Winston Peters has doubled down on his criticism of the Government over the leaking of his pension over-payment details, accusing National of a dirty and illegal conspiracy. Elsewhere on the campaign trail, National promised to spend $270 million on extending the broadband network and creating 100 new mobile hot spots for tourists, while Labour and the Greens accused the Government of moving too slowly to deal with an unhealthy housing crisis.
There are 23 days to go until the election, with a further 20 days after that before Winston Peters will decide who is the Government.
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.
'It's filthy politics'
To reinforce how painful this could be for the Government, Winston Peters is on the warpath 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."
Peters doubled down on the outrage today with a blistering statement accusing public servants and National of breaking their own 'no surprises' policy.
He said the policy specifies that ministers only be briefed where they need to make decision, rather than on operational matters. In this case, it was only an operational matter that did not require a ministerial decision and had been resolved, he said.
"Both civil servants and Ministers have broken the rules here in what is a nasty piece of underhand, political skulduggery, hatched against New Zealand First and its leader," Peters said.
“The chronology of events is in meshing this government in what is clearly a dirty conspiracy, which by definition is where two or more set out to break the law," he said.
“None of these people are going to get away with it."
A scandalous rubber ball bouncing back off the wall
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. Peters has said it won't affect his negotiations, but Peters is known to remember his enemies and hold a grudge.
Earlier broadband and more mobile
Meanwhile, National got back to the business of promising big new spending on infrastructure.
Communications Minister Simon Bridges announced a National Government would spend $270 million to extend Ultra-Fast Broadband to another 134,000 households and businesses in 190 towns and rural areas. The completion of the UFB network would also be brought forward by two years to the end of 2022, he said.
The spending included $130 million to extend UFB to 60,000 households and businesses in rural areas and $140 million to extend rural coverage of high speed broadband under the Rural Broadband Initiative. This would also pay for mobile coverage on 1,000 kilometres of rural highways and more than 100 tourist areas through the Mobile Black Spot Fund.
“We started UFB in 2010 with the original goal of connecting 34 towns to world-class fibre-to-the-premises. Earlier this year we expanded it to 200 more towns and today’s announcement will bring us to 390,” Bridges said.
Today's $270 million is on top of $150 million the Government had already allocated for rural and mobile coverage.
“We want to ensure that some of our biggest sectors that operate in rural New Zealand – such as agriculture and tourism – can benefit from the productivity improvements that better connectivity offers,” he said.
The $270 million programme would be funded by $240 million of recycled capital from earlier stages of the UFB programme and $30 million from the Telecommunications Development Levy.
Unhealthy housing in focus
Elsewhere on the trail, Labour, the Greens and ACT party reacted to this excellent Kirsty Johnson article in the New Zealand Herald showing diseases linked to cold, damp, overcrowded homes were killing more children than car crashes or drownings.
Labour housing spokesman Phil Twyford said a Labour Government would set tough minimum standards in its first 100 days to make all rental properties warm and dry. It would also pay beneficiary families a $700 winter energy payment, increase Working For Families and increase the Accommodation Supplement payments and give $2,000 grants to landlords and home-owners for insulation and heating.
“Labour is determined to stop our kids getting sick and dying from living in unhealthy housing. We can and must fix the unhealthy, cold houses that are killing our kids. It is simply not acceptable in New Zealand in 2017 that we have children dying from pneumonia and other preventable diseases," Twyford said.
“I am sick of hearing the excuses from National for doing nothing while they cut money for home insulation and block Labour’s attempts to set proper health standards for rentals. I’m tired of knocking on doors and finding over-crowded homes with unwell children because rents for anything better are too expensive," he said.
“Tackling child poverty is one of Jacinda Ardern’s top priorities. Fixing our housing is core to that,” says Phil Twyford.
Green MP Marama Davidson said National’s repeated refusal to put in a mandatory rental warrant of fitness was putting further lives at risk.
“Maori and Pasifika kids die at twice the rate of NZ Pakeha from preventable illnesses. The very poor are fourteen times more likely to die. These children are dying because their families are poor and their housing is cold, damp and unhealthy," Davidson said.
“The Green Party will stop at nothing to help our tamariki – we will end poverty in New Zealand by mending the safety net, put in a mandatory housing warrant of fitness and restore funding Warm Up NZ to ensure warm, dry, healthy housing for all,” she said.
ACT Party Leader and Epsom MP David Seymour said the housing crisis had a body count.
"Landlords know they can get away with squalid conditions because during a housing shortage tenants will take what they can get," Seymour said, adding he'd prefer to be talking about housing rather than Winston Peters' pension.
“Currently our top civil servants seem to be focused on sharing gossip with ministers. Maybe they could use some of their briefings to address the fact there is an appalling housing shortage."
ACT wanted a massive increase in house building to turn a landlord's market into a renter's market by improving affordability and quality across the entire rental stock.
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.