Week in Review
Man out of time: Winston Peters and the Kiwi dream
A decade on from Winston Peters' darkest hour, the New Zealand First leader is again facing tough odds to sustain his political career. But unlike his miraculous comeback then, Peters may find it too hard to halt the relentless march of time, Josh Van Veen writes.
"Strictly speaking, New Zealand doesn't exist yet, though some possible New Zealands glimmer in some poems and on some canvases. It remains to be created - should I say invented - by writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers; even a politician might help - and how many generations does that take?"
- Allen Curnow, 1945
Comment: In July 1993, some two thousand New Zealanders gathered at Alexandra Park in Auckland for the launch of an exciting new political party. The party's charismatic leader described his followers as "relegated, denigrated and forgotten". He promised to restore their dignity and lead the nation back to greatness.
Looking back, it felt as if time had stopped in that moment for Winston Raymond Peters. Prime ministers have come and gone, but he has remained the one constant in our national politics. But in 2019 – "the year of delivery" – time has finally caught up with him.
We easily forget that ten years ago, Peters was a political failure – besieged by allegations of financial impropriety, censured by Parliament, and rejected by voters. Election night 2008 should have been the end of Peters’ career. Most thought it was. And for a time, Peters disappeared from public life altogether, with his party in disarray.
New Zealand First members gathered on Valentine's Day 2009 to discuss their future in a room at the Pakuranga Library, of all places. Those who were there have described an intense meeting in which the fallen leader endured open scorn and ridicule. Told to "eat humble pie" by one member, admonished by another for leaving the room without permission, Peters was at rock bottom.
Rumours were circulating about a leadership challenge. Ron Mark, who had served in the New Zealand First caucus since 1996, wanted the job. Deputy leader Peter Brown and others publicly mooted the idea of a co-leadership model.
A small but loyal core of party members and supporters set out to rebuild New Zealand First around its fallen leader. Their plan was audacious. Not only did they intend for Winston Peters to be returned to Parliament, they expected New Zealand First to play a key role in forming the next government.
But none of this came to pass. Peters’ only memorable contribution to the proceedings was an assurance that "all the bills" had been paid. What that meant, exactly, was never made clear. In frustration and despair, Brown announced his resignation from the party and Mark also walked out. Yet, miraculously, this was not the end.
A small but loyal core of party members and supporters set out to rebuild New Zealand First around its fallen leader. Their plan was audacious. Not only did they intend for Winston Peters to be returned to Parliament, they expected New Zealand First to play a key role in forming the next government. But first, the party had to get its own governance arrangements in order.
The party’s annual general meeting and convention went ahead as usual in 2009, with many of the existing office-holders re-elected, including octogenarian president George Groombridge. But turnout and energy were low. Journalists who had reported every utterance of Peters during the campaign now lost interest. New Zealand politics had changed – most would say for the better.
Gone were the old antagonisms of left and right. In the decade since Peters formed New Zealand First, a new ideological consensus had emerged between Labour and National. Few argued for any radical deviation from the status quo. The two major parties were content to govern from the centre, with minimal differences on economic policy, and a generally liberal outlook.
Don Brash’s attempt to upset the status quo in 2005 clearly failed. His successor to the National leadership, John Key was a moderate. Though voters had tired of Helen Clark’s Labour government, the 2008 election did not represent a major shift in attitudes.
Peters was yesterday’s man. His politics were now seen as disruptive and reactionary. Concerns about Maori separatism and immigration became easy to mock. Most New Zealanders simply didn’t care. Foreign ownership did, occasionally, result in a spasm of outrage, but overall these were issues that no longer appeared to elicit a strong response from voters.
In any case, with New Zealand First out of the picture, Labour and the Greens were positioning themselves to take advantage of any backlash in 2011. But Peters and his loyal supporters were unwilling to concede. Garage sales, cake stalls and raffles kept just enough money in the party coffers to make the organisation viable. The odd statement was enough for Peters to remain vaguely in the background of media coverage.
It also helped that, despite his obscurity, the New Zealand First leader continued to register in opinion polls – if only just. There would always be at least two percent of the electorate that apparently wanted him to be prime minister.
It is almost unreal now to think that, once upon a time, this man had been the most popular politician in the country. It is just as surreal to think that the same man was reduced to writing a monthly column for Sky Sports magazine and hanging out for the occasional slot on talkback radio.
Just about any other person would have given up. It is a testament to Peters’ strength of character that, faced with impossible odds, he kept going. The 2011 election proved to be a remarkable comeback in New Zealand political history. In private, Peters was never sure he could do it. But you wouldn't have thought so. Through sheer willpower he persuaded himself, and the country, that New Zealand First was still a significant force in politics.
Political historians may attribute New Zealand First’s late resurgence in 2011 to the infamous tea tape scandal, but the evidence does not support this. On the very day that Key sat down for his cuppa with John Banks, two other significant events happened.
First, TVNZ announced that Peters would be invited to participate in an upcoming leaders’ debate. Second, a poll released by Roy Morgan had New Zealand First on the cusp of five percent. Had the ensuing scandal not happened, it is entirely plausible that Peters would have still carried his party to victory on 26 November.
No one-man band
There is a tendency to see New Zealand First as a "one-man band". While this perception may be accurate in terms of electoral appeal, Peters has never been on his own. No politician could have survived the humiliation and torment Peters endured in 2008 without leaning on others. His was a difficult road back to public life. The question remains: why did so many keep the faith?
Charisma is only part of the answer. For a leader to inspire devotion in their followers they must have something to offer them. The relationship is based on a common identity and shared vision. For Peters and his followers, it is the romantic notion that New Zealand is supposed to be a ‘classless’ society in which anyone who works hard can get ahead – but not to the detriment of others.
Everyone who wants a job has one, and it pays well. The stand-alone house on a quarter-acre is the birth right of every New Zealander. Such a country may never have existed, but it is at the heart of our politics today. Jacinda Ardern evokes it with her "politics of kindness", and so does Simon Bridges when he talks about "the Kiwi way of life".
But more than anyone else, Peters has made our mythological past feel tantalisingly close to reality. He is in a sense living history. A man who doesn’t just remember a simpler time but actually began his political life in a golden era, when the prime minister knew the name of every unemployed person in the country, and nobody went without. Tens of thousands have believed that he alone could take us back to that place.
In a way Peters is the victim of his own appeal: he represents an ideal that can never be realised.
With each ministerial warrant, Peters has come up against the impossibility of this feat, yet his supporters have forgiven him. There has always been the feeling that, like King Lear, Peters is "more sinned against than sinning". In a way he is the victim of his own appeal: Peters represents an ideal that can never be realised.
Whether it is the Provincial Growth Fund or the foreign buyer ban, the objective eludes us. New Zealand has got no closer to its egalitarian dream. If there is any blame on his part, it is Peters’ failure to recognise the power he holds on the national imagination – a power that goes unused in office. This time around, we may not forgive him.
As the great New Zealand poet Allen Curnow wrote: "Time trips up all but the humblest of heart." Peters and his advisers should remember that.
* Josh Van Veen is a former member of New Zealand First and worked as a parliamentary researcher to Winston Peters from 2011 to 2013. His employment with the party was terminated by mutual agreement in August 2013 following a dispute, but he remained involved with the party organisation until 2016.