Peters breaks habit of a lifetime

Two months to go until the election and Winston has called it. 

Going against years - decades - of telling the media it is disrespectful to claim a result in advance of the people actually having the right to vote on election day, the New Zealand First leader is claiming:

"This time, in our 24th year, we are going to transform the electoral system. We will be, most definitely, the Government."

No ifs, buts, or maybes in his climax to the party's convention finale on Sunday in Manukau. No more "let's just wait until the people have voted". And there was no hedging on the cross-benches,  just doing confidence and supply support for someone else or choosing to sit-out governing entirely.

Winston Peters had started the day telling Corin Dann on TVNZ's Q&A programme: "Report what I say and not what you think I say, and you and I are going to get along just fine."

So let's go with that. Those clear, unambiguous words winding up a tradesmanlike speech at the conference should be taken for what they are.

Signs of over-confidence and over-reach? Is he believing all the media coverage about him having a path to the Prime Ministership?

Buoyed by polls showing his movement at 10 or 11 percent and Labour stuck in the mid to late 20s, he now says New Zealand First can become the major party his organisation has never been before. Even at peak in 1996, with 17 MPs, the party was a big minor. 

The "we'll be the government" line was not a one-off. He'd told Dann New Zealand First would achieve a result higher than anyone has anticipated.

"This is a fight between three different movements - National, New Zealand First and the Labour-Greens combination. This is a fight, a battle for New Zealand and we intend to win it."

Peters will have talked big before, no doubt. His party has tended to build its share of the vote during election campaigns, from, say three percent to get over the five percent threshold or five to 8.66, which they hit in 2014. 

Now the party sits, in the polls that Peters says we should not read too much into, at 10 or 11. 

It doesn't automatically follow that the New Zealand First surge can happen again from this new polling figure, going into a campaign - that 10 will translate to 14 or 15 or 20 or (National's current) 45 percent.

The likelihood is that within the current 10 percent is already baked-in the Peters' base - those who dislike the "shiny-bums", "latte-sippers", "fart-blossoms" and "politically correct" who look down upon them, those who oppose "mass immigration", those who want "one law for all", those who still talk about July 14 1984 as the start of a 33-year neoliberal economic experiment.

How many more of them are there? In 2014 New Zealand First won 208,000 votes. At that 1996 peak New Zealand First won 276,000 votes and 13.3 percent of the vote, its highest share by a wide margin.

In the seven elections it has contested, the party has won 17, 5, 13, 7,0, 8 and 11 seats. Hardly a reason to expect it to suddenly break out and "be, most definitely, the government".  

Remember, too, that when New Zealand First hit peak in 1996, New Zealanders were trying out their new electoral toy, MMP.  They gave the ACT party eight seats, for goodness sake.  Jim Anderton's Alliance took 13.

New Zealand First also had the benefit then of winning five Māori electorates, territory from which it has long retreated.

In his triumphal speech at the weekend Peters announced a policy for a binding referendum to ask New Zealanders if they even want to retain those Maori electorates. It is one of two proposed referenda, the other being on whether the total number of MPs should fall from 120 to 100.

Those were his big announcements, touted informally and probably tongue-in-cheek the day beforehand as "explosive". Both are policies in the negative, asking the public: Do you want to take something away?

Peters himself, at 72, mixed his predictions of victory with many of his old stump speech lines. There was plenty about 'they' and 'them' looking down on New Zealand First's people. Much about "Wellington", as if he hadn't been there in Parliament for 33 of the past 39 years and served as a cabinet minister in three governments.

He criticised the media, but had the courtesy to welcome journalists, label them '"my friends in the media" and when attacking media coverage to offer an olive branch - "present company excluded".  There was one raw nerve. Something had plainly happened after his appearance on Saturday on TV3's The Nation show. Peters lashed out at commentators who wouldn't level their criticisms to his face and said such people should be "eliminated."  Catching himself, he cleared up what he meant to say - "not entirely, but eliminated from the social discourse." 

He wheeled out a signature quote from Muhammad Ali he's been using for 30 years at least - the one along the lines of: if you even dream you can beat me, you'd better wake up and apologise. Oddly, we were spared the use of his most delivered career punch line - the Little River Band's song title  "Hang on Help is on its Way".

The speech tried to do five things: to debunk an approach Peters thinks National will adopt, of talking about "stable government" as its reason to be re-elected; to highlight National's lack of responsible governing and pin it with being for the "few" over the many; to defend New Zealand First against criticisms of racism, pining for nostalgia and being luddites; promise the two referenda and a change of the Crown's bank from Westpac to Kiwibank; and to predict a New Zealand First triumph.

One part of the speech was classic Peters. "We are asking New Zealanders to think for a moment not about 'support' but 'trust'.  When did they last have a leader you could actually trust?"

Someone, he mused, "who when you are away, knows where your secret key cubby hole is."  That was the sort of person the country needed to lead it now.

Peters, who infamously held up a No sign in telling the public his party had not taken money from tycoon Owen Glenn when it had and was hauled over the coals by Parliament's privileges committee and voted out of Parliament in disgrace in 2008, did not have the hide to explicitly say he, Peters, was that leader you could trust. It was just left there, hanging.

But he told the 500-strong crowd (a New Zealand Herald advertisement on the Saturday helping swell the conference's audience numbers) that he agreed with his new recruit, ex Labour minister Shane Jones that "There's something in the air".

Mixing his metaphors, he said the party needed to have "every plane in the air to win and save this country's future."

"Do not think anyone who isn't reasonable will give us a fair go. They haven't so far and they are not going to start now."

But he felt the response from other parties, the commentators and critics was a compliment. "The frenetic scare-mongering and fear out there about New Zealand First is a compliment.

"They have had it all their own way for too long and all of a sudden what's staring them in the face is that... what they are doing is bad and evil and it is going to be stopped."

He finished with where this story started, the big prediction. "So spread the word. This time, in our 24th year, we are going to transform the electoral system and we WILL BE MOST DEFINITELY THE GOVERNMENT."

The day beforehand he'd told The Nation that he observed the old maxim of "Don't count your chickens before they hatch".  

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