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 an MMP 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.

‘‘In re­al­ity of course, Peters only had power up to the point he used it.’’

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