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Winston Peters. Illustration: Ross Murray for the Spinoff
Winston Peters. Illustration: Ross Murray for the Spinoff

OPINIONPoliticsOctober 4, 2020

The boxer and the towel: a short history of Winston Peters, politician

Winston Peters. Illustration: Ross Murray for the Spinoff
Winston Peters. Illustration: Ross Murray for the Spinoff

More than 40 years after he first arrived in parliament, Winston Peters is facing, barring a miracle, the end of the line, with his New Zealand First Party polling under 2%. But what a political career it has been. Danyl Mclauchlan traces the life and times of one of the most compelling and enduring characters in New Zealand political history.

Into politics

He grew up in the far north. The welfare state, he would later say, never reached the region. His childhood home of Whananāki was a handful of farming communities scattered around a small school located on the shores of an inlet. His father, Len Peters, was Māori, he worked the farm they lived on, sometimes picked up work as a carpenter or at the freezing works. Joan Peters was Scottish. She had 11 children (Winston was number six), and the family was poor: the Great Depression of the 1930s hadn’t really ended in Northland by 1945, the year Winston was born, or even 1960. Infant mortality for Māori children was about one in 10: roughly equivalent to that of sub-Saharan Africa today. The school was reached by walking along the estuary. When the tide was high the students rode horses, or were ferried by the headmaster in a rowing boat. Speaking te reo Māori was actively discouraged.

Peters’ older brothers were sent to boarding school at Wesley College in Auckland, but the money ran out, so Winston attended Whangārei Boys and Dargaville High. He suffered from chronic asthma. He spoke with a stutter, which he worked to correct. He did his homework in an upturned corrugated iron tank in the paddock, to shelter from the sun and rain. His childhood ambitions were to be an All Black, own a racehorse and become prime minister.

After secondary school he studied at Auckland Teachers’ Training College and spent a year as a trainee teacher at Te Atatū Intermediate, where his students later remembered him as elegantly dressed and that they made him cry. At the end of the year he left for Australia where he worked as a blast furnace operator and a tunneller in the mines. In 1970 he returned to New Zealand, found a job working on the wharves, joined the Auckland Māori rugby club, whose team he would rise to captain, and enrolled at Auckland University to study history, politics and law.

In 1975 the third Labour government announced a plan to turn coastal areas around the country into public reserves. The Whangārei District Council indicated that almost all of the land in the far north designated for this reserve status was Māori land, even though the vast majority of land owned in the region was held by Pākehā. Ngātiwai mounted a legal challenge. Their legal counsel was Peters, who was a member of the iwi and, by the mid 1970s, a lawyer working at Russell McVeagh. The challenge was successful and the government backed down.

In 1975 Peters unsuccessfully contested the Northern Māori seat for the National Party. Three years later he ran in Hunua, a newly created electorate in South Auckland. On the night his Labour opponent Malcolm Douglas (brother of Roger Douglas) won by a narrow margin, but Peters convinced the National Party to finance a legal challenge to contest the election result. He was successful, and Peters first entered parliament six months after the election, cheered by his National colleagues and hissed at by Labour, who called him a “court appointed MP”. He was only the fourth person of Māori ancestry to win a general electorate.

Peters was out of parliament in 1981 but back again in the snap election of 1984. National was swept out of government but Peters won Tauranga with a massive majority. He was given the transport and Māori Affairs portfolios, and gained prominence with a series of attacks on “Māori radicals” and “treaty-based grievances”, and a sequence of conspiratorial allegations about the Cook Strait ferry running aground, a government cover-up over a sunk Soviet cruiseship and Soviet submarines mapping the New Zealand seabed. But he also struck the only decisive blow the National opposition won against Labour by uncovering the Māori Loan Affair: a bizarre scandal in which the secretary of the department of Māori Affairs attempted to borrow a staggering amount of money from two international con artists, and the minister appeared to have authorised this and failed to inform cabinet.

