Joe Hendren

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Winniebox and the Serious Fraud Office

GWith the announcement by the Serious Fraud Office of an investigation into donations made to his NZ First party the position of Winston Peters as Foreign Affairs minister is fast becoming untenable.

The smartest thing for Peters to do now would be to stand down. He could use the opportunity to claim he is doing it for all sorts of important sounding reasons other than saving his own skin, such as maintaining confidence in the government, a sacrifice for the good of the nation. Peters gets an opportunity to grandstand, an opportunity to clearly state his belief in his own innocence, and his expectation of coming back as a minister as soon as this nonsense is cleared up.

Peters would also be free of any sort of collective cabinet responsibility for the election campaign, which being Winston could bring some advantages.

Sadly, it appears that Winston Peters is simply too arrogant to take the most pragmatic political course of action.

But if Peter's won't go, Helen Clark must suspend him. She has suspended her own ministers for less, in fact David Parker stood down over a whole lot less. If Peters remains a minister while the SFO investigate, it will be difficult to avoid the perception that ministerial standards have dropped to levels not seen since the end of the Shipley administration. That perception has the potential to cause problems not only with the public, but inside the Labour caucus, as any MPs disciplined by Clark will wonder why Peters is being treated so leniently. Many may start to question Clark's judgement, and perhaps even Clark herself.

This Labour-led government is not in free fall - yet. I still rate their chances of remaining on the Treasury benches around 50/50. Despite the National party leading in the polls, they can not lead the Government unless their vote plus their allies adds up to 50% - and that has been a struggle for National all year.

In the case that Peters remains a minister and Labour lose the election, perhaps some people will cast their mind back to the post election negotiations in 2005 when Labour cast off the Greens in favour of NZ First and United Future. In doing so, did Clark write her own political death warrant three years later?

The more hopeful scenario is that Labour scrape home in 2008, and the numbers force the Labour leadership to form a government with the Greens as the primary support partner. In the same way that some people credited the Alliance with rejuvenating the Labour party in 1999, perhaps the Greens can do the same thing for Labour in 2008. One hopes Labour and their supporters can be grateful.

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