Whatever happened to 'no surprises'?

6:54 pm on 29 August 2017

Power Play - National's leader has just a month to repair the party's relationship with a furious Winston Peters, after personal information about his superannuation overpayment ended up in the public domain.

Winston Peters, left, and Bill English

Winston Peters, left, and Bill English Photo: RNZ

Winston Peters has unleashed a barrage of insults against National Party ministers, accusing them of character assassination and 'rotten' and underhanded behaviour.

That's not exactly the language Bill English would have been hoping for, with the general election in less then a month and National needing support partners more than ever.

For the first 24 hours of the story, Mr Peters was the one fielding questions about how a such a canny operator as himself ended up on the higher single pension while he was living with his partner.

See the sequence of events in our Timeline

Many of those questions have still not been answered fully after Mr Peters and the Ministry of Social Development declared the matter closed.

Now, government ministers are scrambling in their efforts to declare themselves innocent of leaking the information and in the case of Mr English to restore any goodwill that had existed between him and Mr Peters.

Internal government investigations have also been launched across the capital in a bid to track down whoever was responsible.

While Mr Peters is no doubt upset about what should have been private information making its way into the public domain, much of his response could be seen as well-timed bluster - perfect for getting attention on the campaign trail.

He does have reason to feel aggrieved. Information of a very personal and confidential nature was leaked and it had to come from someone.

It did not help that after the Ministry and the IRD confirmed internal investigation, it was also revealed a handful of senior National Party figures also knew about the overpayment.

Government officials passed this information on under the 'no surprises' policy ministers have with departments to avoid being blindsided, an agreement governed by State Services Commission guidelines.

The rules dictate information covered by 'no surprises' is related to policy, strategy or responsibilities within the minister's portfolio.

It's a bit of a stretch then, to see how a superannuation overpayment would fit into those criteria.

After consulting the Solicitor-General, the State Services Commissioner decided ministers should be briefed as the issue could have been raised in public debate.

That decision has since been questioned by Mr English, given the personal nature of the information.

By having officials passing on details to ministers, it also exposed them to exactly the kind of risks and accusations that have exploded on the campaign trail today.

When the story first broke both Mr English and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern responded cautiously to questions about Mr Peters' conduct, seeking to find the balance between not criticising him and being seen to call for transparency on behalf of the public.

Within the four week timeframe, it is questionable whether the source of the leak will be identified, so National is now faced with the near-impossible task of proving a negative.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs