The New Zealand First leader’s po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy re­mains strangely in­dis­tinct.


Win­ston’s po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy re­mains strangely in­dis­tinct.

Ifind it terrifying, and per­haps a lit­tle im­pres­sive, that Win­ston Peters’ ca­reer in pol­i­tics strad­dles five decades, two cen­turies and two mil­len­ni­ums.

Few, if any, politi­cians can make the same claim to per­ma­nence. Holyoake, maybe. Or Ngata. Na­tional’s Nick Smith is near­ing 30 years’ ser­vice, but he can scarcely claim the same in­flu­ence or fame as Peters. The New Zealand First leader re­ally is a man apart. A for­mer Māori Af­fairs min­is­ter, an ex-trea­surer, a two-time for­eign min­is­ter, and, in this Coali­tion gov­ern­ment, an ap­par­ent co­prime min­is­ter.

Is this over­stat­ing the case? Only slightly.

Peters is the gov­ern­ment’s pu­ta­tive deputy, but his say is al­ways the last. Whether on the 90-day “fire at will” law or a cap­i­tal gains tax, Peters’ word is law. The old man is will­ing to stop any­thing, from the very big, like re­peal­ing the “three strikes law”, to the seemingly small, like ban­ning pill test­ing at the sum­mer’s fes­ti­vals. The same power works in re­verse as well. Not only can Peters stop any­thing he dis­likes, he can seemingly se­cure any­thing he does like. The Pro­vin­cial Growth Fund, for ex­am­ple. Or the for­eign min­is­ter­ship. But the weird thing is, for some­one who takes so many stances and has done for so many years, Peters’ pol­i­tics re­main re­mark­ably in­dis­tinct.

What does he want? What val­ues does he cen­tre his de­ci­sions on? What kind of world is he build­ing? The clos­est I can come to an an­swer is that his ide­ol­ogy, such as it is, is based on his pref­er­ence for the world the way it was. You can de­tect this in his gov­ern­ment-mak­ing speech in 2017, telling the coun­try cap­i­tal­ism must re­gain its “hu­man face”. It emerges ev­ery time he de­nounces ne­olib­er­al­ism and the rad­i­cal re­forms of the fourth Labour and Na­tional gov­ern­ments to the na­tion’s econ­omy and so­ci­ety.

For the New Zealand First base, it’s mu­sic to their ears. Peters vot­ers are, af­ter all, the peo­ple who think they went to sleep in one coun­try and woke up in an­other. One mo­ment, state-spon­sored in­dus­tries put thou­sands of peo­ple to work in good, se­cure jobs and the next, those same thou­sands were lin­ing up out­side the lo­cal Winz of­fice. One mo­ment, iwi were more or less in­vis­i­ble and the next mo­ment, they were claim­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars and re­shap­ing re­gional com­mu­ni­ties and economies. Peters an­gles for a time be­fore all of this when work­ers knew their place, bosses knew their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and there weren’t too many up­pity Māori.

You can find this im­per­a­tive to “go back” in the for­eign min­is­ter’s sig­na­ture achieve­ment this term: re­align­ing New Zealand’s for­eign pol­icy with the United States. In a speech at Georgetown Univer­sity, Peters made a not-so-sub­tle plea to the United States to deepen and broaden its en­gage­ment in the Pa­cific. The plea came as New Zealand toes the US line on sen­si­tive is­sues like Huawei and the 5G net­work. It’s quite the dra­matic turn from for­eign pol­icy un­der the last Labour-led gov­ern­ment, when the Cabi­net was keener to walk the tightrope be­tween a great-power China and a su­per­power US rather than, as now, pick­ing a side and jump­ing.

In hind­sight, the US shift was prob­a­bly in­evitable. For­eign pol­icy ex­perts will tell you Peters was close to for­mer US Sec­re­tary of State Con­doleezza Rice in his first go as for­eign min­is­ter. And in a way, this has very im­por­tant im­pli­ca­tions for the 2020 election. Not in that Peters will cam­paign on a for­eign pol­icy plat­form — he’s not that tone deaf — but that he’ll take lessons from the US. Peters, along­side his very clever and very ca­pa­ble chief of staff, Jon Jo­hans­son, prob­a­bly this coun­try’s best ob­server of US pol­i­tics, knows the value of “down bal­lot” is­sues for fir­ing up the base.

This is one rea­son the New Zealand First leader kicked cannabis le­gal­i­sa­tion and euthana­sia to touch. Send­ing the is­sues to a ref­er­en­dum helps pre­serve his frag­ile left-right base mid-term and, more im­por­tantly, fires them up for the next election, en­sur­ing the best pos­si­ble turnout for his party. Noth­ing fires up con­ser­va­tives like a good ref­er­en­dum vote to keep things the way they are. Vin­tage Peters. Ex­pect him, then, to en­ter his sixth decade of ser­vice this year.

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