In the dock

Vernon Small puts the case for the prosecution in the trial of Peters vs the public.

Winston Raymond Peters, 63, a parliamentarian of Auckland, has appeared in the dock of public opinion demanding proof of illegality beyond reasonable doubt.

It is a standard of proof that might be appropriate in the criminal court, or perhaps he would prefer to civilly demand a standard based on the balance of probabilities. It is a standard now set by Prime Minister Helen Clark, too. Without it (or proof she has been misled) she accepts the word of “honourable members” – actually the parliamentary benchmark, which was never the political benchmark, unless it suits.

“Allegations swirling around” was once the standard by which ministers were judged and which had Dover Samuels sacked, and saw David Parker prematurely fall on his sword.

Miss Clark’s defence of inaction now must be that any hypocrisy on Mr Peters’ part relates to his role as NZ First leader, not his role as foreign affairs, racing and associate senior citizens minister, because it is impossible to believe that, say, Mr Parker, as Energy Minister, would survive if he claimed the legal right to have his lights blazing all night while calling for others to save power.

But because of MMP and the need for his support, Peters will not be treated as the other Minsiters were.

But “nothing illegal” is not a standard of accountability the media, the public or other politicians have ever set for politicians anywhere, particularly those who, like Mr Peters, will not address serious and specific questions as openly as they can.

It is as if he will not face accountability for himself – or apology, or contrition, or just putting the record straight, even when it is damaging his reputation as the scourge of the unaccountable.

But perhaps Miss Clark is waiting and biding her time. Waiting for the various estimates votes to pass this week and next. As money supply issues they are the last implied confidence and supply votes this side of the election. Biding her time to judge whether she is better to go into the election having disciplined Mr Peters, or as the defender of her deal with him. (Yes, National has not ruled out a deal with him, either, but Mr Key’s party also voted en masse for the so-called anti-smacking bill. And guess who is getting all the public backlash?)

But what if the public has been misled by believing a politician who claimed one set of rules for others over donations and disclosure and use of secret trusts, and has another for himself?

In other words, who is now saying: “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.”

MPs are not allowed to utter the ‘h’ word in the house but this is hypocrisy.

Now, I should say I have never taken it personally when Mr Peters has attacked the media, and I have always been treated courteously and fairly by him – though often frustratingly evasively, too.

However, on this occasion, abusing the media for raising substantive questions – which only Mr Peters can answer or cause to be answered – just does not cut it.

Nor does a favourite tactic of Mr Peters: elevating valid questions to the level of accusations and allegations and then demanding they be “proved”…

When it comes to avoiding answers, the man is a legend.

There are signs in his behaviour in the past week that he is beginning to believe his own legend, that all he has to do is bluster, attack the messenger and flash his smile to rise above any and all allegations, even those of hypocrisy. He cannot and he has not…

Of course, the trust fund, and Mr Peters’ refusal to engage with any questions about it, is not an issue of ministerial responsibility but is one of his own credibility with his supporters – but still an area of legitimate interest to the media.

Not accusations, but legitimate questions that deserve answers from an elected representative so the jury in the court of public opinion can come to a verdict.

Until he does the verdict is guilty of both arrogance and hypocriy, neither of which is a crime but nor are they acceptable behaviour for a Minister.

[Keeping Stock gives the verdict from another court of public opinion here]

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