Politics

What will Winston do? The lessons of ’96 tell us he might go with Ardern

To find out which side Winston might swing toward, Branko Marcetic takes a hard look at what he did before – specifically the campaign and aftermath of the 1996 election.

For the third time now in his career, Winston Peters is going to decide which party will govern New Zealand for the next three years. From just about every every indication, it appears he’d be crazy to choose National.

Consider the facts. Among the party’s rank-and-file, there is a visceral dislike for and mistrust of the party of John Key and Bill English. A number of his party’s policies, such as writing off student loans for graduates who remain in New Zealand a certain number of years, would be non-starters under a National government. There’s also the fact that, as with previous elections, Peters has spent this year savaging the “neoliberal experiment” of 1984, the foremost proponents of which today are National. And at this year’s New Zealand First party conference, he used his speech to rail about how National’s policies had left the poor and middle class behind, and proceeded to personally insult virtually every National MP in Cabinet by name.

Choosing National would make little sense. Right?

That’s exactly what observers would’ve said back in 1996, when Peters was in the same position, and had just gotten done with a bruising, nasty year of campaigning that had seemingly left his already strained relationship with National and its leader, Prime Minister Jim Bolger, in tatters. It pays to look back to just how nasty that election had been.

It didn’t help, first of all, that Bolger had sacked Peters from Cabinet back in 1991, ultimately leading to his resignation from the party and his decision to set up New Zealand First in 1993. The two were not exactly off on the right foot from the get-go.

Then there was the fact that the two parties’ policies were diametrically at odds. National, then at the height of its devotion to the market, had spent the previous six years embarking on a flurry of asset sales, and had saved its most radical reforms for the healthcare system (Don Brash’s words, not mine), putting it on the path to wholesale privatisation.

NZ First and Peters, by contrast, railed against asset sales and talked about buying privatised forests back, shook their fists at foreign investors, and campaigned on rolling back National’s healthcare reforms. It was less oil and water and more fire and ice.

There was also the constant, year-long sniping between the two. Bolger repeatedly accused Peters, then in the middle of a particularly virulent anti-immigration campaign, of racism. “He leads the racist party,” Bolger said, before thanking God that Peters had left National. He called Peters’ “use of Asian migration as a political weapon” the “most despicable development in politics,” and accused Peters of running “the oldest, grubbiest, and most despicable” campaign the country had seen in some time. Peters had “shown that he can have a view on every subject, on all sides of every subject, depending on the day of the week or the year,” he said. At one point, Bolger called Peters racist three times in Parliament, for which he was told off by the Speaker.

Bolger wasn’t the only one. Finance Minister Bill Birch likened NZ First’s economic policy to “dipping into a chocolate box” because “their policies are all soft in the centre.” National MP Joy McLauchlan said that she appreciated that Bolger “is not a racist, unlike some politicians who seem to think playing the race card is a sexy way to improve poll ratings.”

Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer Winston Peters leaves the New Zealand First Caucus following the announcement that Jenny Shipley is to take over from Jim Bolger as Prime Minister. (Photo by Barry Durrant/Getty Images)

Peters and NZ First gave as good as they got. Peters called Bolger a “bucolic hick,” “an imbecile,” “thick,” and “not fit for the job.” He called National “a party of betrayal,” and complained that Birch was running the economy even though his “total qualifications are in measuring the density of concrete.” He charged that Bolger would compromise anything to stay in power, that National had no soul, “and a party without a soul is a party that can never be trusted.” He termed National and its coalition partners – ACT and the Christian Coalition – the “toxic trio.”

In fact, even though Peters maintained that as the country’s “only centre party” NZ First had “options” come election day, he gave every indication that he wouldn’t go with National. “National will be out come the next election for certain,” he said in February 1996. “Of course I am not keen on National,” he said four months later. “Who is?” Tau Henare, NZ First’s deputy leader, said he couldn’t serve in a coalition where Bolger was PM, Birch was finance minister, and Jenny Shipley was minister of social welfare, which Peters confirmed was official party policy (though later said it was purely a personal position they shared). “If you want National out, vote New Zealand first,” Peters implored in late September.

Even as he maintained right up until the end that NZ First would do a deal with any party that gave it 95% of what it wanted, a week out from the election Peters declared that National was “heading for opposition,” and that “National will not win this election, that they will not form part of any post-election coalition.” The day before voting began, Peters said that the country had been through 12 years of broken promises and betrayal, that “New Zealanders are rightly cynical about politicians,” and that NZ First would never negotiate away its “soul.”

With the bad blood between Peters and Bolger, and an eleventh hour surge in the polls for Helen Clark and Labour, on October 10 (two days before the vote), The Age ran the headline: “New Zealand set to get first female PM.”

Of course, that’s not what happened. Instead, Peters took more than an unbearable month flirting with both parties, Bolger lured him with the dual positions of deputy PM and the hastily invented post of Treasurer, and Peters extracted an apology from Bolger for calling him racist. National was in power for another three years.

The headlines screamed betrayal. “Politicians should never be trusted,” blared the Waikato Times. “Peters returns old foe to top job,” declared the Dominion. “Incredible gall, even for a politician,” read the Daily News in New Plymouth, after the coalition agreement was revealed to say not much at all about foreign investment and immigration.

Of course, that coalition was largely disastrous for both the party and Peters, as NZ First failed to get most of its policy wish-list enacted, and the cynical betrayal of voters sent both the party and its leader’s popularity plummeting. This would seem to suggest Peters wouldn’t repeat the experience. One former NZ First MP who served in the unstable coalition told me Peters will probably choose Labour this time around as “he’s more likely, with a young, inexperienced leader such as Jacinda, to have greater influence there as opposed to going with his old buddies who shafted him last time around.”

Then again, Peters had a far, far more toxic relationship with Bolger and the ‘96-era National party than English and National’s current iteration, and he still gave them the keys to the car for another three years. Ultimately, only Winston knows what Winston will do – just don’t be surprised if he surprises you.

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