Winston’s awful start

Bernard Hickey picks through the wreckage of Winston Peters' now infamous news conference on Wednesday and says he should have used the opportunity for some statesmanship in a special place and time, instead of self-indulgent point scoring and abuse.

I was lucky enough not to be at Winston Peters' news conference at the Beehive Theatrette on Wednesday afternoon. Sam Sachdeva and Lynn Grieveson were there for Newsroom and did a great job of reporting and capturing what happened on the day.

But I've had a chance to go back and look at the tape and have a think about what Peters did and what he could have done.

Peters can be a statesman when he wants to be. He can 'go high' when others 'go low'. He proved it repeatedly when he was the Foreign Minister and he is New Zealand's longest-serving Parliamentarian with decades of experience of seeing all the good and bad things about New Zealand's system of governance.

He can be an avuncular and perceptive figure on our political stage with the ability to call out wrongdoing and confront mendacity when he sees it. He is still one of Parliament's best performers.

Peters can choose to build relationships of trust and respect with many, including those in both the National and Labour parties. We have to hope that those relationships built up over many years can stand the test of the intense week or two of negotiations from October 7.

Now for the 'but' ... and it's a big but.

Peters' performance in that news conference on Wednesday was beneath him and served only to feed his small base with the red meat of abusing the media and scoring cheap points. It was self-indulgent, pointless and simply wasted one of the biggest opportunities he has ever had to convince New Zealanders he deserves to be in this position of deciding who will lead our next Government.

It reached its nadir when he called out a journalist as Australian and refused to answer his question for no reason other than he was Australian.

Time and again, he baited journalists and made gratuitous insults mixed in with refusing to answer questions.

It could have been so different. He could have simply said he couldn't disclose his negotiating position until after the counting of the special votes and that he could not say who he would choose. Everyone would have accepted that as a fair stance.

He could have reiterated the policies he took into the election and emphasised his desire to make the country a better place with those policies. They include free tertiary education, a more conventional Reserve Bank Act (that targets employment as well as inflation), more help for regional development and rail, and more police. He could have reassured New Zealanders, businesses and our foreign partners that he would quickly and responsibly form a stable Government, which is no doubt his aim.

Many of New Zealand First's policies are good policies that many more would have voted for if they believed Peters could deliver them and not get distracted by all the other things he has promised and wanted. Voters had no clear idea of how he ranked the priorities of his policies or how much they cost. That stance delivered him the most negotiating flexibility, but also increased the uncertainty in the minds of voters about what they were actually voting for. It was one reason so many went back to National late in the campaign.

The whole press conference was a mess that reinforced that impression that Peters is mercurial, unpredictable and unreliable.

His points about his policies not being covered fairly by the media are simply not credible when for months he has refused to answer detailed questions about the specifics of his policies, including how they would operate and how much they would cost. He cannot claim the media did not cover his policies when he would not say what they were in detail.

The best time to get down and dirty with your opponents is during the game. There was plenty of time for that during the campaign. After the campaign and after the match has finished, that is the time to take a breather and to 'give credit where it is due' and repair stressed relations. He could easily have played the statesman exercising his (now great) responsibility with a sense of calmness and care. Instead he ranted and attacked and dodged and counter-punched.

Wednesday was not the time for self-indulgent point scoring, sneering and repeated obfuscation.

I've laughed along with Winston Peters as much as the next reporter when he has teased them and chastened them about some perceived slight or mistake. He can quickly turn his curmudgeonliness into a beaming smile to lighten the mood, and often does.

But Wednesday was more than the usual banter. It was just plain ugly, bizarre and painful to watch and be in. It made an important part of our democracy (the coalition-building phase after an MMP election) look like a chaotic joke.

New Zealand's Government is no joke and it deserved better from a man who has deserved the Right Honorable tag for his service over decades. He made a mistake choosing to use that first press conference after the election as point scoring and posturing exercise, seemingly for the benefit of his somewhat new caucus gathered at the back of the Beehive Theatrette.

There was plenty of guffawing and sniggering from the back of the room. But there were also a few sideways glances and open jaws all around this wood-panneled room, which by the way has a special place in our democracy. The place mattered as much as the time.

A place that deserved better

It is a place where Prime Ministers stand up and announce tough decisions and respond to criticism. It is where they share stages with other leaders and show off the best of New Zealand. It is a place for statesmen and stateswoman, and for grand moments of state.

I watched John Key resign from that lectern less than 10 months ago with a dignity and a lightness of touch that added a flourish to his nearly nine years in charge. In retrospect from the point of the National Party and, some would say, the nation, it was a timely and necessary.

I watched from the back of that room as a 24 year old Massey University student as David Lange resigned from that same lectern in 1989 after a period of unparalleled division and chaos. He was magnanimous and thoughtful as he handed over to Geoffrey Palmer. He even joked halfway down the aisle as he left that he had changed his mind, milking the moment for the last laugh. He was a statesman, albeit flawed and ultimately unsuccessful.

Both Lange and Key shone on those appearances at that lectern in a way Peters did not this week.

There were no laughs or statesmanship on Wednesday. There was just a cantankerous and short-sighted politician choosing to settle scores and beat up on the media to make himself feel better and look like a heavy in the eyes of his new underlings. It was beneath him and the rest of New Zealand.

We can only hope his performance on Wednesday was an aberration bought on by an intense six-week election campaign without the benefit of nicotine, and that he will be in much better form for that tough week of negotiations starting on October 7 that lead to the eventual formation of a Government that he may be a senior minister in.

(If you think I'm being a little strong on this, have a listen to three even more grizzled and experienced political reporters on that press conference over at RNZ's Caucus podcast, where Guyon Espiner, Tim Watkin and Lisa Owen discussed Peters' performance.)

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