Newsroom Pro's 8 things at 8: Big parties splash the cash as Winston lashes out

In today's email we looked at how the leaking of Winston Peters' private superannuation information has turned the spotlight onto the 'no surprises' policy, and may end up benefiting Winston in the polls.

1. Surprise! It backfired.

The 'no surprises' policy that dominates the thinking of every public sector CEO and every aspirational bureaucrat has backfired on the Government in spectacular fashion.

Meant to give ministers a handy heads up when a politically sensitive issue is brewing, it has instead put the National Government in the firing line in an echo of the 2014 'Dirty Politics' scandal.

And unlike in 2014, when the ultimate beneficiary of the voters' sympathy was the Government itself, this time the winner could be Winston Peters. He is now portraying himself as the victim of another National 'Dirty Politics' sting, which may help him take votes off National and poison the well for any potential Government-forming talks after September 23.

The irony is that the Government may get the blame for something it hasn't done.

There is no evidence other than circumstantial that National's leadership leaked Peters' pension over-payment details to the media.

Bill English was clearly worried about the potential fallout and was at pains yesterday to deny the leak and condemn the practice.

“I have no tolerance for leaks of this nature. Mr Peters is understandably concerned about how the matter became public and so am I," English said yesterday in a statement issued by his office.

He announced Ministerial Services would now investigate how the information about Peters was handled.

English confirmed that Anne Tolley and Paula Bennett had been advised about Peters' situation by their respective CEOs (MSD and State Services Commission) and that his chief of staff Wayne Eagleson had been told. Eagleson had not told anyone else, including English, the Prime Minister said.

English went on to criticise the decisions of MSD CEO Brendan Boyle and SSC CEO Peter Hughes to inform Ministers.

“On this occasion, however, given the personal and confidential nature of the information, it would have been better for the Ministers not to have been advised," English said.

English said Tolley, Bennett and Eagleson had denied leaking the information and he reiterated to his ministers and their staff: "I would take any leak very seriously.”

The trouble here is that the offices of Bennett and Eagleson have form. Last year Bennett's press secretary leaked the details of a Police investigation into Te Puea Marae Chairman Hurimoana Dennis to a television reporter. Bennett denied approving the leak. Eagleson was also chief of staff in John Key's office during the 'Dirty Politics' period when his staffer Jason Ede was regularly in contact with and supplied information to National-aligned blogger Cameron Slater.

The greatest irony of all here is that English cannot stand the sort of black ops activity that the 'Dirty Politics' saga uncovered. He was openly critical of Judith Collins' involvement in the case and it is known around the Beehive he was very unhappy with what was uncovered.

It's just not his style, but he may end up paying the ultimate price for the sins of the previous occupants of the Prime Ministers' Office.

The whole episode has also reinforced the corrosive and ugly influence of the 'no surprises' policy that has infected the public service in the last 20 years under both sides of politics. It has undermined the independence of the public service and created both a risk-averse and less intellectually challenging culture.

The was illustrated in a statement from Hughes defending the decision that he took with Boyle to inform their ministers.

"Mr Boyle and I sought advice from the Solicitor-General on the appropriate way to ensure decisions were made independently and the requirement to ensure Ministers were not surprised was met," Hughes said.

"My advice to Mr Boyle was that MSD should deal with Mr Peters’ case in line with the agency’s standard policies and procedures, in exactly the same way as would happen for any other New Zealander. I am assured that is what happened."

So the conclusion to be drawn from that statement is that a Minister should be told about the personal details of any New Zealander that may be of interest politically to the Government.

It's an appalling state of affairs. No one comes out of this episode smelling of roses.

2. 'It's filthy politics'

To reinforce how painful this could be for the Government, Winston Peters was on the warpath yesterday with an escalating series of angry comments as it became clear that Tolley, Bennett and Eagleson had known of his case, possibly even before he did.

Peters rejected outright English's reassurances about him or his ministers not being aware or involved in the leaks. He described it as "filthy politics."

"It's underhanded. It's Dirty Politics. It's totally illegal, utterly wrong and apparently they knew before even I knew," he told journalists on the campaign trail. He also threatened legal action, although that is not so uncommon from the former lawyer...

"This is a cover-up and camouflage for illegal, illicit and dirty, under-handed politics."

The history of the Dirty Politics saga is that scandals can often rebound on the protagonist in the eyes of the public. John Key had the political skills to stare down and then dance around the 'Dirty Politics' saga on the campaign trail. He convinced voters that it was a distraction and he was the victim of a smear campaign.

Key and National's standing rose through the saga to the point where voters ended up sticking with National. But this time Bill English is in charge and he isn't quite so light on his campaigning feet.

