Destroying Winston Peters: who benefits?

By Ian Wishart

The scandal surrounding who leaked information about the overpaid pension of NZ First leader Winston Peters raises some fascinating questions.

In recent weeks we’ve seen the Green Party implode and its voters flock back to Labour. That boost in support has put Labour within a whisker of National. What if someone had the bright idea of trying to burst Winston’s bubble as well?

Speculation has centred on the National Party. After all, the Ministry of Social Development raised it in a ‘no surprises’ briefing with Minister Anne Tolley. But we need to look a little more closely.

Without Winston, National is dead in the water at this election. It simply cannot govern without him on current polling. Sure, Bill English has looked like a leader with a political death wish – having several times insulted Peters in recent weeks in a manner that appeared deliberate – but I suspect English is not stupid enough to burn the bridge his party is perched precariously on unless he is convinced he can lure Winston’s National wing back.

So who else benefits?

Labour, for one. There’s a large chunk of Labour supporters still voting Winnie, and the collapse of NZ First could put Labour over the line sufficiently that it could coalesce with a smaller Greens and leave Winston in the cold.

The Greens, of course, are the other winner in this scenario. If they can deflate the hated Peters, that vastly strengthens their hand come election day.

So on my reading of it, the people who stand to benefit the most from kneecapping Winston are Labour and the Greens.

Are there other clues? I think so.

Ordinarily, a matter like a pension overpayment is a routine filing issue that would never ordinarily see the desk of an MSD supervisor let alone the Ministry’s CEO. It’s a daily operations matter. But it emerged at the height of Metiria Turei’s fall from grace, when the Ministry briefed its Minister mid-August. That means someone at a low level in MSD told someone about an overpayment involving Peters, and the matter percolated through MSD to reach senior eyes and ears.

I’m picking that a disgruntled Greens or Labour supporter within MSD has quietly had a word to a journalist, in a parallel course to the Ministerial briefing and a fit of pique over Turei, and the rest is history. This is a conspiracy of coincidence, rather than an organised dirty politics campaign. Unless the disgruntled MSD staffer mentioned it not to a journalist but to a Labour or Greens source…

It is also possible, although much harder to believe, that this is National’s doing – a nuclear option that would only work if NZ First totally collapsed and its voters returned mostly to National. It’s such a far-fetched and flawed plan that I almost (but not quite) rule it out.