By David Robie
AUCKLAND — Barely six months ago, maverick Maori politician Winston Peters was by far the government's most popular cabinet minister and was being tipped as a future prime minister. Today he is fighting for his political life.
Dumped as Maori affairs minister because of his outspoken criticism of the government's privatisation policies, Peters has remained a thorn in the side of Prime Minister Jim Bolger.
Now his allegations of bribery in an Australian television documentary and his naming of six top New Zealand business people in parliament have drawn a petition from colleagues demanding his expulsion from the governing National Party.
In other allegations, the son of a former MP claimed a Business Roundtable member offered his father $15,000 in 1978 for information about a fellow MP, and former prime minister Robert Muldoon said he had earlier reported concern about "tagged" business donations to senior party officials. Business Roundtable is an influential organisation of the business elite.
A party national executive hearing will shortly rule on Peters' future, but the furore has shaken the country's establishment.
In opinion polls, Peters still remains the most preferred government politician as prime minister, and many New Zealanders regard him as one of the few MPs with the courage to speak out in parliament.
Another poll indicated 81% of New Zealanders believed there was corruption in the country's political life despite the government's claims to the contrary.
Peters has demanded a public inquiry into the sale of the state-
owned Bank of New Zealand. He alleges "irregularities" involving an injection of $1 billion of taxpayers' funds.
When the then Labour government bailed out the bank in 1989, a secret deal took place. Capital Markets — an associate company of merchant bankers Fay Richwhite, which has backed New Zealand's last three ill-fated America's Cup bids — bought 30% of the bank.
The deal cost $308 million, mostly borrowed from the State Bank of South Australia. Bolger's incoming National government spent $620 million trying to rescue the bank and paid further large sums to business interests on advisory fees and shares.
The Peters controversy recalls a row over a Television NZ Frontline documentary screened two years ago: For the Public Good. This exposed the influence on the Labour government's policies by interests such as the Business Roundtable.
Cabinet ministers and business people filed defamation cases against TVNZ seeking damages totalling $7 million. Three investigative journalists involved in the program lost their jobs and were black-listed by the NZ media even though it was
widely accepted that the substance of their program was accurate.
"The nation's journalists, with a few honourable exceptions, turned on the Frontline team too", wrote Bruce Jesson, editor of the Republican — New Zealand's closest publication to Green Left. "Some responded cynically, saying that big business has always funded political parties.
"Others attacked the program for its dramatisation of events. In effect, the journalistic pack was covering for its own gutlessness. New Zealand has the tamest media in the world. Unwilling to challenge politicians or business interests, it will deal harshly with anyone who steps out of line."
As well as being an outspoken political journalist, Jesson was recently elected to the Auckland Regional Council on the New Labour-Alliance ticket.
The program's director, Bronwen Reid, is now New Zealand correspondent for Time. Producer Murray McLaughlin now works for the ABC current affairs program Four Corners.
McLaughlin recently returned to New Zealand to make a new controversial documentary, The Kiwi Experiment, an updated investigation of asset sales and economic policy under the Bolger government.
The documentary accuses TVNZ of having invested $20 million in the latest America's Cup bid by Sir Michael Fay and having "bought a lemon". The state-owned network denies this, although it clearly invested heavily in an advertising campaign which foundered when the NZ yacht failed to make the challenge final.
McLaughlin's program contrasts this big spending with recession, the failed economic experiment and growing poverty. Fay Richwhite is also shown to have been a major beneficiary of the privatisation process, earning substantial fees as advisers to controversial deals.
NZ television stations refused to screen the program, but packed public screenings of pirate copies have been organised by progressive political groups. An on-screen allegation by Peters that he had been offered money by a businessman to support free market policies has caused a storm. He added that other MPs had received financial inducements.
After angry insults from other MPs and a demand for a parliamentary inquiry by opposition leader Mike Moore, Prime Minister Bolger angrily ordered Peters to "put up or shut up".
A week later, Peters gave a statement to parliament naming five Roundtable businessmen and alleging that another, Selwyn Cushing, had offered him up to $50,000 to change his economic views to support deregulation and privatisation.
Evidence was not produced. Cushing, a senior director of one of New Zealand's major companies, Brierley Investments, but not a Roundtable member, denied the accusation.
Government MPs petitioned Bolger for the expulsion of Peters from the party, and party officials have agreed to hold a hearing. However, one of two MPs defending Peters warned
that if Peters is expelled a judicial review will be sought which would sorely embarrass the party further.