The incredible shrinking Winston
At 72 years of age, few individuals get offered a fresh, career-defining opportunity. By then, the die has been cast for most of us. Famously though, voters gave Winston Peters the ability to choose who would lead the next government.
In the immediate post-election climate, most of the media speculation focused on points of policy convergence and divergence, and the list of likely demands and concessions. Yet like him or not, Peters has been a major figure in this country’s politics for three decades. This week’s decision defines how his career will be remembered.
In reality of course, Peters only had power up to the point he used it. Having chosen, he becomes just another junior player in anMMP governing arrangement, battling to hold onto any gains he won. Inevitably, his stature will diminish, much like the hapless hero of the classic 1950s science fiction film, The Incredible Shrinking Man. Moreover, the nature of MPP enables voters to penalise any small party (like his) that tries to punch above its weight. It seems safe to assume that come the 2020 election, New Zealand First will be punished by those supporters who feel dismayed by the choice that Peters made this week.
To be fair, Peters faced a genuine dilemma. All too well, he would have known that a choice for National would make him look like a lapsed Catholic returning to the church on his political deathbed. The decades of apostasy with NZ First would virtually disappear in the wake of that choice, if Peters returned to the same fold from which he emerged in the 1970s. By choosing National, Peters would have known he’d end up looking like the centre-right’s version of Jim Anderton, home again to enjoy a few baubles and a couple of vanity projects during twilight’s last gleaming.
The alternative must have seemed just as fraught. Peters and his supporters do have major social and generational differences with both Labour and the Greens. Yet during the negotiations, those differences must have paled in comparison to the obvious similarities between them on more basic policy, to do with New Zealand’s economic sovereignty.
More than anything, Peters is a nationalist. (If he was Spanish, he’d be fighting today to keep Catalonia as part of Spain.) Some of the political forces that he saw as separatist are now no longer in Parliament.
Moreover, the threat that market liberalisation has posed to national sovereignty is now in retreat all around the world, including within the Labour Party.
Given all that, it came down to a difficult choice. By taking a chance with Labour and the Greens, the entire meaning of Peters’ prior decades would change accordingly. Instead of a boomerang arc, Peters’ career would look more like a consistent trajectory into the future. The break he made with National in the early 1990s would remain meaningful.
Ultimately, if Peters had lent his experience to an untried leadership, his career might continue to appear significant. Similarly, Peters would have known full well that his career could become just a footnote in the history of the National Party. All things considered, it must have been a difficult personal decision.