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PoliticsJune 12, 2018

How will Winston Peters act as PM? Just look at the last few days


Wayne Mapp, a government MP the first time Winston Peters was deputy prime minister, says we should expect the NZ First leader to use every opportunity to ensure his party’s survival.

The Right Honorable Winston Peters has spent the lead up to his time as acting prime minister by reminding Labour of the limits of their power. New Zealand has had many acting prime ministers before, but none of quite the same significance as Winston. In all previous cases they were clearly just standing in for the boss, even if they were in that role for several weeks.

Not this time. Winston Peters and New Zealand First have given Labour a sharp reminder that it has power solely because of Winston’s decision following the 2017 election. Of course, it also says something about Andrew Little’s awful political management. It was truly baffling to me when Little announced the end of the three strikes law several weeks ago. How could this ever have the support of NZ First, a law and order party par excellence? Nothing that Little said over the last few weeks gave any indication that he had done the background work to get NZ First onside.

So NZ First must have decided they would make Andrew Little – and by implication, Labour – suffer for their presumption. The inevitable decision by NZ First to squash the repeal could have been made public at any time over the last few weeks. And the earlier it had been made, the less the embarrassment.

Instead NZ First let a public campaign against repeal build, and then forced the minister to shelve the policy, almost on the eve of Peters taking on his role as acting PM. The prime minister must be furious. She has enough to contend with right now without her senior Labour ministers causing this kind of problem.

Of course, there is an alternative explanation: that this was a planned political manoeuvre. Little would announce a policy that he knew NZ First would oppose, giving them the chance to ride to the rescue of the public. Everyone benefits. Labour shows it is on the side of progressive reform. NZ First shows that it remains the champion of law and order. In due course a package of measures is rolled out that every part of the coalition endorses. It is MMP in action.

However, it would be surprising if the government is that Machiavellian. It would certainly not be the style that the prime minister has cultivated. And if discovered would be hugely damaging.

What does this all portend for Peters’ elevation to acting prime minister?

It seems unlikely he will be a cypher. He has wanted this role almost all his political life. Well, not actually this role, he wanted the top job. But that would have meant NZ First getting at least 15% in the general election. That did not happen, so that particular ambition has been thwarted. He has had to settle for second best: acting prime minister.

Now that he has set the terms of the role by exercising his veto powers on Labour’s justice plans, basically to show where the power lies, what will he want to do?

Right now, one of the most important political and diplomatic events of the decade is occurring in our neighbourhood; the meeting of President Trump and the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, in Singapore. New Zealand has a direct interest. Even to this day we have a small number of troops in South Korea and have regular maritime exercises with the South Korean navy, all as a result of being one of the original combatant nations. South Korea is one of our largest trading partners. Therefore what happens in Singapore matters to us.

Winston Peters, and his Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, will be working out what New Zealand can do if the talks make progress. There has already been speculation that New Zealand may be able to act for both North Korea and the United States in verification of denuclearisation and disarmament. With Winston in the role of acting PM, he may be able to give this greater emphasis. He can mobilise a whole of government effort to do his best to make it happen.

This also indicates the bully pulpit role that the office of prime minister offers. While he might be acting, for the next few weeks to all intents and purposes Winston will be the prime minister. Expect NZ First initiatives to come to the fore.

He has every incentive to do so. With NZ First polling under 5%, anything that can be done to boost their profile in a positive way should help recover electoral momentum. Maybe some of the larger Regional Development Fund projects have been held over so they can be announced by the acting prime minister with suitable fanfare. For instance, a full commitment to rail to Marsden Point, not just the extension to the port, but a major upgrade of the rail line all way the way back to Auckland. This would be a multi-hundred-million-dollar project, but it is also key to revitalising much of the North. It is the sort of infrastructure that shows NZ First is absolutely committed to boosting the regions, the heartland of its support.

From Peters’ point of view, if NZ First succeeds, so does the government as a whole. He will see the future success of the coalition being dependent on all three of its components being able to win in 2020. Peters has not come this far to simply enable a future Labour/Green government. He intends NZ First to be part of the government, not just now, but also in the future.

Peters’ party has always had more leverage on Labour than the Greens. The Greens are wedded to Labour for the foreseeable future. NZ First, at least in theory, could go either way. But not in 2020. For the next election NZ First is surely also tied to Labour. If any further proof were needed, the recommencement of his law suit against Paula Bennett, Anne Tolley and the attorney general shows the depth of antagonism against National.

So Peters will use every opportunity to ensure that his party survives at the next election, to be part of the Labour/Green/NZ First government.

Expect Winston to use the role of acting prime minister to preordain that outcome.

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