance Minister Peters, and began to discuss a role for himself as a roving trade ambassador with a diplomatic passport, based in Monaco. As Glenn was a big donor for Labour, there must have been concern about the appearance of impropriety. Peters remembers this much of the conversation, because it was “extraordinary.”

But then the talk, according to Glenn, turned to money. In context, this seems amazing—“I want a special job. And by the way, I want to give you money” must be an awkward segway—but this even more extraordinary turn eludes Peters’ memory. He also fails to remember giving his lawyer instructions to send Glenn bank account details, or even telling him about the call, though the content of the e-mail suggests no other possibility. Peters acknowledged this, yet somehow, simultaneously denied knowledge of it.

This was too exhausting for all concerned. The hearing finished up. The question of Peters’ political future remained unresolved. The lion walked away.


About the Author ()

BK Drinkwater's actual origins are shrouded in mystery, but it is said that he sprang from the summit of Taranaki fully formed, four days after the birth of Aristotle. He resents having been overshadowed in this way.

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