I should haveÂ realizedÂ that once I turned my jaundiced eye on Labour and National and started spouting my biased opinions about them I would have to “analyze”Â the rest of the denizens of the NZ political ecosystem. So here we go.
Itâ€™s been nearly 40 years since Winston Peters first entered parliament as an MP (1978) and over 40 since he entered politics (joining National in 1975).
In that time he has run the gamut of politics many times and held almost every position in government imaginable (MP, party leader, cabinet member, Minister, opposition MP, leader of party with no seats) as well as been investigated (and cleared) by the Serious Fraud Office, censured by parliaments privileges committee and been the recipient of secret donations from wealthy businessmen.
The man was also the instigator of Winebox Inquiry, fought and squabbled with more than one Prime Minister, been exiled from various cabinets, left one political party, formed one of his own and rumored to be the patron saint of one small special branch of a larger government department.
Winston Peters is the James Brown of New Zealand politics: a skilled and dynamic entertainer who always gives good show but is a dictatorial bandleader who overworked and under paid his backing bands (The Tight Five is to Winston as the Famous Flames are to James) all to enhance his own reputation.
To be sure he (Winston not James) is highly entertaining and rarely fails to provide an entertaining quote or attention grabbing headline but the substance of his actions have rarely lived up to his hype (unlike James) and his effect on politics or NZ as a whole (super gold card aside) is divisive at best and possibly toxic at its worst.
But like him or loath him he has survived many of his friends and critics and seen off more than one challenger to his rule of NZ First. At its simplest Winston Peters is a political survivor.
He survived the 2008 blowout of NZ First which saw many write him off only to come back in 2011 (with a respectable 8% in the polls) and then pull off one of the most astounding upsets in New Zealand Politics by not only breaching the walls of National stronghold Northland but taking it convincingly (over 50%) in his first ever time campaigning there.
But what Winston is really known for and what has made him such an enduring figure on the New Zealand political landscape (one littered with wanna-be greats, has-beens and also-rans along with many forgettable politicians and PMs) is the fact that he has been instrumental in maintaining not one, but two minority governments (National in 1996 and Labour in 2005) in their hour of need and in doing so set them up for their later defeat by allowing them to succumb to third term arrogance.
Few who lived through 1996 can forget how heated the election campaign got, the visible anger on Bolgers face during his and Peters famous shouting matches. Winston all but pledged on his motherâ€™s grave that he would never go with National and that it was time for a change and then went with National after nearly two months of protracted negotiations haggling in New Zealandâ€™s first ever MMP election; thereby denying Helen Clark the chance to be the first ever female PM and dooming New Zealand to three more years of the National Governments neo-liberal frenzy of privatization, deregulation and Business Round Table gibberish.
Still the glove was on the other foot when in 2005 Winston was back and this time doing what said he would do nine years earlier, supporting Labour in a collation government. But things had changed as it was now Labour that was struggling to maintain its lead and National under Brash managed to get 39% of the vote and would have been government had Winnie gone with his old alma mater like previously. Instead he backed a grateful Helen, got a swag full of political spoil and set Labour up for the very same fall National got when he supported them in 96.
Itâ€™s an interesting counterfactual to consider how things would have been like had Winston gone the other way (Labour in 1996 and National in 2005). Would things have been any different? The persistent and apocryphal myth around Wellington is that in the wake of Nationals disintegration in 99 and the early 2000â€™s Helen Clark was thankful that Winston had gone with National at the time, only forget the warning of history when she turned to him for support in 05 (and suffered the same fate as Shipley and Co).
You would almost think he had done it just for some sort of kinky thrill and with an election in 2017 looming and NZ First currently holding at 9% in the polls Winston may again be in the position to decide who is in power and who is PM. But the hand of support he offers has proven to be short term political expediency followed by long term electoral toxicity.*
But unlike 1996, 2017 will not see National desperately trying to get a third term or deeply unpopular in the polls (not unless John Key is found out to be an extremely skilled chatbot between now and then) and with no clear pretenders to the throne (Labour in disunity at 28% and Greens at 10% would not be enough to do it alone against National at their current polling of 50%) the key figure under current polling projections is the one, and only, Winston Peters.
