For some people, lightning really does strike twice

It's been said that Winston Peters is NZ's great political survivor. He's also been the beneficiary of a fair bit of legal luck along the way.

Let's assume, purely for the sake of argument, that it turns out Mike Sabin actually didn't need to resign from Parliament. Which means that there didn't need to be a by-election in Northland back in 2015. Which in turn means that Winston Peters shouldn't really be the electorate MP for Northland.

Of course, you can't undo history and we are where we are whatever the fairness of the matter. But Winston's luck in finding his way into the Northland MP's offices allows me to trot out the hoary old tale of how he first entered Parliament.

You see, back at the 1978 General Election Winston Peters stood for National in the Hunau electorate. After all the votes were counted and scrutinised, the Labour candidate Mr Malcolm Douglas was declared the winner with a majority of 301 votes. Reasonably close, but remember that getting even one more vote than your rival is enough to win.

Except matters didn't rest there. Because Peters (with some help from his National colleagues) noticed something about some of the votes that had been counted in Mr Douglas' favour. At the time the Electoral Act specified that voters should cast their votes by crossing off all the candidates except for the one that they supported - which was a daft voting method, but there you are. A number of voters, however, had done the more obvious thing and just put a tick next to the candidate that they most liked. And the electoral officials in Hunua had counted these votes, on the basis that it was clear what the voter intended and so a technical failure to follow the letter of the Electoral Act should not invalidate the resulting vote.

Mr Peters, however, launched an electoral petition challenging the officials' decision. He argued that the law was the law - you had to vote like it said, and if you didn't then your vote was "informal" and so should not be counted. And the High Court (or, as it was called then, Supreme Court) agreed with him. Votes where a person ticked rather than crossed off should not have been included in the final result. As a result, nearly 500 votes were disallowed and Winston Peters gained a majority of 192 votes ... making him the new member for Hunua.

Winston Peters enters Parliament.

Well, OK - not the ideal way to debut, but a win is a win and it doesn't matter how the points go on the board. Or other sporting related cliche. What's the point of this story?

The point is what happened next. Because while the result of the electoral petition is absolutely final - you cannot challenge or appeal the outcome in any higher court or other place - the point of law that the High (old Supreme) Court had established was troubling. Lots of voters got confused in the polling booth and ticked instead of crossed, and those voters tended to support the Labour Party rather than National. So the Labour Party was very keen to have the interpretation of the Electoral Act's provisions overturned for future elections.

It therefore filed an appeal in the Court of Appeal, in a case called Wybrow v Chief Electoral Officer (there's a very good account of it here.) That Court then decided that it could hear the appeal as it involved only the point of law, not a challenge to the result of the electoral petition. And it then went on to hold that the High (old Supreme) Court had got that point of law wrong. What mattered is not whether a voter follows the letter of the law telling them how to vote, but rather whether a returning officer is able to discern what is the voter's intent. If she or he can do so, then the vote must be counted.

Which means that the electoral petition decision which returned Winston Peters to Parliament was wrongly decided - the 500-odd votes shouldn't have been stripped from Mr Douglas and he ought to have remained the MP for Hunua. But, because an electoral petition outcome cannot be appealed or overturned, that didn't happen. Instead, Winston Peters sat on as MP for the electorate until the 1981 election (which he lost, before being reelected in Tauranga in 1984).

All of which, I regularly inform my students with a great deal of glee, means that Winston Peters' political career was founded on a fundamental mistake.