Winston’s partner problem

Winston Peters was found by a High Court judge to have contributed to an unclearly filled out form and an incorrect amount of Super being paid to him for seven years.

The judge found it was a mistake and not deliberate deception on Winston’s part (I think that’s a fair assessment on the evidence available), but I think it was quite careless, on three counts.

The incorrectly completed form

The question is: Do you have a partner?

To the left of the question is this text:

Partner

Q26 note: A partner is your spouse (husband or wife), your civil union partner, or a person of the same or opposite sex with whom you have a de facto relationship.

We need partner information even if your partner is not being included because it affects your rate of pay.

Whether or not Peters read the clarifying note,  I think that most people would regard a person they were currently living with in a de facto relationship as their partner, and not someone who they had lived with at some time in the past, whether still legally married to them or not.

The judge found:

At the time, Mr Peters was living separate and apart from his former wife (they were not divorced). His answer to the subsidiary question was therefore literally correct. He was living apart/separated from his wife. But he had a partner, Ms Trotman. The form, as completed, was actually incomplete as the primary No/Yes response was not completed. The form should not have been processed as it stood. Mr Peters should have completed the primary question, and Ms S should have asked him to complete the answer to the primary question, rather than leaving it incomplete.

I won’t argue with “literally correct” from a legal point of view, but from a social point of view it seems quite wrong.

I can’t imagine Peters introducing Jan Trotman in a social setting as “this is who I’m shacked up with, but the person I left x years ago and haven’t gotten around to divorcing yet is literally my partner’.

According to this article “Trotman has always been protective of her privacy. When the couple bought their three-level five-bedroom St Marys Bay villa in 2008” – so they had been partners at least two years before the Super application.

Peters made another mistake on the form in two later questions:

33. Do you want to include your partner in your New Zealand Superannuation?

34. Is your partner receiving a current benefit?

The judgement says:

Mr Peters had ticked “No” in response to both questions but then the tick has been crossed out and “Yes” has been ticked.

I accept the evidence of Ms S that Mr Peters must have crossed them out. I do not place any weight on the fact they were not initialled as the other alterations to the form were initialled. Mr Peters’ attempted reliance during cross-examination on the fact he had not initialled the alterations to suggest the form could have been filled in by Ms S, not him, was a clear case of post fact reasoning and contrary to his earlier evidence-in-chief when he said he had completed the questions in issue.

Peters had tried to blame the WINZ staff member for this. It was inconsequential but another mistake.

In summary, an error was made in the completion of the application form. The error arose because Mr Peters did not fully complete question 26 and Ms S did not require Mr Peters to complete the answer to the primary question in question 26. Mr Peters’ apparent failure to read the explanatory note to question 26 which set out the definition of partner contributed to the error. The combination of errors led to Mr Peters receiving NZS at a higher rate than he was otherwise entitled to.

You only get to apply for Super once in your lifetime so I think most people would take care to get things right. Peters got more than one thing wrong. It just seems careless.

Not noticing he was being paid more than he was entitled for seven years 

I think that most people applying to get a significant amount of money regularly for the rest of their lives will work out what they expect to receive. And if they end up getting something different to that amount, they would find out why.

Peters may have not checked it out and may not have cared how much he got, but I think that seems quite unusual.

The current difference (it would have been less but proportional in 2010) per fortnight after tax (what you see credited to your account) is $782.44 (live with someone 18 or older) and $652.04 (a couple when only one of you meets the criteria for NZ Super and you don’t include your partner in your payments). This presumes Peters wasn’t being paid at the higher rate which is currently $847.66 (live alone or with dependent child).

I think most people would notice that sort of difference in amount.

Disregarding or not understanding a letter after four years asking him to confirm his status

On 18 March 2014, the MSD sent a standard letter to Mr Peters which included a request that asked him to check the
following details:

Relationship Status:     You are single.
Your living situation:    You are not living alone.

Mr Peters did not respond to the letter. He has no recollection of it but accepts he would have received it. He says he understood the letter was asking if there was any change in his circumstances.

This sounds contradictory.   I don’t know how Peters can have no no recollection of the letter, but can remember what he understood about the letter (past tense).

If Mr Peters had paid more attention to the letter, he would have realised there was an issue with the MSD’s records regarding his initial application.

The judge appears to assume Peters did see the letter but didn’t pay enough attention to it. If Peters did pay any attention it should have been obvious that “You are single.” was incorrect. There’s no way of knowing what Peters actually did or thought pr paid attention to, and it seems he can’t be relied on to be accurate (it was five years before the trial so most memories would struggle with one letter).

Mistakes were made by a number of people, but multiple mistakes were made by Peters filling the form out in 2010, and again with the letter in 2014 (at least a mistake of ignoring it or not paying attention to it).

Not noticing the incorrect amount for seven years may have just been someone with more money than they need already getting a bit more off the taxpayer and not caring how much it actually was.

I’m sure I would be quite unpopular with someone if I referred to someone I had separated from some years ago as my partner.