For some reason, New Zealanders seem to have a tolerance for Winston Peters that we never have for any other politician. I suppose it's our propensity to love a bad boy and a larrikin.
Over the years, Peters has said and done the most outrageous things, but somehow when he breaks into his wide smile, we're inclined to just chuckle with him, as if he hadn't really meant to say what he said, or do what he did.
But of all of his antics, dropping off a cheque for $158,000 to Starship children's hospital last week must be the most blatant example of cynical populism I can recall.
Other parties caught by the Auditor-General for misuse of parliamentary funds last election have grudgingly reimbursed Parliamentary Services. The only exception has been United Future, which has promised to pay. I suspect its tardiness has to do with its inability to raise the money.
Over the years, Peters has got away with so much that I wonder if he thought the public would give him the thumbs up on his latest manoeuvre. Of course, he dropped off his cheque in the full glare of publicity. You have to be amazed at his thought processes when he said he was doing it to help kids. I can only think he genuinely believes that it is ethical and justifiable to donate - and I use that word loosely - the money that should have gone back into the public purse.
I suppose Peters thinks no one would dare argue that he should take his cheque back from kids in need. I accept he has always argued that he hasn't done anything wrong by spending taxpayers' money on his campaign, despite the Auditor-General's findings. In fact, he made great play about going to court. After he and the other offending politicians passed a law backdating their right to spend our money, having to follow through on his legal threat became conveniently unnecessary.
Peters says he accepts that, in the public's opinion, the Auditor-General was correct and all the guilty politicians should pay back the money. Obviously, having to write out a cheque to the taxpayer was just too galling, and he thought he had found an alternative, using the event to draw attention to his supposed public generosity.
Mind you, the NZ First's leader's latest hypocrisy is consistent with his past behaviour. Peters has always had an uncanny knack of being able to take a strong principled position one moment and, with a straight face, do the exact opposite without claiming he has done anything wrong.
During the last election he defiantly claimed NZ First wouldn't sell out for the baubles of office. Within weeks he was our Foreign Minister, claiming he wasn't a member of the Government because he didn't go to Cabinet meetings, and his other MPs remained on the backbenches. As he was the only one who received an increase in pay and perks, he could claim his party hadn't received any baubles and therefore he hadn't told a fib.
In the 1996 campaign, he promised NZ First would remove the National Government. When he was offered the Deputy Prime Minister's job in Jim Bolger's Cabinet, he cheerfully explained he had not broken his promise because his inclusion in the Cabinet meant he had removed National and had replaced it with a National-NZ First government.
Any questioning was met by indignation that anyone would think he had misled us.
Now Starship has got caught up in Peters' cynical populist electioneering. It was torn between needing the money and returning it.
I suspect that if it hadn't decided to return the money, it may well have found goodwill and donations of greater value than the cash offered by Peters might have dried up.
For example, I made a donation to the Starship and would have been reluctant to give another if it had kept this money. If other donors took a similar view, the consequences could have been far-reaching.
I understood the Starship's dilemma, given Peters' cheque was sizeable. Their real problem is that the Starship is underfunded. More of our taxes should be transferred to it directly rather than forcing it to decide whether to accept tainted money from a politician on the make.
More revealing is the response from other parties, apart from the Greens and Act. We haven't heard a squeak from Labour or the others, and the only comment we heard from John Key was that the public would make their own judgment.
Labour and National know they may need NZ First to help them govern. Consequently, they sit quietly by and allow Peters to use more than $150,000 of taxpayers' money to promote himself as Father Christmas to sick children.
The Auditor-General's original charge was that our politicians had unethically used public money to buy votes. Peters has pulled off a breath-taking feat. Not only did he misuse money two years ago, but he is using the same money to fund publicity he hopes will get him elected again next year. It remains to be seen if enough New Zealanders vote for a party with this sort of morality compass.