Winston Peters: Still this election's enigma

Owen Glenn's mis-steps have given the New Zealand First leader a lifeline. But Helen Clark may just be the one to grab it

Politics not policy is dominating the opening skirmishes of the election campaign. Much of the focus has been on the dark knight of New Zealand politics, Winston Peters, and whether he survives a third ministerial sacking. If he does, there is some small irony in the fact he can thank Owen Glenn for saving him.

After our erstwhile honorary plenipotentiary’s Privileges Committee appearance, Peters was down and being counted out. Glenn’s evidence was forthright and compelling, and his conduct dignified. Then he decided to hold a press conference the next day in Auckland. That was a mistake.

Glenn’s error was threefold. First, he somewhat rancorously attacked Helen Clark and Labour. The comments served his purpose in being colourful and damaging to Labour, but it was less dignified witness and more political brawler. Second, his attack gives Clark and Cullen a strong incentive to deny him the satisfaction of Peters’ prize scalp. Third, Glenn made claims which were immediately challenged as unreliable.  (Mike Williams, for example, rebutted Glenn’s claim that Williams had invited himself to Monaco.)  If Glenn’s claims at the press conference were unreliable, then perhaps some of the hitherto compelling evidence at the Privileges Committee was similarly erratic.

Clark’s irritation at Glenn’s criticism was evidenced by the immediate softening of her language on the future of Peters – her new enemy’s enemy.  While not dealing to Peters has risks, Clark will also be mindful of the importance of not opening up a second front of attack. Labour faces an arduous enough task in this campaign without having to deal with sniping from NZ First. 

Labour will also be mindful of issue fatigue. With six weeks to go until the election, the public will be bored of the Peters saga well before November 8.   There are already signs of developing ennui. A truism of campaigns is that come election day, it is difficult to remember the scandal which occurred two weeks ago, let alone a hazy two months ago.

Having survived a third sacking, can Peters survive an election? This correspondent thought him gone in 1999, but he survived by a handful of votes. As much as his opponents might hope that this time he’s finally, sunk, dog tucker, history, you cannot count him out until he’s fully interred in a very deep hole.

Peters will spend the next six weeks relentlessly using the censure motion against him as an attack weapon, portraying himself as an aggrieved victim confronting his dastardly foes.  And if he does survive, National has a problem, because Peters will be vying with the Maori Party for the balance of power. Again.

John Key, of course, has made it clear that he would not have Peters in his Cabinet. So explicit has he been in that regard, that one cannot see him backtracking. But Key has chosen his words carefully; ruling out Peters but not, it would seem, New Zealand First. If they did hold the balance of power, could we see a National-led government in coalition with NZ First, but without Peters as a Minister? Difficult, yes. Inconceivable? No.

All this presupposes that National will need a coalition partner. Current polling has them on or just below 50 percent – enough to govern alone. But while it is possible, history tells us it is highly unlikely. No political party has received over 50 since Sid Holland's Nationalists in 1951. Recall that in 2002, Labour went into the election campaign consistently polling over 50 percent, but during the campaign saw that eroded by constant attack.

Presuming National drops back to a more realistic 45 percent level of support (still an exceptional result), it then faces the prospect of having to find support partners in the Parliament to form a government - a prospect which is cause for concern.

Also factor in the likelihood of a two or three seat 'overhang' if the Maori Party polls poorly in the party vote but sweeps the Maori electorates. Instead of National needing 61 votes for a majority in the 120 seat Parliament, it might need 62 in a 123 seat Parliament.

Also concerning for National is Labour’s climb to around 36 percent in rolling averages – within striking distance of the 39 percent with which it formed a government in 1999. Labour is planning for a robust election campaign aimed at causing Key to stumble. While the strategy has a chance of success, it relies on Labour’s own stumbles ceasing and National’s resuming. Clark is a truly formidable, relentless campaigner. She didn’t put a foot wrong in the last campaign, and will look to hit that mark again. The pressure is on Key – who last week yet again showed his flaws and nerves under pressure over his share dealings – not to be Brash II.

New Zealand First, however, remains the election’s big enigma – will Peters’ troubles spell the end of the dark knight? Will those dastardly media-villains see him off? Or can he work a miracle? With six weeks to go until the election, there is some mayhem to go yet.