Newsroom Pro's 8 things at 8: Winston's Super problem; Labour gazumps National on GP fees; National's education plan

Winston Peters is refusing to reveal how much he paid back to MSD after a superannuation "stuff up". Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In today's email we catch up on the weekend's election related news.

1. Winston has a big problem

Newsroom's Melanie Reid and Tim Murphy report this morning that Winston Peters received more than he should have in New Zealand Superannuation payments.

Peters allegedly received a single person's pension for nearly seven years when he was living in a de-facto relationship with Jan Trotman. Somehow, he applied for and was granted that pension when he should have been receiving $60 a week less as someone in a relationship.

The error apparently emerged when Trotman applied for the pension this year and declared she was in a de-facto relationship with Peters.

The information was cross-referenced and Peters' lack of entitlement to the sum he was receiving was discovered. It is not clear why that higher figure was not noticed by Peters.

Peters said last night in statement released before the news came out that he had applied for the pension in early 2010, "in the company of my partner and in the presence of a senior official at the Ministry of Social Development."

Peters said he was contacted last month and notified of the over-payment. He immediately contacted and met the area manager of MSD.

“It was unclear on both sides how the error had occurred leading to a small fortnightly overpayment," Peters said. He said in a later interview with RNZ that he was not sure if the over-payments had been made since 2010, or if they started later.

“Suffice to say, we agreed there had been an error," he said in his statement.

The questions will now focus on how Winston Peters, a politician familiar with New Zealand Superannuation, could have signed forms declaring that he should receive a single person's benefit when he was clearly in a de-facto relationship.

Peters told Fairfax last night that the person who had been at the meeting in 2010 no longer worked at MSD so could not act as a witness that he had appeared in person with Trotman.

He implied he did not know about the size of his payments.

"I never looked at it because most people don't. It goes straight into a savings account...I wanted to know exactly how it happened and we quickly sorted it out," Peters was quoted as saying.

There remain several unanswered questions:

Why was Peters granted a single person's pension when he said he applied for the pension "in the company of his partner"?

Who was the MSD official at that 2010 meeting and what do they recall of it?

What declarations did Peters make when he applied for the pension?

Peters will now come under pressure to waive his privacy rights and release all the documents relating to his application and the subsequent correspondence with MSD.

Peters said it was unclear how the error occurred and that both sides agreed there was an error.

"Like the Ministry I believed the matter had been put to rest," he said.

But clearly it hadn't inside MSD, given public servants troubled by the passive receipt of over-payments sounded concerns.

Here is the full story from Melanie and Tim on Newsroom.

2. Comparisons with Metiria

The issue is potentially explosive for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, Winston Peters has promoted himself as the champion of superannuitants, in particular the universality of New Zealand Superannuation and its link to the average wage. That has helped pension payments rise much faster than other inflation-adjusted benefits.

He must know the details of how NZ Super is income tested for superannuitants with partners who are younger than 65, and that payments to single superannuitants are more than for couples.

This morning Peters told Newshub: "Well, there was a screw up... and I fixed it up."

How was there a screw-up? And who was responsible for it?

Either Peters declared he was single or he didn't. If he did declare it and then MSD made the mistake, why did MSD ask for repayment and not admit it made the error? It's clear from Peters' own statement MSD has not agreed it alone made the error.

The second problem for Peters is around the way Metiria Turei declared her welfare fraud as a single mum in the early 1990s and then opened a debate about how the welfare system operates. She eventually resigned after discrepancies in her story were challenged and she was forced to admit false declarations.

She was criticised for not telling the full story right at the start.

Winston Peters now faces the same criticism.

Interestingly, Peters was unusually shy of criticising Turei in July, when he was dealing with his own over-payment problems. Peters has not been reluctant to criticise those who commit fraud in the past.

He will now need to waive his privacy rights and allow the full disclosure of the documents and MSD's side of the story to clear up these questions.

Peters told Morning Report this morning that any comparisons with Turei were "baseless and demonstrably false."

He also said Newsroom's report that the amount he was billed was $18,000 was "demonstrably false" and he had paid"nothing like that."

Peters told RNZ the repayments were "way less" than $18,000.

"To say I repaid $18,000 is demonstrably false," he said.

He would not say how much the over-payments were or whether there had been penalty or interest payments.

He can demonstrate that by waiving his privacy rights to allow the full documents to be seen.

3. An education plan

Meanwhile, the main parties campaigned hard over the weekend with a batch of new policies.

Bill English launched National's election campaign at the Waitakere Trusts Arena on Sunday with the announcement of a $379 million plan to improve maths, technology and languages standards in schools.

Speaking to around 3,000 National party supporters at the West Auckland events centre, English said the plan included a revamped version of National Standards measures for schoolchildren that would allow parents to track more measures online. Primary school students would also be given the option to learn a second language, he announced.

This idea of second language training has been around before. Trevor Mallard noted last night that then National Education Minister Lockwood Smith announced a similar policy in 1993.

"No timeline or costings then. None now. Half baked and reheated," Mallard said.

English and Kaye were vague about the timing of the second language delivery in schools. Kaye said some schools would immediately be able to offer it, while others would take a year or two.

Elsewhere in his speech, English attacked Labour and the rest of the opposition as an untested group with unpredictable and unclear policies.

"Their policies have two things in common – working groups and more taxes," English said. He then asked the crowd if they wanted a water tax, a new petrol tax, a new capital gains tax or higher income taxes. They responded each time with "No!"

"And neither do I. Hard working New Zealanders aren’t an ATM for the Labour Party," he said.

Elsewhere, Jacinda Ardern promised a Labour Government would spend $300 million to fast-track Christchurch's rebuild and would set up an alternative arbitration system for insurance disputes. The Greens promised to phase out single-use plastic bags and introduce a "cash for drinks containers" refund scheme.

