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Winston Peters at the state opening of parliament. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Winston Peters at the state opening of parliament. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

OPINIONPoliticsDecember 11, 2023

Winston Peters’ rabbit hole problem

Winston Peters at the state opening of parliament. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Winston Peters at the state opening of parliament. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Claims by a staffer of Te Whatu Ora have attracted the attention of conspiracy groups in NZ and around the world. And they’re demanding attention from someone they thought was on their side.

They didn’t all love him. This was the guy, after all, who stood in lockstep with their bete noire, Jacinda Ardern, in the early stages of the Covid response. OK, others said, but he was the highest profile politician to visit the protesters camped on the lawns of parliament in early 2022. And were not New Zealand First and its charismatic leader preferable to the fractious and fragmented alternatives flying the fringe-right flag?

Winston Peters, the great survivor of New Zealand politics, stuck a finger in the wind and decided to embrace the self-described “freedom movement”. It worked. His party made it across the 5% threshold and back into parliament, propelling Peters to the office of deputy prime minister for the third time. But that decision carried risk, and within a month the movement would come knocking, determinedly and literally, on his door.      

Peters’ debt to this group of voters, which spans at one end those simply enraged at vaccine mandates and at the other full-blown conspiracy addled kooks, was underscored on election night itself, when Peters chose to give his first sit-down interview to Reality Check Radio – the digital broadcaster set up by antivax group Voices for Freedom, derided by Sean Plunket of rival station The Platform as “Rabbit Hole Radio”. Speaking to Cameron Slater, formerly of the Whale Oil blog, Peters gave his “grateful thanks” to RCR listeners. “With their help we’ve made it,” he said, pledging to provide a voice for those who had been “misled and maltreated”.

He was good to his word. The coalition agreement signed 41 days later secured a “full scale, wide-ranging, independent inquiry” into the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, including “vaccine procurement and efficacy”, all as “a matter of urgency”. There were other nods to this cohort of supporters, including lodging a puzzling reservation against amendments to World Health Organisation regulations.

Winston Peters and Reality Check Radio’s Cameron Slater.

Across various “freedom movement” outlets and chat groups, these were hailed as promising results. So was Peters’ baseless claim on Twitter about information provided to the prime minister in the leadup to the massacre in Christchurch in 2019. So, too, were his tirades about the “bribery” of the media.

In recent days, however, Peters’ star in fringe-right circles has flickered. A range of figureheads, and countless commenters, who had previously sung his praises are suddenly suspicious. Many are angry.

It all stems from the story of Barry Young, the frustrated Te Whatu Ora / Health NZ employee who released vaccination data to peddlers of misinformation in New Zealand and abroad and is currently before the courts charged with dishonestly accessing a computer. Young’s claims about the data were so unconvincing that neither Voices for Freedom nor Chantelle Baker – giants of the New Zealand antivax scene – were willing to publish them when he had previously approached them. Young found a willing ally, however, in Liz Gunn, the broadcaster turned conspiracy theorist and leader of the nascent NZ Loyal Party. The claims, categorically rejected by Whatu Ora, last week spread across the usual channels in New Zealand and around the world, where they were amplified by notorious US disinformation spreader Steve Kirsch and his compatriot, the convicted, serial fabulist Alex Jones.

One name that kept coming up through the coverage: Winston Peters.

It began with Gunn. In a video posted shortly after Young’s arrest, she said: “This is where you show New Zealand what kind of a government you will be. And particularly you, Winston Peters.”

Gunn had gone to extraordinary lengths already to get the deputy prime minister’s ear. She said: “Winston, I came around to your house on the eve of putting the information out. I reached you by phone on message. I said: I have something very important to offer you. You got into government promising New Zealanders that you would stand up for what we call the freedom truth-telling movement. That you would put out a full Covid inquiry. The whistleblower tried to reach you as well. I gave him your number. And he said he would give you all the information. We were both willing to give you the first drop and make you the hero politician of the world. We are still willing to do that, but I am calling on you, Winston! I am calling on you!”

Earlier this year, Peters granted Gunn a remarkable 100-minute-long interview. Today, now deputy PM, he is unsurprisingly disinclined to pick up the phone, let alone open the front door of his home to the woman battling “the deep state creatures who have for centuries, in fact, ruled our existence”. 

If it were just Gunn, Peters may be able to ghost her and move on. But it isn’t just Gunn. Over at Counterspin, the conspiracy-riddled platform headed by Kelvyn Alp, who believes Covid-19 was a hoax, seeks to overthrow the government and says the Christchurch mosque attacks were a “false flag” operation, tens of thousands of readers were encouraged to write to Peters, seeking his help in “exposing the deep state”. 

