Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters says his reputation is still being damaged by a leak two years ago which revealed he had been overpaid in pension money.
In a departure from his Government role, Peters stepped into the witness box in Auckland's High Court today to begin his privacy claim against two former government ministers, two public sector bosses, and a government department.
With Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the East Asia Summit in Thailand, Peters would have chaired Cabinet today if he were not in court. Leaked internal documents show some NZ First members are frustrated that Peters is pursuing the case.
But giving evidence in court, Peters said the fallout from the leak in the lead-up to the 2017 general election was still hurting him.
"It is still brought up by my detractors as a slur to this day," he said.
In a terse exchange during cross-examination, Peters was asked by lawyer Bruce Gray whether it was appropriate for him to be bringing the privacy case. Peters is seeking a total of $1.8m in damages and a declaration that his privacy was breached.
"You are suing for a lot of money," said Gray, who is representing former National Party ministers Anne Tolley and Paula Bennett.
Peters shot back, saying the case was not about money but reputation.
"You spend a life trying to build a character and reputation and defend it as hard as you can," he said.
"For someone to destroy based on 15 seconds without merit and without foundation is just wrong."
The court is considering not only at how the pension overpayments were made public, but also how Peters came to be overpaid in the first place.
In the witness stand, Peters said he was not to blame. When he applied for superannuation in 2010, he brought his long-term partner Jan Trotman to a meeting with a Ministry of Social Development officer and introduced her as his partner.
On an application form, he declared that he was living separately from his wife, but was not living alone. Another section which asked "Do you have a partner?" was left blank.
The Ministry of Social Development processed the incomplete form and he was paid the single person's pension for the next seven years, worth around $18,000 more than he was entitled to.
"This is a genuine clerical mistake, nothing more," said Peters' lawyer Brian Henry. "The public servant processed an incomplete form, nothing more," he said.
The overpayments came to light in 2017 and after an investigation, Tolley and Bennett were notified under the "no surprises" convention - through which ministers are told of significant issues in their portfolios.
During cross-examination, Gray said the overpayment issue had arisen broadly at the same time that former Green Party leader Metiria Turei had admitted to historic fraud. It was in ministers' interests to know that prominent people were being treated like any citizen, he said,
Peters rejected that, saying there was no comparison to be made between his and Turei's case. His was a small, clerical error which ministers did not need to know about, he said.
The New Zealand First leader is not pointing the finger at a single person or organisation for the leak, saying the information was accessed by a group of people before being leaked to media