National was still in opposition after the 1987 election, and its leader Jim Bolger rewarded Peters with the employment and race relations portfolios. Peters, working with a clever and ambitious National Party press secretary called Michael Laws, combined these into a powerful attack on Labour. The share market collapsed only a few weeks into Labour’s second term, plunging the economy into the “Rogernomics recession”, a prolonged slump marked by high unemployment and business bankruptcies. Peters and Laws connected the deteriorating economy and surge in jobless numbers with Labour’s support for Māori initiatives and incorporation of the Treaty of Waitangi into legislation and policy.

All this “racial separatism” would lead to a backlash, Peters predicted. He warned of violence on the streets and in a speech entitled “We are all New Zealanders” that would serve as a template for Don Brash’s Orewa speech, Peters advocated “one law for all”. The message was enormously popular with the older, provincial voters in National’s base, and Peters was soon ahead of his leader Jim Bolger in TVNZ polling preferred prime minister rankings.

Political commentators predicted that Peters would depose Bolger and then easily win the upcoming election, becoming prime minister. All he had to do was build support in the National caucus. But Peters did not do this: instead of building up a faction he began to attack his own party, its policies and MPs. Bolger demoted him. The caucus, baffled and frustrated by Peters, supported the move. During the 1990 election Peters ran his own parallel campaign speaking at halls and events throughout the country, but as a backbench MP he received little coverage. He began to complain about the “disgraceful” media.

Into power, briefly

National won the election – the greatest landslide in New Zealand political history – by campaigning for “a decent society”, as opposed to the radical new neoliberal policies of the Labour government. A day after his election victory Treasury officials called Bolger to advise him that the modest surplus budget Labour released earlier that year was a work of fiction: in reality the government was almost bankrupt. Also, the Bank of New Zealand was insolvent, and would need a huge bailout or it would collapse, wiping out most of the personal savings and half of the companies in the country. Bolger later complained that his political honeymoon only lasted 72 hours.

Peters was now minister of Māori Affairs. After a few months in the new role he surprised his cabinet colleagues by announcing a policy to create a merged agency that would deliver health, welfare and education for Māori. Most National MPs opposed this: they were suspicious of the public service, suspicious of anything Māori, and suspicious of everything involving Peters. Giving him an enormous Māori superministry to run was unthinkable. The fact that Peters announced this without notifying his fellow ministers or the prime minister’s office sealed its doom. Bolger’s failure to support his policy enraged Peters.

Then, when the finance minister, Ruth Richardson, launched her infamous “mother of all budgets” in June 1991, radically slashing welfare payments and introducing user pays to the health and education systems ($50 for an overnight stay in hospital), Peters began to openly attack his own government, pointing out that National had broken its election promises. He threatened to release information that might embarrass it. When Bolger arrived back from an overseas trip he called Peters up to his office. “I’ve just reorganised my cabinet,” he reportedly said. “You’re not in it. Sorry it didn’t work out.”

In 1992 Peters – once again a backbench MP – went on an Australian TV show and announced, rather cryptically, that he’d been offered a bribe to support the economic policies of the Business Roundtable, a radical but influential neoliberal lobby group. When pressed for details Peters gave a statement in parliament alleging he’d been offered a bribe by a businessman named Selwyn Cushing, who was not actually a member of the Business Roundtable, and had not met with Peters on the date Peters cited, and who went on to sue Peters for defamation and win. Cushing was a member of the National Party, and a generous donor. The furious party leadership expelled Peters from the parliamentary caucus and blocked him from standing as a National candidate. So Peters resigned from parliament, forcing a byelection in Tauranga, which he won with 90% of the vote (neither National nor Labour contested it). Shortly before the general election he announced the formation of a new political party.

Winston Peters. Illustration: Ross Murray for the Spinoff

New Zealand First and the winebox

Many details about this new party were mysterious. Peters was the leader, obviously, but other political parties had formal appointment procedures. How were leaders and candidates in New Zealand First decided? Peters: “By the founders.” Media: “Who are the founders?” Peters: “That’s none of your damn business.”

