Peters light on policy, heavy on punches as National attacks continue

In a conference address heavy on jabs at National but light on new policy, Winston Peters again offered little to suggest a change of coalition partner is truly on the table come 2020, Sam Sachdeva writes.

Playing your greatest hits on repeat may work for diehard fans, but after enough performances everyone else may start to wonder if you have anything new up your sleeve.

So it seemed with Winston Peters’ closing address to the New Zealand First conference on Sunday afternoon.

Party delegates and curious members of the public lapped up his digs at the National Party and “my friends in the media”, but the speech was largely a retread of his opening address just a day earlier.

There was yet another reference to Steven Joyce’s $11.7 billion fiscal hole, another condemnation of National’s neoliberal tendencies, another boast of how the New Zealand dollar had dropped to a more favourable level for Kiwi exporters.

Notable in its absence was any significant new policy, the second year running where Peters has kept his powder dry - although not without some mixed messages.

The leader had confirmed on Saturday his speech would include a policy announcement, but on Sunday morning his team suggested that would not be the case, only for another U-turn before lunchtime.

What little detail there was in his address was largely reheated - bolstering Kiwibank against foreign competitors, reforming the Resource Management Act, and “growing the country’s wealth” - while a new proposal to encourage more women into the trades, while worthy, seemed both a little antiquated and hardly a centrepiece on which to hang a conference.

In fairness, there were some bold policy remits adopted, such as the proposal to allow a 90-day trial period for employers giving a chance to recently released prisoners and long-term beneficiaries.

But those must still go through the caucus before any formal adoption, and while splashy announcements must be balanced against keeping enough in reserve for election year, Peters and his party risk being portrayed as having little of substance to share.

 New Zealand First's ability to balance out the worst of the left or the right is set to feature heavily in the party's campaign. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

There are fewer question marks over New Zealand First’s election strategy: Peters again touted the party’s ability to act as a spoiler for the more extreme tendencies of Labour and the Greens, a drum he seems set to bang louder and louder in the coming months.

“Our experience is also evident in our ability to prevent the Government from making poor policy choices,” he told the crowd.

“Having listened very carefully to arguments for and against a capital gains tax we said ‘No.’ Remember, we got rid of secondary tax within six months of being Government.”

Of course, Peters is quick to suggest the continuation of the current alliance with Labour is not a fait accompli; in his closing comments, he described New Zealand First as “an insurance for the people of New Zealand against the excesses of either the left or the right”.

But a New Zealand First-National coalition seems more and more unlikely with each barb directed in the latter’s direction - and there were plenty.

Peters continued his bid to transform National’s finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith from a bespectacled nerd into a neoliberal bogeyman, with the mere mention of his name attracting pantomime boos from the audience.

“This is not a business brain, a commerce success, a baron of industry taking over the National Party’s economic spokesmanship, no no – this is the author of published works on Alan Gibbs, Doug Myers and Don Brash – all architects and devotees of the Douglas/Richardson experiment.”

Fake news

He attacked National’s “descent into fake news” through its use of edited parliamentary coverage for attack ads, then took delight in its backdown from a standoff with Speaker Trevor Mallard: “They thought they could bluff it out for three days, then they went home with their tail between their legs.”

There was even time to take delight in the latest threat to Simon Bridges’ leadership.

“With Christopher Luxon’s unseemly entry into politics pressure will build to breaking point, on Bridges, Judith Collins and Todd Muller, as National’s fault lines fight each other over the future leadership of the party.”

Afterwards, Peters, claimed to media: "I don't think I did talk about National so much at all," despite all the evidence to the contrary.

He argued the party could yet learn from its mistakes and return to its glory days, but a shift back to the National Party of the Muldoon era is about as likely as Peters ever admitting he is wrong.

Banking that he can continue his attacks on National while still appealing to a slice of its voters seems a risky strategy, particularly with the party under Bridges still polling in the 40s.

Those attacks seem unlikely to let up - so his caucus colleagues and party members will have to hope his calculations are correct.

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