The question now is whether the public will blame National for leaking the information to hurt Peters. If voters blame this distraction on the Government then it could be doubly dangerous for National because New Zealand First voters are the ones National needs to win back to stay in Government.

It will also poison relations with Peters in the those crucial two or three weeks of government-forming negotiations likely after September 23.

3. A great chat at Bell Gully

Yesterday I chaired a panel discussion about the election and politics at a Bell Gully function in Auckland that ranged across many of the issues above.

The panel included Guyon Espiner, Heather duPlessis-Allan and Paddy Gower.

Newsroom's Tim Murphy wrote up a summary of the discussion, including that we all gave Jacinda Ardern a good chance of being Prime Minister after September 23 in some form of loose coalition with Peters.

Espiner, who co-hosts Morning Report on RNZ, believed momentum was "certainly with Labour".

"I think the odds are probably at least half and probably better," he said when asked if a change of government could occur. "It is possible that the red team and the blue team might meet in the middle around 40 percent or so."

Espiner believed a pent-up desire for change might have found its outlet through Ardern's elevation to lead Labour.

Former press gallery reporter and current affairs host Heather du Plessis-Allan agreed Labour could now get there, if New Zealand First leader Winston Peters chose to support them.

She believed he would prefer Labour, given historic enmity against National - including a personal grudge against Bill English for seconding a motion to exclude him from the National Party caucus in 1992.

"All things being equal, it would be Labour."

Here's Tim's full report. A special thanks to Bell Gully, who are a foundation supporter of the Newsroom website.

4. Splashing the cash

Aside from all the talk of 'Dirty Politics', there was actually a whole heap of policy announced on the trail yesterday, including the splashing of plenty of cash.

The two big parties were out on the hustings making big promises to woo floating voters.

Labour promised to bring forward its pledge of three years free tertiary education by a year and to increase student allowances by $50 a week.

Labour costed its extra education policies at $2 billion over four years.

The party will use the extra money from Treasury's pre-election fiscal update (which was smaller than expected) to boost its tertiary education package, bringing forward the free education initiative to begin next year. From 2018 one year will be provided free, extending to three years by 2024.

Overall, the package's cost will increase by 50 percent, from $4 billion to $6 billion while the cost of the free education scheme will almost double from just over $1b over four years to $2b.

Labour's finance spokesman Grant Robertson said the party's fiscal plan had been updated and all spending vetted by economic agency BERL. It continued to fit within Labour's fiscal rules for a surplus over the cycle and for lowering debt to 20 percent of GDP by 2022.

Meanwhile, National promised to increase paid maternity leave by four weeks to 22 weeks at a cost of $352 million over four years.

After targeting parents with a $379 million education package in the weekend, National again targeted families by extending paid parental leave by a month.

The extension will bed in progressively over two years, rising by two weeks on 1 July 2018 and a further two weeks a year later. Currently paid parental leave sits at 18 weeks.

Flexibility will also be added to the system by allowing both parents to take some of the 22 weeks at the same time, while women will be able to access a free dental course during pregnancy and up to the baby's first birthday.

It is expected to cost $88m per year from 2019/2020.

5. Going deep on education

Newsroom's Shane Cowlishaw has stepped back from the noise of the scandals and election pledges to take a closer look at the education policies and issues on the campaign trail.

Here's his deeply reported piece looking at the key flashpoints and policy options in education, including around tertiary fees and reforms, the pressures on early childhood education and the problems with teacher shortages.

6. And deep diving into water

Meanwhile, Baz Macdonald has also gone off the beaten path of the campaign trail and done a deeply reported piece on the issues around water, including the policies on royalties and the political risks for both sides. Winston Peters and the Maori Party play important roles.

Here's Baz's piece, which was published first on Newsroom.

7. Quotes of the day:

National Party supporters chanting 'Trump style' at Bill English and Nick Smith as they announced $135 million of spending on the new Southern Link road in Nelson:

"Build it! "Build it!"

Jacinda Ardern talking to students in Gisborne after local candidate Kiri Allan could not attend a planned event at the Eastern Institute of Technology because her wife had gone into labour:

"I have to say that I really love the bolshiness that her newborn has shown. She is already showing me who is boss."

Donald Trump explaining in a television interview why he pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio just as Hurricane Harvey was hitting Texas:

"Actually, in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally. You know the hurricane was just starting, and I put it out that I had pardoned, as we say, Sheriff Joe."

8. One fun thing

Donald Trump's tweets from before his election are a gold mine that he built and can't destroy. They keep rebounding. This one from October 2012 is doing the re-tweeting rounds overnight:

"Not only giving out money, but Obama will be seen today standing in water and rain like he is a real President --- don't fall for it."