• Richard Prosser

Another month, another scandal

Photo credit: Chris McKeen / Stuff

Dear me, whatever is happening with the tight ship that used to be the New Zealand First Party? Hard on the heels of the President resigning, from both the office and indeed the Party itself - that alone being a fairly unprecedented move - comes the news that a whole bunch of sensitive Party material and information has been leaked to the media.

It would be easy to link the two, and that is a presumption that many people will leap to. Personally I'm inclined to keep an open mind for the time being.

First off I don't think it would be consistent for Lester Gray to resign the Presidency over matters that strongly suggest financial impropriety, and then do something as improper as leaking a lot of material himself.

Shonky practices and dodgy dealings have of course always been a feature of the functioning of NZ First. My comment above relating to a 'tight ship' was somewhat tongue-in-cheek in that regard, in case anyone hadn't guessed.

I never knew Lester Gray particularly well. He was coming into the role at about the same time as I was - unbeknownst to myself at the actual time - being gently ushered towards the exit. But I do know that he was engineered into the job every bit as deliberately as was his predecessor, and indeed the two before that.

This is how things are done in NZ First. A small group of insiders run the whole show, through control of the caucus, the Party Board, the publicity machine, and most importantly the money.

Office holders are elected by delegates to the Party's annual AGM Convention. For the most part they know very little about those standing, and rely on "suggestions" as to who should be supported for what role, from those who are better known to everyone - meaning various MPs and Board members. Up until 2012 it was possible to be both, and I was one of them.

Lester Gray isn't the first NZF Party officeholder to make an unpleasant discovery of things for which he was legally responsible, but of which he was genuinely aware. At least one former Secretary and one former Treasurer have found themselves in the same position. He is the first to quit the Party entirely, to my knowledge, which suggests to my mind that his motivation does indeed tally with public statements regarding his unwillingness to behave in a manner that does not meet the standard of his own personal and business ethics.

So what of this latest batch of leaked material? For the most part it appears to be pretty low-key; membership details, contentious though they may be for some, are hardly the stuff of great scandal. So it's more about who leaked them, and why.

Peters, according to Stuff, "tweeted on Tuesday night that the leak was a "deliberate and malicious misappropriation of data by a disgruntled source."

Indeed. But which one?

He then also apparently added "Despite its age this is a serious breach and as such is being reported to the Police and the Privacy Commissioner."

Well given that the leak has only just happened, we can presume he's talking about the age of the material in question, which would tend to point to someone not-so-recently departed or given cause to be disgruntled.

And no, for the record it wasn't me. In fact the number of people who would have access to that sort of information from within the Party itself isn't great. Details on how many members there actually are, and how much legitimate dosh can be counted on and thus accounted for, are closely guarded. There are probably only half-a-dozen people who could have known.

And then there's the dosh that can't be accounted for, or at least isn't; hoardings and flyers and signwritten buses don't come cheap, but someone paid for them. I know for a fact that my old electorate Branch of Waimakariri was the best-resourced in the South Island, and I also know how much we didn't have in the Bank.

There are dark tales of meetings between politicians and industry figures occurring and discussions being had, and of bagpersons collecting cheques; of brown paper envelopes stuffed with cash; of quantities of money being promised in exchange for certain policy - and people - considerations; even of recordings being made of said discussions, without the knowledge of some of their participants.

I was once invited to convey a message to Winston Peters, regarding the purported existence of one such recording. The reply to be delivered, issued through gritted teeth, was that the person claiming possession of the recording should only publicise it if he wanted to "spend his retirement living under a bridge."

And there is little evidence of large sums of money being received, or at least declared; but there remains the undeniable evidence of it having been spent.

In fact only three years ago (or maybe it was four, these things are starting to fade from memory, as bad dreams do ;-) ) the Conference didn't even include a report by the Treasurer; and protests from the floor were roundly shut down by the presiding officer, despite the inclusion of these declarations being a Constitutional requirement for the Party organisation. To my knowledge, this hasn't ever been followed up.

The Constitution itself is a huge ongoing source of inner conflict for NZF. On the one hand it's there in black and white, but on the other, the rules around how it can be altered, and by whom, are as grey as a warship in heavy fog.

All of this lends itself to an appreciation of things being more than a little murky behind the scenes of the Coalition's Most Influential Player, but none of it gets us any closer to knowing Who Leaked What.

People's details should be kept private, as should the contents of internal communications. But does the fact of them being revealed, other than proving a bit of an embarrassment, really threaten to topple Governments or their constituent Parties?

Personally I don't think this is any more of a big deal than Winston Peters' superannuation overpayment, which at the end of the day did very little other than to generate headlines, and give Peters an excuse to initiate legal action against National whilst maintaining the illusion of still being in fair negotiations with them. One person came out of that particular scandal much better off than they went in. And maybe that points in the direction of who this latest "disgruntled source" might have been.

Richard Prosser


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© 2019  Richard Prosser