See our full Election 2017 Live coverage of Sunday's events and policies here on Newsroom Pro, where it was published first.

4. Everyone on stage

Newsroom's Mark Jennings went to the Waitakere Trusts stadium in West Auckland yesterday to cover National's campaign launch.

He found Bill English was keen to highlight his family, with daughter Maria singing the national anthem before his speech.

He reported the education package was received well and noted strong contingents of National Party supporters from the Chinese and Indian communities in the audience.

Mark reports the local Chinese media had a strong presence at the launch and Sky Kiwi (a news website aimed at Chinese under 40) reporter Sophie Song told me her story would focus on English’s well-rehearsed one liner about “hardworking New Zealanders are not an ATM for the Labour party.”

Song said this line would resonate very well with the Chinese community who believed in hard work and saving rather than spending.

She expected most Chinese would vote National.

Mark noted that English appeared relaxed, calm and confident in front of the crowd. He made only one mistake, momentarily losing concentration and thinking he was back in Parliament delivering a speech -- starting one sentence with “Mr Speaker...”

See Mark's full report here on Newsroom.

5. Labour gazumps National

But the other big policy announcement on the weekend was from Labour on doctors' fees.

Labour gazumped National's plan for cheaper doctors' visits, announcing it would add funding so all GP fees would be cut by $10 per visit, with the most highly subsidised fees dropping to $8 for adults and to $2 for teenagers.

Labour pledged to spend almost three times more than National on reducing fees for doctor's visits and extending access to the cheapest visits at Very Low Cost Access (VLCA) practices. Labour's $8 visits for adults and $2 for teenagers at these practices compares with the $18 cost promised by National. Labour is also promising to cut doctor's fees by $10 per visit at other more expensive practices, which National has not promised.

Jacinda Ardern announced the policy during a visit to the Mangere Arts Centre on Saturday morning.

Ardern said chronic underfunding had increased doctors' fees and half a million sick New Zealanders had not visited a doctor last year because of the cost.

Labour pledged to match National's plan to extend VLCA access to everyone with a Community Services Card, including ensuring access to the card for those 350,000 people in state-funded housing or receiving the Accommodation Supplement. Labour would also increase subsidies for non-VLCA practices to reduce fees by $10 to around $32 for adults.

Ardern said the policy would cost $259 million per year, which would equate to $1.04 billion over four years, although Labour plans to review the entire system for funding medical practices within 18 months of being in office, which may change the cost in the third and fourth years.

Labour's spending compares with National's $380 million over four years to extend access to the $18 visits to VLCA doctors by around 600,000 people, including by opening the scheme up to everyone with a community services card, and to extending card access to people in state-funding housing and on the accommodation benefit.

Labour is matching National's plan to increase access to VLCA doctors by 600,000, including 350,000 in subsidised housing.

The key difference between the policies is that Labour is cutting the cost of VLCA visits from $18 to $8 for adults and from $12 to $2 for teenagers, and it is funding a $10 lowering of fees for non VLCA doctors, which National is not doing. Labour's policy will cost around three times more than National's policy.

On Friday, Labour also announced it would fund the building of a new Dunedin Hospital with 100 percent Government money, rather than through a PPP -- as the Government has suggested.

And on Friday National announced it would double fees for foreign tourists on New Zealand's Great Walks, which was previewed in this Newsroom story from Lynn Grieveson in June.

See our Election Live coverage from Friday on Newsroom Pro, and all our Saturday coverage on Newsroom Pro.

6. From rowing to running

Elsewhere on Saturday, National launched a new television advertisement featuring a group of National party runners that were contrasted with a rag-tag set of opposition stragglers and stumblers.

An obvious echo of National's ad from 2014 showing a blue rowing eight vs a chaotic dinghy, the advertisement was criticised for not having Winston Peters running with the team, for appearing to show one of the runners playfully pulling another's ponytail, and for having used a filter that turns their blue shirts into a teal colour.

Newshub's Patrick Gower reported on August 3 that National would produce the advertisement after being leaked a call sheet for actors for the advertisement. The call sheet advertised for six fit adult runners and one child who was a runner to run as the National team, including two Maori and one child of "mixed blood (could be Euro/Maori/Asian)".

It also advertised for "5 people vaguely representing the two Labour Leaders, the two Green leaders and Winston Peters."

"Don't need to be fit," the ad said of the opposition runners. It said a gratuity of petrol or shopping vouchers would be paid to the actors.

The ad was criticised for not including Peters running with the National group.

7. Freedom camping crackdown

The final policy launch of the weekend came from National on freedom camping.

Tourism Minister Paula Bennett and Local Government Minister Anne Tolley announced on Saturday National would restrict all non self-contained vehicles to areas that were within easy walking distance (about 200 metres) of toilet facilities. It would extend the current powers given to Councils and the Department of Conservation to ban freedom camping from certain areas to LINZ and NZTA so Crown-owned land could be restricted.

Councils and the Department of Conservation would also be given the power to issue instant fines for those who broke the rules, with fines assigned to vehicle owners including rental car companies if the fine was not paid on the spot.

“Our changes will not affect trampers, campers and hunters who enjoy our back country areas as they are not considered freedom campers," Tolley said.

The Government did not specify what the instant fines would be.

8. One or two fun things

The twitter comedians were out in force over the weekend on the campaign trail.

James Elliott: "Winston Peters received superduperannuation."

Simon Wong: "National election ad analysis: They've gone from the water to the road cos all the water bodies are only wadeable and roads are the best."

Simon Pound: "National running a greatest hits campaign, but without the lead singer people loved. Like that Queen tour with Adam whastisname."