He had very little time to establish his party before the election, but he did so, and on election day New Zealand First won 8.4% of the vote. They only got two MPs, because of the first-past-the-post system. But this was the last election held under that electoral system: 1993 was the year New Zealanders voted for electoral reform. The next election would be held under MMP, a system designed to allow the proportional representation of minor parties. Peters was joined in parliament by Tau Henare, who’d won the Northern Māori seat. Henare’s presence lent credibility to the claim that New Zealand First was a genuine political movement, not a vanity project for Peters.

New Zealand politics in the mid 1990s was consumed by the winebox debate, a vast and sprawling, summary-defying political, financial and legal scandal about the sale of government assets and the bailout of the Bank of New Zealand. This happened under the fourth Labour government and during the first term of the Bolger National government. The merchant bank Fay Richwhite advised the government during its sale of some of these assets, and it had also been a part purchaser of the same assets, in a series of transactions and bailouts in which the state and minority shareholders lost hundreds of millions of dollars but Fay Richwhite made an estimated half a billion dollars.

Peters brought a winebox of leaked documents to parliament that were alleged to show financial transactions allegedly involving Fay Richwhite being routed through the Cook Islands in an alleged tax evasion scheme involving the Bank of New Zealand – which was still half owned by the New Zealand government. Inland Revenue and the Serious Fraud Office had investigated and found nothing suspicious and this, Peters announced, pointed to fraud and/or incompetence in both of these organisations.

There was an inquiry which dragged on for three years. Defamation cases and court cases branched off from it. There were appeals which ruled against the findings of the inquiry. No one ever figured out what happened, or who won, or what it all meant. Peters’ weakness for conspiracy theories, media grandstanding and highly evasive rhetoric made him a problematic champion for such a complex cause. But he was also the only member of our political class who seemed to care that an astonishing wealth transfer took place in New Zealand in the 1980s and 90s, from our politicians, acting on behalf of the people, to two very wealthy merchant bankers, and no one ever explained why both our major political parties facilitated this, or how it could possibly be defensible.

By June of 1996 almost a third of the country named Peters as preferred prime minister. In the October election New Zealand First won 13.3% of the vote, and all of the Māori seats, capturing them off Labour for the first time in history. No minor party has ever equalled this result. During the campaign Peters strongly implied that he’d form a government with Labour, instructing voters to “put Jim Bolger in opposition where he belongs”. But, it turned out, Peters had not actually promised that he’d form a coalition with Labour, at least not in so many words, and after two months of negotiations – some of which Peters famously spent on a fishing holiday – he formed a government with National.

Deputy prime minister

The media literally gasped with shock when Peters made this announcement, and Peters walked off without taking any questions. The decision devastated his popularity. In the first public poll after the government was formed he was down to 4% in the preferred prime minister ratings and he never regained his earlier popularity. On the other hand, Peters was now deputy prime minister and “treasurer”, a new position created to ensure that he outranked the finance minister, normally considered the second most powerful member of cabinet. Henare, who promised during the campaign that he would never serve under Bolger, became his minister of Māori Affairs.

Peters and Bolger worked together surprisingly well, given their past history. Helen Clark suggested that this was because they ran the country around a bottle of whisky. But Peters’ decision split the New Zealand First caucus: some of his MPs had campaigned on the premise they would get rid of National, yet now they were keeping them in government. In 1997 New Zealand First MP and associate health minister Neil Kirton was fired for attacking National’s health policies. Kirton left New Zealand First and became an independent MP. In late 1997 Jenny Shipley overthrew Bolger in a caucus coup, replacing him as prime minister, so becoming New Zealand’s first woman prime minister.

Shipley and Peters were old enemies, and when Peters publicly disagreed with her about National’s plans to privatise Wellington airport she sacked him from cabinet. Peters immediately withdrew from the coalition with the intention of bringing down the government and forcing a snap election. But seven of his MPs – including Henare – left the party, became independent MPs and kept National in power. Shipley’s government struggled on until November 1999, when it was defeated by Clark’s Labour Party. New Zealand First’s vote fell under MMP’s 5% threshold but it stayed in parliament because of a quirk of MMP: the electoral seat loophole, which applied to New Zealand First because Peters maintained his seat of Tauranga.

