Winston Peters took the stage to launch an unlikely bid to stay in parliament on Sunday. Hayden Donnell went along for a close encounter with the New Zealand First faithful.
Talk to a political insider about Winston Peters, and they’ll often start with their complaints. He’s been offensive on immigration. Questionably ethical on campaign finance. Insulting to lovely, faultless reporters. But at the end of that, most will state an old Wellington truism: politics wouldn’t be the same without Winston.
This election is our best chance in years to test the truth of that statement. Winston Peters walked into New Zealand First’s election campaign launch on Sunday in East Tāmaki with his party in dire straits. It has regularly polled under 4% since joining the coalition government in 2017, and was down to 1.5% in the Roy Morgan poll released on July 14. Its hopes of returning to parliament may come down to Shane Jones’ long-shot bid to wrest control of Northland from National’s Matt King.
In the face of electoral oblivion, Peters played the hits. His proposals at the Highbrook Conference Suites may as well have been designed by a random New Zealand First policy generator. Peters argued for a limit on immigration numbers to 15,000 per year, and insisted a New Zealand First immigration minister would be a “bottom line” in any coalition agreement. He demanded 1000 more police officers in the next term of government, which was in line with his demands for more police officers in 2017, 2014, and several elections dating back to 1993.
But mostly, Peters talked about the things he would stop. New Zealand First had already warded off a capital gains tax, and would continue protecting New Zealanders from “the envy merchants, who think the solution to every problem lies in your pocket”. He boasted the party had stopped light rail in Auckland. It would not stop stopping things. If elected again, Peters promised to prevent any extra financial burdens from being imposed on superannuitants.
New Zealand First was like a “rock, steadfast against the surging sea,” he said. It would ensure the country didn’t “lurch too far left, or too far right”. Instead it would be safe with Peters, the eye in a storm of attempted progress.
If there was an overarching theme to the speech, it was fear. Fear of outsiders, of criminals, and most of all, of the wrong kind of change. Peters’ foremost aim was to make the case against radicalism. “All great vehicles have a handbrake and an accelerator, and we’re it,” he said.
Fear is a hard sell at the moment though. Most of Peters’ voting base just spent the last 12 weeks in front of the TV being reassured by prime minister Jacinda Ardern. It’s hard to present yourself as a barrier fending off the hordes of political loons when your coalition partner’s biggest selling point is its calm, steady handling of a global crisis. It’s not like Labour’s policy is any more wild than its Covid response either. Though the party’s addiction to incrementalism and dry terror at the thought of doing anything is hated by the left, it’s murder for New Zealand First.
Perhaps as a result, Peters struggled to ignite the crowd in Highbrook. The applause didn’t last long for many of his tried and true lines. Instead the section of his speech that went over best was when he paid tribute to a scheme helping former prisoners get their drivers’ licences. It was one of two genuinely constructive, visionary moments during the afternoon, the other being when Peters decided to walk out to one of the world’s best songs, John Farnham’s ‘You’re The Voice’.
In the press conference following the speech, Herald political reporter Jason Walls mistakenly quoted New Zealand First’s campaign slogan ‘Back Your Future’ as ‘Back To Our Future’. “Read it again slowly,” Peters joked.
But Walls’ Freudian slip was in many ways a more accurate slogan for New Zealand First’s pitch. Peters yearned for the past. He repeatedly called a vote for his party an “insurance policy” against the excesses of the “old parties”. In the middle of the conference, he lapsed into an anecdote that hit on his reasons for caution. The Rogernomics of the fourth Labour government had distorted the economy, and left too many people desperate, he said.
“I long for a day when the wages are of a high enough level, and costs are of a low enough level, that people could get by on eight hours a day, 40 hours a week. We were the greatest society on Earth when you could do that,” he said. “Where one income earner could ensure the house, the mortgage, the rates were all paid, and you still had 60 or 70% of your money left over to live on. Now you’ve got people paying 65% per annum and trying to get by on the rest. It’s sheer grinding poverty.”
Who could say Peters was wrong? Anyone south of Judith Collins on the income scale knows the financial pressures he described: the feeling that bills are tightening around them like a vice, forcing them to work longer and harder, to put their children into daycare, to buy Alpine cheese.
But many of things causing of those pressures are huge and seemingly intractable. They’re so entwined with our way of being, they would require the kind of radical solution New Zealand First has always stood against. Peters is good at diagnosing the disease. The problem is he often opposes the potential cure.
How does it help a Māngere family facing “grinding poverty” when you oppose cheap, accessible public transport in their area? How does it help a young family trying to get on the housing ladder when you shoot down financial curbs on the speculators putting property out of their reach? Would that family be happy to hear you’d ruled out dipping into the pockets of the wealthy to help fund their healthcare or their children’s education?
Instead of those big ideas, we have more police. We have caps on immigration. We have Peters’ grin and a grab bag of admittedly funny insults. We have New Zealand First pulling hard on the handbrake.
After about 20 minutes of answering questions, Peters shot that grin one more time and abruptly walked off. He has to be in Invercargill soon for more campaigning. He has a lot of speeches to make if he’s to propel New Zealand First to one more last-minute comeback.
Though it’s another Wellington truism that you should never count Peters out, he has a hard road ahead. Voters already have Labour and, on existing policy, National to turn to if they don’t want too much to happen in the next three years. This is in all likelihood Peters’ last election. It’s true: politics won’t be the same without him. But sometimes change is a good thing.