Winston’s last stand
Update: After this story first appeared on Newsroom, NZ First MP Richard Prosser emailed his view of the controversy that saw him demoted. The text of the email is republished at the foot of this page.
Winston Peters held a rally in central Auckland two days before the general election and a few dozen people braved the blustering wind and the blustering politician.
If you were generous, and counted passersby, the media, all the NZ First people from its bus with placards and pedestrians waiting to cross Quay St at the lights, you might have counted 80 people in the New Zealand First leader's general vicinity.
It was billed as a rally to Save the Waterfront and Peters' brief remarks talked up his long-term, uncosted plan to move the Port of Auckland north to Whangarei, in his new seat of Northland. He promised a world-class cruise ship terminal for Auckland "without the state house", referring to the Michael Parekowhai work on Queen's Wharf. And he conflated his port plans with the current aviation jet fuel supply crisis caused by a broken pipeline in his patch, at Ruakaka.
There was no apology on behalf of the person from the north, perhaps a Peters' constituent, who brought Auckland's flight schedule to its knees, but lots of brickbats for National for having allowed this disaster-in-his-own-lunchtime-rally.
"We are going to give Aucklanders their waterfront back" he concluded, bringing the rally to a juddering pause not much more than 15 minutes after the scheduled start time.
So Peters, 72, asked for questions.
First up was immigration and he ran through his signature lines on cutting net migration; then whether he favoured a new national anthem (he'd put it to a referendum: "I've never heard anyone sing it at 12 o'clock in a pub"), what he'd do as Prime Minister ("talk to some of my friends in the media"), something about David Seymour dissing the Falun Gong Chinese movement ("I could not bear to be the puppet of some other political party") the Resource Management Act, costs of elderly care, Seymour's euthanasia bill ("these sorts of decisions should be made by every adult on the Electoral Roll not a boy scout from the Act Party"), and his beloved Super Gold Card ("If the ferry is going to Motutapu, I'll get you there. Twice a month? No problem").
Peters' messages were a bit of a grab bag and his answers in the question session were, to be polite, random.
The questions moved onto Labour's water tax but Peters warned the crowd it ought to be worried about National's tax on water. "It's secret and nobody's talking about it. It's already happening on Lake Taupo and the Waikato River."
A query on tax-free thresholds prompted Peters' memory to dredge up Roger Douglas and his introduction 30 years ago of a Family Support payment "as the economy went to crap". "That brought more dependence than this country has ever seen." New Zealand First would bring in a $20-an-hour minimum wage and cut company and exporters' taxes to grow the economy.
Last, and most aptly farcical, was a question on why Queen St in this Super City had just one public toilet - a Superloo. "It's not a super city," Peters said. "It was imposed by a man named John Key and he got a guy called Rodney Hide and now we've got these problems."
He had one last message for the dispersing mini-crowd. "Ring up your friends and get out and vote and turn these polls into confetti on election night."
As a Peters performance, it was strangely off-key. He was as poised on the outside as ever, all cufflinked, coiffed and highly polished shoes. But the event seemed last-minute and disconnected. His messages were a bit of a grab bag and his answers in the question session were, to be polite, random. He paused at times reaching for words and his promise to get the Super Gold Card man across to Motutapu twice a month for free was the stuff of parody.
Sitting in the One News-Colmar Brunton poll at five percent, and Newshub's poll at 7.1 percent, down from the heady days of 11s to 13s in July, it is tempting to say the great campaigner might be fighting one campaign too many. He is certainly the general fighting the last war, and the one before that and all the ones back to his arrival in Parliament nearly 40 years ago after an Electoral Petition to the High Court.
It has been an unusual campaign for NZ First. Jacinda Ardern's coronation as Labour leader ruthlessly pillaged support Peters' party had won by default from Andrew Little's unpopular reign. Then he blew a chance to go public with his seven year over-payment of superannuation, by his own admission knowing the political damage if it got out, and his secret deal to pay the money back broke on Newsroom.co.nz and Newshub.
National's attacks on Labour's water tax in the regions would also have cut into NZ First's vote.
The perceived wisdom, which would help Peters' desire to turn the polls into confetti on election night, is that NZ First always ends up higher than the late polls before election day.
Beyond those obvious factors, however, NZ First's sinking feeling might have been exacerbated by Peters' refusal to join multi-party leaders' debates. Pride, probably, getting in the way of the lifeblood of campaign publicity. Then NZ First's list decision to put its star signing Shane Jones at number eight looked like it wasn't serious about drafting in this top talent. Jones is soldiering away in an electorate fight in National's Whangarei stronghold but has largely disappeared from view nationally, bar a grumpy attendance at The Spinoff's MP debate.
Peters' erratic behaviour in an interview with Morning Report's Guyon Espiner, where he declared his own party website policy on GST on food to be wrong and condemned the interviewer's 'policies', began singing a song and had his man fetch a document from the boot of his car parked outside, has fuelled speculation on his focus.
His suggestion that men could be incentivised to have prostate examinations by somehow making it a condition of eligibility for payment of tax refunds raised more than eyebrows.
And the summary political execution of MP Richard Prosser, a friend of Peters' deputy Ron Mark, seemed whimsically brutal when the list placings were announced, even accounting for Prosser's wrongly saying NZ First would nationalise power companies.
As Ardern and National leader Bill English have soaked up the campaign and polling oxygen, Peters seemed to retreat for too long at times to his Northland base.
Now, his party sits at around half the support it had two months ago in some polls. It will still make it to Parliament, as Peters should hold his seat, but Shane Jones' return to Parliament off the list might be in doubt unless that 6-7 percent is achieved.
He should expect a call from Bill English on Saturday night and meetings soon after. It could be Ardern but less likely now. As Fairfax writer Jo Moir points out in this excellent piece on stuff.co.nz this morning, Peters himself views this as his and his party's last big chance. Asked what drove him to stay in the game, he says: "Frankly of late I've been asking myself that question because we're coming to an election and I kind-of think it's now or never."
Moir reports Peters and English have a mutual respect but there is no relationship between Peters and Ardern "because they've never actually had a one-on-one conversation."
When his party was riding high at the time of its national convention in June, Peters was asked on TV3's The AM Show why his party had sourced its NZ First logo T-shirts from China - of all places. Peters said he was up the front, flying the plane, not back in the cabins dealing with matters like that in the kitchens. So this campaign was on Peters' flight path.
The perceived wisdom, which would help in his desire to turn the polls into confetti on election night, is NZ First always ends up higher than the late polls before election day. That can't always happen, particularly with the two major parties muscling up votes.
If it does, it will surely be off an unnecessarily low base. Things moved fast in this campaign. Was the former Auckland University rugby player just a yard or two short of pace?
You'd have to say, given he will be 75 next campaign, that we are watching him make his last stand.
Richard Prosser responds:
Just for clarity, my statement concerning the re-nationalisation of power company shares was not wrong as your otherwise splendid article proclaims.
Perhaps the Member for Northland had simply changed his mind and not bothered to tell anyone else. Or perhaps he had forgotten our established and agreed position. Or perhaps he simply forgot that he’d changed his mind.
Recent behavioural trends lead me to suspect that any of the above are possibilities.