Ethnic engineering and repopulation’

Back in 1987 the Labour government reformed New Zealand’s immigration law, changing it from a de facto race-based regime favouring white migrants from Europe, Australia, the US and Canada, to a points based system. The change led to an increase in migrants from south and east Asia, and Winston Peters spent the first two terms of the Clark-era Labour government denouncing the demographic changes the country was going through. This culminated in 2005, an election year (naturally) in which Peters gave a speech to a Grey Power audience (naturally) in Orewa called “Securing our borders and protecting our identity”.

Over the past 14 years, Peters warned, National and Labour had “flooded New Zealand with immigrants”. Who knew how many of the arrivals from Islamic nations were terrorists? Who knew how many of these Asians were criminals? If population levels were not controlled the number of Asians would increase dramatically. Peters warned. Already you could walk down Queen Street in Auckland and hear foreign languages being spoken, and feel that you lived in another country. New Zealand was being colonised in “a deliberate policy of ethnic engineering and re-population”. This was a grave threat to national security, and New Zealand must “close the gates”.

The speech led to a firestorm of media condemnation and a brief surge in popularity for Peters. But many New Zealand First voters shifted their support to National during this period. Not coincidentally, this happened around the time its leader Don Brash adopted Peters’ rhetoric about Māori separatism and Māori privilege.

At his campaign launch – after riding onto stage on a Harley Davidson – Peters indicated that he would not go into government with either political party after the election, vowing he would “not seek the baubles of office”. Instead New Zealand First would hold the balance of power and negotiate with the largest party on policy concessions. After the election – in which Peters finally lost his seat of Tauranga but scraped in over the MMP threshold at 5.72% – Peters went into government with Helen Clark’s Labour Party, in exchange for his appointment as foreign minister and minister of racing. This was also the deal in which Peters won the gold card, his primary policy contribution over his four decade long political career. Its main benefit is to provide superannuants with free off-peak travel on public transport. Including, most notoriously, the Waiheke ferry.

Winston Peters. Illustration: Ross Murray for the Spinoff


Peters did not “close the gates” on non-white migration now that he was in government; immigration settings remained unchanged. He’d also spent the last six years attacking the treaty settlement process under Labour, but this too went untouched. Instead Peters helped negotiate the free trade agreement with China, and won gigantic funding increases for his Ministry of Foreign Affairs and taxpayer subsidies for the racing industry.

In 2008 one of New Zealand First’s MPs revealed that the party had received a donation “close to $100,000” from a mysterious source, whom he hinted was an expatriate New Zealand businessman called Owen Glenn. Glenn had previously claimed that Winston Peters had offered to make him honorary consul to Monaco. New Zealand First had never declared any such donation. Peters appeared before a press conference carrying a sign with “NO” printed on it in large black letters. Owen Glenn had never given New Zealand First any kind of donation or loan, he explained.

Peters’ denial was followed by months of leaks, media stories, further denials and hearings of the Parliamentary Privileges Committee, which eventually established that Glenn made a donation which he believed went to New Zealand First, but which actually went towards paying Winston Peters’ legal fees, and thus was not considered a donation to New Zealand First. At the same time a number of undeclared additional electoral donations emerged. Sir Robert Jones had paid Peters $25,000, which went to something called The Spencer Trust. Peters protested that this was “unsubstantiated rubbish”. The Spencer Trust was managed by Peters’ brother, and thus nothing to do with him. Then it emerged that the Spencer Trust had paid $50,000 to New Zealand First during the 2005 election campaign. Additional donations from fishing and racing magnates came to light.

In the end the Privileges Committee censured Peters for misleading parliament. The police and Serious Fraud Office decided not to press charges. Helen Clark backed Peters throughout this process, which dominated the political media for most of the election year. But the new National Party leader John Key ruled New Zealand First out as a potential coalition partner. On election day Peters failed to win back Tauranga, and his party fell under the 5% threshold. He was out of parliament. He gave a dignified speech in which he promised he’d “be back”, but most political commentators agreed that the speech was a fitting end to his long political career, which was obviously over.


