Winning Winston

It’s time we stopped looking at Winston Peters through the spectacles the Rogernomes gave to us

One has been amused by the discovery by so many right-wing commentators that Winston Peters is not the devil incarnate that they have portrayed for twenty-five years and their surprise that he proved to be such a successful acting prime minister while Jacinda Ardern was away.

Peters fell out with the right when he left the National Party in 1993. There are few more unforgivable political crimes in New Zealand than showing disloyalty to one’s party. (Jim Anderton is the only recent one I can think of who was forgiven.)

Perhaps even worse to the far right was that Peters walked out of the party when its policies were dominated by the neoliberals, especially Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley. Peters detested those policies because his values are the traditional centre-right values of New Zealand. (His background is from far greater disadvantage than any of the Rogernomes.) He was almost chosen by Muldoon as a future party leader by interviewing Muldoon on TV during National’s 1978 election campaign.

Before you go ballistic, yes Muldoon had some serious limitations, but he also held those traditional values. He got into a right proper tangle trying to defend them in the difficult economic circumstances of the later 1970s. The Rogernomes resolved the tangle by abandoning the values.

Muldoon’s immediate choice as a successor was Jim Bolger, whose rejection of neoliberal values should come as no surprise. Not was it a surprise that he could work with Peters when he became his deputy-prime minister after the 1997 election.

By now the far right had become hysterical about how awful Peters was. His pursuit of the winebox affair – as proved on other occasions, he can be tenacious where he thinks fraud is involved – did not endear him to Rogernomes either. Those more in the centre slavishly joined in with the far right and Peters compounded their prejudice by his robust jousts with journalists. Perhaps this has not been the most vicious character assassination in my lifetime but it is surely a candidate for the claim.

I remember thinking at the time the Shipley coup replaced Bolger as prime minister – she came to office in December 1998 – that it was not just a neo-liberal putsch but aimed to dislodge Peters. That occurred after nine months.

I have not seen a sober account of what happened. Peters walked out of a cabinet meeting; he seems to have made a tactical mistake. The sense I got, here and at other times, is that Peters operates on the basis of the trust that underpins a contract (he was trained a lawyer as well as a teacher) rather than the pure letter of the deal. He did not have the trust-deal with Shipley he had with Bolger.

Peters was not a great Treasurer (senior Minister of Finance). He was a safe pair of hands rather than a policy wonk. (He as the memory of an elephant though.) I was not very impressed by his handling of the Maori portfolio either. Few remember Ka Awatea, although it removed some of the structural stupidities that Labour had left in Maori policy.

So I have been surprised that he has proved to be a success as Minister of Foreign Affairs. It was not just that he has taken over from Murray McCully; he was also thought to do well before McCully took over. It is probably his deeply committed (traditional) nationalism coupled with a willingness to listen to advice; and, boy he is a great schmoozer, a needed talent when you are interacting with foreign dignities. That he has used his political heft to improve the ministry’s funding helps. He really believes that foreign affairs are important.

Perhaps his performance as acting prime minister has been over-rated. He minded the shop extremely well but he was in close contact with Ardern (every one of his briefing papers would have been copied to her), while Grant Robertson would have managed the Labour caucus and such policy development as there were. Peters did not have to handle any great political crises or strike out in new policy directions – the tests which determine the quality of a prime minister. (It is a puzzle how somebody with such impressive political antennae got into the tangle over the review of the appointment of Deputy Police Commissioner Wally Haumaha.)

The danger was that as acting prime minister he would get into one of his ugly rows with journalists. But they treated him with respect and he responded in kind. Peters seems to have delegated his bovver boy role to Shane Jones; if Jones ever moves up to a more senior position, we may see him being more dignified too.

Winston wont be with us forever; a bit of a pity for he is a colourful politician in a pack of the drab. What about New Zealand First? There is a natural place for a centre party in an MMP system; Because Peters connects so well with voters, his NZF has done a lot better than Peter Dunn’s United Future. (UF was a National attempt to find a companion centrist party, but it was artificial rather than organic like NZF.)

But the centre is also a no-man’s land for parties of the centre right and centre left contest there too. National’s aim seems to have been to destroy NZF, although success might simply add to Labour’s voter share. Alternately, National might try wooing NZF. Its far-right wing would hate that, although one notices that Simon Bridges seems to be abandoning them, inching to the centre (there was never many votes out far right; the attraction was always the donations). And now the far right is seeing merit in Winston Peters. What ever next?