To his allies an immortal Apollo, to his enemies a particularly irksome, inextinguishable zombie, Winston Peters is undeniably a colossus of New Zealand politics. When he first entered parliament as a National MP in 1975, New Zealanders had one television channel to choose from. The national anthem was ‘God Save the Queen’. Today, a spring chicken at 72 years old, the leader of the New Zealand First Party is gearing up for what many suspect will be his last general election. Just don’t expect him to go out with a whimper.
It is hard to imagine, to borrow a John-Clarke-ism, a more propitious set of circumstances for Peters and his New Zealand First Party as the 2017 election heaves into view. For a populist party – albeit a milder version of populism than witnessed in many parts of the world – the auguries could not be sweeter: record high immigration; renewed controversy around foreign ownership; a sneaking suspicion about globalisation. And as evidenced most prominently in the shockwaves of Brexit and Donald Trump, there is a mood abroad for something different.
And doesn’t Peters know it. “The winds of change are coming,” he said in an April speech. Brexit and Trump – events correctly predicted, for the record, by Winston Peters; though he also claims to have known that John Key was going to resign, he just forgot to mention it – offered evidence that “ordinary citizens are fed up with globalism and the rule of elites”.
It is may be facile to brand Winston Peters “New Zealand’s Donald Trump”, but that doesn’t mean he can’t take advantage of some of the sentiment that propelled the tangerine leviathan to power. He even invoked “alternative facts” in a bizarre rant at “Asian immigrant reporters”. That stuff is ugly, and if it keeps getting uglier we’ll end up in a shameful place. And yet, if he
is our manifestation of populist demagogue, then maybe we really don’t know how lucky we are. Rather him, surely, than a Trump or a Nigel Farage, a Marine Le Pen or a Geert Wilders. Arguably, what’s more, 20 years of MMP has provided, with New Zealand First, an escape valve for a populist mood: NZ First has not just been mostly in parliament, but also in government. In the UK and the US, it was shut out, and the pressure just built and built.
An even greater election year blessing for Peters could be the contrast with the relatively novice leaders of the two main parties. For all their respective strengths, Bill English and Andrew Little make pretty good insomnia cures. Alongside them, Winston Peters seems positively puckish. Can you imagine, for example, the National or Labour leaders airily dismissing media commentators’ “smart alec, arrogant, quiche eating, chardonnay drinking, pinky finger pointing snobbery, fart blossom”?
NZ First has tended in recent times to surge in election year, and it starts in 2017 from a better than normal position in the polls. It is entirely plausible that Team Winston could overtake the Greens and become the third biggest party in parliament. And it’s anyone’s guess what a Kingmaker Peters might demand: he’s already been deputy PM, he’s already been treasurer. What odds on Grand Poobah?
There is no guarantee that NZ First will prosper in 2017, of course. The party has always been largely synonymous in the public imagination with Peters himself, so the prospect of his departure risks focusing attention on the succession, and any potential rivalry between deputy leader Ron Mark and Shane Jones, (who, at the time of writing was rumoured to be returning to politics aboard a black-and-white waka).
More hazardous still is that those winds of change blow voters in a different direction.
While the mood of insurrection that underpinned Brexit and Trump might chime with many New Zealanders, how about the reality? In the face of gale-force gusts, the temptation could yet be to batten down the hatches and stick with the status quo. Either way, notwithstanding the other lessons of Brexit and Trump for prediction-bearing pundits and pollsters, the manner in which the numbers are falling, with just months to go, make it hard to see a government being thrown together without a Winstonian blessing.