But there are some complications in the script which Key and National are sure to try and exploit and one of those likely to get exploited if they are not careful will be Winston Peters.
To start, Winston is genuinely opposed to the Greens and has previously mooted going into coalition govt with them. That means that NZ First would not back a Labour government if the Greens were also part of the package. This leaves Labour with the near impossible task of making up the missing support (getting around 40% of the vote) to enable it to form a government with the Greens if NZ First will not support them.
So if Labour cannot get enough support to jettison the Greens (something they would love to do anyway) and Winston will not come to the party and this leaves him with only two options: stay independent or support National (either in coalition or tacitly) because if Labour cannot form a government then John Key will rule for a fourth term by default.
The only alternative to this scenario is that Winston swallows his pride and decides to go into coalition with Labour and the Greens. This is not an impossible scenario but itâ€™s less likely than him rejecting anything to do with the Greens.
It would be an uneasy alliance at best and possibly way too volatile, given Winstonâ€™s track record of grandstanding and political belligerence, to survive for long. The net result of such a coalition collapsing would be an electoral bloodbath as Labour would have blown its golden opportunity to get back into power while National would swoop like rabid wolves on a straggling sheep.
Finally making this all the more toxic is the question of where he is cobbling his votes from. Conventional wisdom would say from National or the undecided middle (Winston is long past having any credible electoral draw on the Left after his betrayal in 96) but I suspect that the rising theme of electoral insurrection in the world today may end up seeing anyone who promises to â€œsmash the pointy headed bastards in the capitalâ€ getting increased vote share based purely on their angry rhetoric, push button messaging and opposition stance. Which is a situation tailor made for Winston Peters.
Winston extracted maximum gain for himself in both 96 and 05 but failed to see out a single governmental term in the governments he kept alive (probably because his support was only a superficial fix for deeper structural problems). In 98, after Jenny Shipley ran her noisy coup on Jim Bolger in public (in direct opposition to National Party tradition of keeping the bloodletting behind closed doors), Winston was kicked from cabinet due to endless squabbling with her and promptly took his toys (read support for government) and went home.
In 2005 he was rather quicker in the courtship but wanted a lot more bling to walk down the aisle only to turn out to be a lethal political liability as he was engulfed in various dodgy scandals that left his legacy in tatters (except for the devout worship in the afore mentioned section of government and the horse racing industry which reaped a financial windfall from his tenure as Minister for Racing which continues to this day) and saw NZ First go below the five percent threshold and Winston get driven out of his long term seat of Tauranga.
In the wake of all this many said that it was the end of Winston but he said it was not and vowed to return. And surprise surprise he was right, after a comeback in 2011 he expanded that in 2014 and then stole Northland from National in 2015.
And if the 2017 election rolls around and current polling continues then the man who may decide the outcome will be the same man who previously keep alive two struggling and unpopular governments in the face of calls for change.
Out of such a situation Winston may walk like a phoenix from the fire; the comeback kid and kingmaker again squarely in the middle and ready to decide the fate of NZ. What his price may be and what costs will be borne by the country are yet not known but the man is no fool and he will have gauged the coming mood well (as his electoral Blitzkrieg in Northland showed) and be playing to get maximum gain for himself.
It would be incorrect to label Winston a simple populist (or demagogue) but neither is he a democrat or man of the people. Any benefits accrued by the electorate from his presence in government are mostly secondary to keeping him in politics. He is a one man political brand and when he does decide to get out of the game NZ First will on death watch but NZ politics will be a lot less colorful.
* â€“ Iâ€™m not really blaming Winston for the political degradation of both Labour and National in modern times but it makes an interesting hypothesis.