And for a long time the commentators looked like they were right. Peters ran again in 2011 but his party seemed stuck at 2% in the polls. He travelled around the RSAs, retirement villages and community halls, repeating his dire warnings about Māori separatism and colonising Asians, but none of it stuck. Until, two weeks before election day, John Key met ACT party Epsom candidate John Banks for a photo-op in a cafe. Their conversation was taped by a camera operator who left his recording device on the table. Following Key’s complaints, police raided newsrooms around the country to recover the recordings, and this sparked intense speculation about what exactly was on the tapes. Peters announced that he’d heard the tapes, and he spent the final weeks of the campaign drip-feeding details about what Key and Banks had said to each other, including this exchange about Peters and his constituency:

Banks: Do you think Winston will be back this time?

Key: No, not at all, no chance.

Banks: [inaudible]

Key: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s , but no, no, not a show. He, look, he’s at 2.5 I think on the TV3 poll, we have him about 2.5, 3. Look, he polled 4 last time, he’ll poll 3 this time, a lot of his constituents have all died. He won’t poll, I don’t think he’ll poll much above 3 this time.

Peters’ support surged, and he won 6.5%. He declared that he would stay in opposition for the term holding “the balance of responsibility”, which was a dignified way of saying that Key, who had led National to an easy victory, still refused to work with him and could easily form a government without him. But he won more seats in 2014 and in 2015 Peters won a byelection in Northland after the incumbent National Party MP resigned under very murky circumstances.

In 2017 Peters campaigned on abolishing the Māori seats, reducing the number of MPs in parliament to 100, nationalising the banks, massively reducing immigration, writing off student loans for people willing to work in the provinces, ring-fencing GST for the provinces and forcing prisoners to do hard labour. None of these election promises made it into Peters’ agreement with the Jacinda Ardern led Labour Party when they formed a coalition government. Instead Peters returned to his roles as deputy prime minister, foreign minister and racing minister. His policy wins included progressing a free trade deal with Russia, a three billion dollar fund for New Zealand First MP Shane Jones to spend in the regions and a “waka jumping bill” to prevent MPs from leaving their political parties.

Apex and vetocrat

The political scientist Francis Fukuyama uses the term “vetocracy” to describe the sclerosis of advanced democracies in which the state is so constrained by entrenched special interests that it can’t accomplish anything. “Vetocrat” is a good way to describe Peters’ primary role in the Ardern coalition government. He prevented the government from introducing a capital gains tax, building a light rail system in Auckland, reaching a settlement on the Ihumātao occupation, reforming the legal process around sexual assault, repealing the “three strikes” legislation, reducing the price of electric vehicles, placing cameras on commercial fishing boats to protect endangered species and hate speech legislation following the March 15 terror attack. He did get the Provincial Growth Fund to pay for a new covered track in Christchurch for the horse-racing industry and he won another huge funding increase for foreign affairs.

And he got to be prime minister. In 2018 Jacinda Ardern took six weeks maternity leave, and Peters ran the country while she was away. I ran into him during that time. I’d had a meeting with someone on the ninth floor of the Beehive and on my way out the lift stopped on Peters’ floor. The door opened and there he stood, close enough to touch: shorter than you think, pin-striped suit, dazzling smile. He was laughing at something his chief of staff had just said: he looked like the happiest man in the world. And he did a pretty good job of running the country during that time, despite expectations. Possibly because he knew it was fleeting.

Almost as soon as the coalition was formed, Labour MPs and senior staffers who worked with Peters and his other MPs began to fret in private about when the inevitable New Zealand First donations scandal would break, and whether it would take their government down with it. In late 2019 the story began to emerge.

