Serious Fraud Office director Julie Read risks being the James Comey of the 2020 New Zealand election.
Infamously, it was revealed 11 days before the 2016 US election that FBI director Comey was again investigating Hillary Clinton over her email server. Just two days before the election, Comey revealed that the FBI had found nothing to warrant re-opening its case against the Democratic candidate.
At least plausibly, voters had time to absorb the first development but not the second, delivering the election to Donald Trump.
Here in New Zealand, the Electoral Commission announced way back on February 10 that its inquiries had led it to form the view that money paid to the NZ First Foundation had not been properly transmitted to the NZ First Party or disclosed as required by law. The file was sent to the Police, which took one look before passing it to Read's SFO. The SFO took just three working days to decide, on February 18, there was evidence requiring an investigation.
Presumably aware of the huge democratic implications, the SFO took the unusual step of announcing in April that, despite the first lockdown, its timetable would see it complete the investigation before the September election date.
It noted actual completion "will be dependent upon our ability to conduct certain interviews as well as other tasks which can only be completed at lower alert levels and the co-operation of those who hold information relevant to our investigation".
Since then, New Zealand has spent three months out of lockdown. Warrants to seize documents beyond those already held by the Electoral Commission were executed months ago. Those commonly speculated about as suspects have been interviewed at least once, as well as people connected with them. In any case, the SFO surely regards itself as an essential service that presumably was operational all through level 4.
NZ First now teeters on the edge of extinction. As in 1999 and 2008, NZ First voters more sympathetic to the main governing party are sick of the smaller partner, and those previously aligned with the main opposition party despise it. Its big talk about Northland infrastructure has rung hollow. Its usual anti-immigration stance is irrelevant in a Covid-19 world.
The party might have been able to emulate Trump by attacking globalisation and the prevailing woke orthodoxy. Unfortunately, Winston Peters got himself offside with the anti-globalisation crowd over the UN's Global Migration Pact in 2018. He can hardly rail against wokeness, having made Jacinda Ardern the prime minister. The right wing of the culture wars is now held firmly by the fledgling New Conservatives.
Still, the old chestnut that you can never rule out Peters is a cliche only because it is true.
NZ First's policies on everything from keeping cameras off fishing boats to blocking the capital gains tax have been popular with elements of the business community. As a result, the party — or at least the foundation — is well funded.
Some money has been put to good use. Controversial Hawke's Bay campaign manager Simon Lusk is working for NZ First, according to former National deputy leader Paula Bennett and no longer denied by NZ First.
Peters has confirmed that NZ First has signed a contract with populist UK strategists Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore, the so-called "Bad Boys of Brexit". A miracle 5 per cent result therefore remains possible.
And while unlikely, it is not out of the question that Peters could once again secure the balance of power between Labour-Green and National-Act — especially were the Greens to miss out.
Read and her investigators have a public duty not to be blind to the political context and the effect their actions may have on the election outcome.
If, after more than six months of seizing and analysing documents and conducting interviews, they have not found evidence of wrongdoing, they have a duty to let voters know. Fairness to Peters and his party also demands it, to extinguish the taint of the Electoral Commission's public statements all those months ago.
Alternatively, if the SFO has uncovered evidence supporting the Electoral Commission's view, they are equally obliged to tell voters.
Under the old election timetable, overseas voting was to start this Wednesday and domestic advance voting next weekend. The SFO's statement back in April suggests it was cognisant of that timetable.
The new election dates are September 30 for overseas voting and October 3 for advance voting. Over half of us are expected to vote before the final day on October 17, with older voters tending to vote first.
The SFO is sometimes slated for the time it takes to complete investigations and its caution in pressing charges. Its critics in other law enforcement agencies say it seems more interested in things like developing anti-corruption policy frameworks than actually having crooks locked up.
According to its 2019 Annual Report, the SFO received 1138 complaints that year but concluded just seven cases — six with guilty pleas, with only one needing a trial to secure conviction. It boasts a 100 per cent conviction rate, but that just suggests it is far too conservative in laying charges in the first place.
Procrastination is not an option for the SFO in the NZ First case.
Unlike Comey, Read must ensure that the information she has a democratic duty to make public before the election can be digested by New Zealand voters all around the world before September 30.
Also, unlike Comey, she must avoid overshadowing other political debate in the final days before voting. By late September, voters should have finished talking about the NZ First matter — however it falls — and be fully focused on things like border security, tax, education and health.
To avoid being New Zealand's Comey, Read should stick to her original timetable and announce the result early next week. If she can't or won't, she needs to tell us why.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant, whose clients have included the National and Act parties. These views are his own.