The election campaign spotlight is on the self-declared 'King' of superannuation. Winston Peters faces tough questions over the $18,000 he was billled for pension over-payments. Bernard Hickey reports from the campaign trail.
Newsroom's report that Peters took higher New Zealand Superannuation payments than he should have for almost seven years has transfixed the political debate today, forcing the New Zealand First leader to defend himself in four separate television and radio interviews that left a mounting series of unanswered questions.
It has also sparked fresh debate about why very wealthy and well-paid people are paid New Zealand Superannuation, and whether there should be means testing of the currently universal benefit.
Elsewhere on the trail, Gareth Morgan said Peters' over-payment showed how broken the system was. Labour announced it would apply a $25 levy on international tourists to create a fund for investing in regional infrastructure, training and environmental protection, but was vague about exactly it would be applied.
There are 26 days to go until the election. Peters has said he will decide who is in Government by October, 12 which is when the writs are returned to confirm the results.
$60 a week extra for St Mary's Bay residents
Melanie Reid and Tim Murphy earlier reported that Peters filled out forms in 2010 when he turned 65 that qualified him for the single person's superannuation rate, which is about $60 a week higher than a person would receive if declared to be living with a partner, which he was.
Peters and partner Jan Trotman live together in a dress circle, $2.65 million St Mary's Bay home. Her application, on turning 65, for superannuation is said to have brought the discrepancy to the Ministry of Social Development's attention. Newsroom understands Trotman had to say if she was single, married or in a de facto relationship. 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 over all seven years, given his deep knowledge of and commitment to superannuation.
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.
Peters refused to detail in interviews how much he had been over-paid or how much he had paid to MSD, including penalty payments and interest.
The questions will now focus on how Peters 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.
Questions need answering
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 rejected any suggestion he would waive that right.
"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
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 comparison with Metiria
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.
She declined comment this morning on Peters and Green Leader James Shaw also declined comment.
Interestingly, Peters was unusually shy of criticising Turei in July, when he was dealing with his own over-payment problems.
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. See Tim Murphy's followup piece today on what Winston Peters said in response and the document he is under pressure to divulge.
A debate about means testing
Elsewhere on the trail, The Opportunities Party (TOP) released its list and Leader Gareth Morgan took the opportunity to question the lack of means testing for New Zealand Superannuation.
"A better use of NZ Super would be giving it to struggling families rather than people on 180k," Morgan said.
TOP's policy is for an 'Elders Universal Basic Income' that sees everyone over the age of 65 receive an income of at least $10,000 per annum, but those earning more than $50,000 would not receive more than the $10,000 in pension payments. TOP's policy is here.
Morgan said Peters was another superannuitant getting more than his fair share of the benefits, although he credited Peters with paying the money back.
"The fact that he didn't even notice that he was getting overpaid tell us just how broken our benefit system is," Morgan told a news conference.
"I don't know how many bottles of whiskey or packets of cigarettes Winston has brought with his overpayment, and is not our business, but I do know that with an annual income of close to 200 K he does not need the full $20,000 extra from the workers of today to keep him in the manner which he has obviously become accustomed to," he said.
"TOP is planning to means test the second $10,000 in national super and pass the savings on to young families with children under three as a $200 a week UBI. We will also be using the National Party's upper and middle class tax cut and give that 2.5 billion to give a UBI to young New Zealanders 18 to 23."
Morgan said he and his wife Joanne would receive New Zealand Superannuation of around $40,000 next year.
"I don't need a cent of it. What the hell are you doing when we have the amount of poverty and social dysfunction in New Zealand? It's just nuts. I am just going to buy a motorcycle with it, and all my mates just use it to go to Fiji."
Morgan also announced TOP's East Coast Bays candidate Teresa Moore, a former Green Party member would become the party's deputy co-leader alongside current deputy leader Geoff Simmons. He said TOP would stay on the cross benches and vote bill by bill on issues, although it would agree to a confidence and supply agreement with the Government.
Labour's Tourism Levy
Labour's Tourism spokesman Kris Faafoi announced in Rotorua that a Labour Government would impose a $25 levy on international visitors to pay for a $75 million Tourism and Conservation Infrastructure Fund, although he was vague about how it would be collected.
“The Tourism and Conversation Infrastructure Fund will contribute $45m a year to tourism infrastructure and training, with a particular focus on high demand areas. It will also invest $30m in protecting and enhancing our natural environment, as well as the infrastructure tourists use on conservation land," Faafoi said.
“It’s only fair that the cost of these important projects is recouped from the international visitors that enjoy them," he said.
“There’s no evidence that a levy of less than one per cent of what the average tourist spends in New Zealand will hurt tourism. In fact, after National introduced a $22 border charge, passenger numbers rose faster than expected."
Faafoi said the levy would likely be in the form of an airline ticket tax or a border tax. He said Labour wanted to work with officials and customs to find the most efficient way to collect the levy. A border clearance levy of $21.60 per airline passenger was introduced last July, but it applies to all arrivals, including New Zealand citizens and residents. Labour has said citizens and residents would not have to pay the levy.
Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick, a former Labour MP, welcomed the announcement and said the funding would be put towards some big projects the Rotorua council wanted to fund, including the Lake-Front Development.
National Party’s Steven Joyce criticised Labour for introducing another tax that was lacking in detail.
“They say it would be linked to the Border Clearance Levy, but that’s paid by everyone that crosses the border. Will they need to set up another bureaucracy to identify the visitors from everyone else? Or maybe a working group to work it out?," Joyce said.
Pressure on infrastructure to cater for an extra 1m tourists arriving in New Zealand over the past decade has seen the major parties increase their commitments on tourism infrastructure spending.
During their Budget announcements earlier this year, the National Party committed $102m over the next four towards a new Tourism Infrastructure Fund to replace the Regional Mid-Sized Tourism Facilities Grant Fund.
In addition to this, last Friday the National Party announced they would double the fees for tourists on the New Zealand Great Walks.
Later today, Labour is expected to announce its tourism levy and Jacinda Ardern will attend Colin Meads' funeral in Te Kuiti. Bill English attended the opening of the Rototuna High School in Hamilton.
August 31 - The first leaders debate on TVNZ.
September 4 - TV3 has its leaders debate.
September 7 - The Press/Stuff leaders debate will be held in Christchurch
September 11 - Polling booths open for early voting.
September 20 - The final leaders debate on TVNZ.
September 23 - The General Election.
October 12 - Winston Peters has said he will make a decision about which party he 'crowns' to be in Government by October 12, which is when the writs with the final election results are returned.
(Updated at 4.35pm)