The New Zealand First party was being funded in part by loans from an organisation called “The New Zealand First Foundation”. The financial details of this foundation were leaked to the media, revealing that it had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret donations from corporations and wealthy individuals in the property development, racing, fishing and forestry sectors. The foundation had funded New Zealand First’s election campaign. The Serious Fraud Office announced an investigation, and last week, three weeks before the election, announced that they were charging two people – both with interim name suppression – with fraud. They were not MPs, staffers or current members of the New Zealand First Party. Peters, who had fought an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the SFO office from saying anything until after the election, declared he’d been exonerated, and that he was taking the SFO itself to court.

Peters’ party is now polling between 1% and 2% in the polls. It’s hard to imagine how he can get back into parliament, or that his political career and party will continue to exist after another crushing defeat. But he’s done hard-to-imagine things before.

Winston Peters. Illustration: Ross Murray for the Spinoff

The fighter

Back in the 1980s Peters did an interview with the New Zealand Listener, and in it he talked about a photo he hung in his office at parliament:

“It’s just of a boxer standing in the corner of the ring. He’s got a towel over his head. The fight is over. But, you see, the towel is not hanging on the ropes. You can tell he’s in pain – but he’s not throwing in the towel. So you don’t know if he has won or if he has lost. Everyone who came into my office hated that picture. They thought it was terrible. But I don’t mind because it’s mine … It’s about how I feel sometimes.”

This image of the underdog fighting back against the odds seems central to Peters’ conception of himself, and his ability to connect with voters. So much so that whenever he wins in politics, or is about to – when he was set to take over National in the early 90s, or rose to treasurer or deputy prime minister – it feels like he intentionally sabotages himself, tears everything down so that he can be the underdog again. And if he doesn’t, most of his supporters abandon him, forcing him back into underdog status. But for most of the last 20 years Peters has deluded himself, and a steadily decreasing proportion of voters. Instead of the underdog he’s been one of the most powerful people in the country, and he’s risen to that summit by attacking people who are among the least powerful: migrants, Māori, beneficiaries. And he’s done this while being funded by many of the wealthiest individuals and corporations in the country.

There’s no denying Peters’ political genius. When they worked together during the early 1990s Peters and Laws crafted a narrative that became the foundational mythology of the intellectual left during the 21st century: that of Muldoon-era New Zealand as an egalitarian workers paradise turned into a living hell by the blind malevolence of the neoliberals. During the late 1990s and early 2000s Peters saw – very clearly – the direction of travel for conservative politics over the next 20 years: the backlash against globalisation and neoliberalism leading to the rise of ethno-nationalist populism, the collapse of the traditional left and abandonment of workers by left-wing parties. He saw that if you demonised the media and labeled your critics corrupt liars then you could do and say anything you liked because you were no longer accountable to any standards of truth or ethics. He saw that race and age would become dividing lines in modern politics.

And he saw the way New Zealand politics would work under MMP; saw it as a lawyer would see it, as an untested contract riddled with loopholes. He saw that elderly white voters were the highest turnout demographic, saw the issues they were most persuadable on: race, property taxation, law and order; traditional conservative issues, but Peters saw that the centre was the point of maximal power in the MMP system, that you could rule the country with very little support. He saw that a party in that position could be funded by industries that profited from extensive government intervention: racing, fishing, forestry. He saw how everything worked, and placed himself at the heart of it.

But he’s done very little with all that power and talent and vision. He’s been powerful, but only fleetingly: for the last 30 years he’s averaged one three-year term in cabinet per decade. He’s spent that time denouncing the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s but done nothing to reverse them. The racing industry has done very well out of him, as has the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He made race relations worse: many New Zealanders of different ethnicities dislike and distrust each other because of him. And superannuitants can catch the ferry to Waiheke for free. 

Peters somehow imagined as a child that he’d grow up to be prime minister: the ambition of a dazzlingly brilliant Māori kid growing up in poverty in the remote periphery of the country, looking up from his homework and staring out at the rain. But he couldn’t have imagined the 40 years of scandal and betrayal and defeat it would take to achieve such an incomprehensible dream, or the kind of creature his vast ambition would transform him into, or how little any of it would matter, in the end, or change anything.

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