Editorial: Winston's payback another sidestep

Last updated 23:14 16/06/2008

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If NZ First leader Winston Peters expects a surge of public approval to follow the news his party has given $158,000 to charity he is mistaken, The Dominion Post writes.

Lest anyone has forgotten, it should be remembered that the donation is not a donation in the commonly understood sense of the word. It is NZ First's response to having been caught misspending $158,000 of public money during the 2005 election campaign.

NZ First was not alone. Seven of the eight parties represented in Parliament, including Labour and National, were found by Auditor-General Kevin Brady to have misspent a combined total of more than $1.1 million during the campaign. But five have since repaid the money and the sixth, UnitedFuture, is making regular repayments.

NZ First, after delaying for more than a year while a "team of lawyers" reviewed Mr Brady's findings, has chosen to make good its sins by donating to unidentified charities.

That is a tacit acknowledgment, at least, by NZ First's lawyers that Mr Brady was right and NZ First's MPs were wrong. If not, NZ First could have been expected to mount a legal challenge to Mr Brady's finding that the law in 2005 did not allow political parties to spend public money on campaign bric-a-brac. But it is not good enough.

When Mr Peters tried unsuccessfully to give the money to Starship children's hospital in Auckland late last year he said he was doing so because the party did not want to see it "lost in the coffers of the Wellington bureaucracy".

Many taxpayers share his aversion to a bureaucracy which funds his globetrotting as a foreign affairs minister, fills his office with advisers and pays his salary.

But giving $158,000, taken from the public purse, to outside organisations does not constitute repayment of a debt. Nor does refusing to name the recipients, something he had previously undertaken to do, lend credibility to the exercise. Mr Peters says he has decided not to name the charities because he does not want them bothered by the "prying media".

That is a one-fingered salute to those who hold to the quaint notion that politicians should be accountable for how they spend public money.

It is also unsatisfactory. Who is to say that NZ First does not regard the Re-elect Winston Campaign in Tauranga or, for that matter, NZ First itself, as charities?

By retrospectively changing the law, the Government obviated the legal requirement for politicians to repay the money they unlawfully spent. But the moral obligation to comply with the law of the day remains. NZ First has not met it.

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If no other benefit arises, Mr Peters' reluctance to do the right thing serves as a useful reminder of how a politician positioning himself to once again act as a post-election kingmaker, operates.

Mr Peters has made a reasonable fist of being foreign minister, though as a minister outside Cabinet who opposes New Zealand's landmark free trade deal with China he is an international oddity. But voters know he remains a law unto himself and one whose principal priority appears to be to ensure he is reinstalled as foreign minister whichever party heads the next government.

 

- The Dominion Post

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