“Now is your chance to hold his feet to the fire,” read the post, which came with a suggested letter that began, “Dear Winston, This is your moment to show yourself to be doing the right thing for your beloved New Zealand in protecting Liz Gunn and the whistle blower … or to show yourself to be aligned with the criminal Labour government traitors.”

A separate post on Counterspin’s Substack channel put it this way: “There is only a narrow window of opportunity for the deputy prime minister to clarify his position, before losing face with the freedom demographic. As such, our challenge is this: Show us where your loyalties are, Winston Peters. Are you loyal to the people of this nation, or are you just another cowardly politician who will ignore the vaccination genocide that has taken place in this country and around the world?”

The usual suspects were queuing up. New Zealand based Briton and far-right YouTuber Lee Williams pleaded with Peters to speak up. Disgraced former AUT law professor Amy Benjamin – remember her? – posted a video in response to the data declaring, “Winston Peters is a key here … We need the mainstays of New Zealand First to start putting pressure on Mr Peters to deliver on his campaign promises.” Another American conspiracy theorist based in New Zealand, Damien DeMent, gurned, “I really wish that Winston Peters would be the hero that we all need.” But: “You have no idea how fucking small Winston Peters is relative to the swamp.” An Australian conspiracy theorist with tens of thousands of followers was even more pessimistic, calling Peters a “deep state politician and fake patriot”, and, of course, “controlled opposition”.

Thousand of miles away, Alex Jones, the man who was ordered to pay out more than a billion dollars after grotesquely and falsely claiming the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax, was in good spirits. “This thing’s really gone viral,” he said. Introducing Young on to his show to “the millions of people that are watching”, Jones hailed “a big domino in bringing down … the global corporate Blackrock fascist operation”.  Young told Jones how he’d “tried desperately to reach [Peters]. I was saying, I’ll give you this data, I’ll work with you. I’ll make you look like the hero in New Zealand history. Winston Peters, it’s there for you. That’s what you campaigned on.” But: “He hasn’t responded. We tried so hard to reach him.”

Posts on Telegram, Rumble, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere were replete with commenters fearing Peters had turned traitor. “Winston Peters, it’s now or never, show what you are made of,” said one. Another: “Let’s see if Winston can [put] his money where his mouth is and get all this stuff thrown out. It’s one huge test now.” Another, watching him speaking in parliament, said: “SO, WINSTON, SAY SOMETHING ABOUT THE WHISTLE-BLOWER, YOU HYPOCRIT!”

“He still is DEAD SILENT,” raged one who had never been convinced he was really on their side. “Isn’t the Kingmaker meant to be the saviour for the freedom movement riding his last rodeo???” There was hope yet, said another: “What if Winston is doing a Trump, allowing the normals the see the media cover up, politicians lying, corruption, radicalised groups, pedo agenda etc, give them enough rope, to WAKE NZ UP Wouldn’t that be GREAT?”

Peters has not returned to Reality Check Radio, but his colleague Shane Jones has. Last week, Jones gave breakfast host Paul Brennan an insight into negotiation strategy from a small-party perspective. “There’s a great analogy that comes out of the sharemarket,” he said. “When someone wants to take something over and there’s a small but blocking shareholder, at the end of the day you have to pay their price.”

Asked about the pressing issue for listeners – the data release by the health staffer – Jones said, “I’m loath to go into too many details because that specific issue is before the court. I think however that once the inquiry gets under way it will have the necessary authority to ensure that whatever information needs to be dredged out of the system will be provided into a legitimate forum and some robust decisions can be made as to, quite frankly, the durability of a lot of the assertions that have been made coming out of Covid.”

That may be enough to placate the audience for today. The problem for Jones, and especially for Peters, as both of them must know, is that a robust inquiry is going to swiftly dismiss the claims of Young, Gunn, Counterspin, Jones and the rest as, at minimum, benign misinterpretation, and in other cases as rank disinformation. Or, to borrow a Winstonism, as demonstrable nonsense.

Peters and Jones similarly must know that to publicly align themselves as ministers of the crown with conspiracy theorists and cranks is reputationally hazardous. This is a group, ranging from distressed and vulnerable people to manipulative grifters, for whom the conviction is no casual beef but central to their identity. Everything is linked to everything. Signs are everywhere. Silence looks damning. A hero becomes a villain very suddenly. 

Winston Peters is the deputy prime minister. He is the foreign minister. Does he really want to be jeered, or, worse, cheered, by conspiracy theorists out to meet him as he snips ribbons in rural New Zealand, as he attends diplomatic functions around the world? It may be too late to avoid. The trouble is that when you go campaigning down the rabbit hole, there’s no escaping the Wonderland.

Keep going!