It is stating the obvious to say Winston Peters should have resigned as a minister some time ago. And that he should go now, after the censure delivered by Parliament's privileges committee. He will not, of course, and, the New Zealand First leader may even see a silver lining in that dark cloud. The Prime Minister has said she will not reinstate him as Foreign Minister, but that he will remain a minister without portfolio. As such, Mr Peters is free to hit the campaign trail with the salary and perks of a minister but none of the responsibilities. This farce will end with voters having to deliver the Don't Come Monday letter on November 8.
That aside, there is nothing in the privileges committee's admirable report to give comfort to Mr Peters or to the Labour Party, whose MPs on the committee joined those of NZ First in opposing the majority recommendation. There is no compelling argument to deflect from the significance of the censuring of Mr Peters for filing a false return to Parliament, in which he did not declare a $100,000 donation from expatriate billionaire Owen Glenn.
The Prime Minister sought to construct one by calling the committee "tainted" and suggesting most of its members were politically motivated. The criticism was tawdry. No representatives on the committee had, out of necessity, a more highly politicised view of Mr Peters than those of Labour. Equally, politics clearly did not close the minds of the representatives of the Greens, the Maori Party and United Future, who agreed with the majority view. Nor, subsequently, has it shaped the view of Progressive leader Jim Anderton, Labour's closest ally. He declined during yesterday's debate in Parliament to support the NZ First leader.
In fact, the committee report suggests every effort was made to get to the bottom of the matter while being fair to Mr Peters. The committee acknowledged difficulties arising from the fact that this was the first time a matter of privilege had been considered in relation to the declaration of pecuniary interests. Advice from legal experts was sought when needed, and care was taken to establish the requisite standard of proof. Consideration of evidence heeded the limited number of agreed facts, as well as the fact that the events at the centre of the inquiry took place more than three years ago and that witnesses' recollections were often incomplete.
United Future leader Peter Dunne says that, despite this, the sheer weight of evidence persuaded him to take the majority view. Mr Peters had repeated opportunities to give his side, he noted. Yet the only consistent theme to the NZ First leader's version of events was bluster and inconsistency, none more so than his reaction to the committee's draft report.
The committee majority, confronted by evidence that did not convincingly rebut that of Mr Glenn, found as any reasonable person would. On the balance of probability, Mr Peters must have had "some knowledge" of Mr Glenn's donation and should have made an "honest attempt" to file a correct return. Because he did not, he was in contempt of Parliament's rules.
The committee's recommendation fell short of the maximum penalties it could have imposed - suspension, expulsion from Parliament, or even imprisonment. Clearly, this reflected the seriousness of the offence and the degree of evidence. Cleverly, however, there is an important rider to the censure. This requires Mr Peters to file, within seven days, amended returns for the past three years that include every gift, debt or payment not already disclosed. Further light should be shed by this.
Mr Anderton, explaining his decision to abstain from yesterday's vote in Parliament, noted that NZ First had been accepting donations while attacking other parties for taking money from big business. "For that, the party has some explaining to do to the voting public," he said. Mr Peters now has the time to do just that. He will not because he cannot. Nor will he sign a letter of resignation. Voters will have to do that for him.