Election 2020

Winston Peters readies for his date with destiny

The polls and pundits are predicting the demise of New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and his party, but he has no plans to surrender or retire from politics, Dileepa Fonseka writes

For many of Winston Peters' supporters, the vote they cast this election was set in stone the day he picked Labour over National - and he knows it.

"There you are on election night and you know that the preference of the party - if the poll was to be taken that night - could be almost 60-40, 55-45, it could be 50-50," Peters says.

"In the end though, none of those people are going to be in the room where we have to thrash out the negotiations. So you're asking people to trust you, and if they don't, well you can't do much about it."

Was it worth it? New Zealand First hasn't met the 5 percent threshold for re-entry to Parliament in any poll since February, while an electoral back door looks unlikely to open, with a recent poll in Northland showing the party's candidate Shane Jones well behind both National's Matt King and Labour's Willow-Jean Prime.

"I know what we're up against, but it's very motivating. And on election night we're going to see who got it right and who got it wrong," Peters says.

The New Zealand First leader is speaking to Newsroom during the last week of Labour's coalition with the Greens and his party, in what may prove to be the last week of its parliamentary presence altogether.

At 75 years old, Winston Peters will have to stage a 'comeback kid' routine as a 78-year-old if he has to sit out this term and fight his way back into Parliament next time.

A handbrake left on too long?

New Zealand First has often proven to be an easy target for the opposition of the day. During Jim Bolger's last term, Labour MPs lampooned the instability the party had wrought during the country's first MMP government.

A few terms later when Helen Clark was in the driving seat, National politicians had a field day over the Owen Glenn allegations that led to Peters resigning his ministerial post.

That's the way of New Zealand First - thus far it has never made it to a second term in government.

This time, it's been Peters' role as a 'handbrake' that's attracted the most criticism. Outwardly he's been determined to give capitalism a "human face", but at Cabinet he's pushed back on his coalition partners' agenda of a capital gains tax, Auckland light rail, pandemic-related commercial rent relief, a vehicle feebate scheme to encourage new electric vehicle purchases, benefits for jobless migrants, and cameras on fishing boats (to name just a few).

Yet he insists he's more than just a handbrake.

"Hang on. Hang on. How come you've got the narrative - half of it - backend first, first? We've said we're an accelerator for good ideas and a handbrake for bad ideas.

"You've gone straight to the bad ones. Can you go to the accelerated ones? I can tell you the ones we've accelerated. Just like that."

Like what?

"I'm sorry, it's confidential. I'm not going to break the confidence of the Prime Minister, when she comes and thanks me personally down here for doing things that I don't have to do because it's not part of the deal."

Peters' relationship to Ardern is important to him. He wears the respect he's earned from other prime ministers, like Bolger and Clark, with pride.

"The Prime Minister - after all these comments in the media - says she trusts me. So did Helen Clark and she will swear to that. And so did Jim Bolger.

"Three prime ministers saying they trust Winston Peters maybe belies the narrative that's going out there from my enemies and some in the media."

Peters says when coalition talks began, Ardern was the bigger risk than Bill English. She was inexperienced and had spent no time as a minister before that. 

"I didn't know her. She didn't know me, but in coalition talks when things are deadly serious you get to know what motivates some people. 

"And that doesn't mean I end up agreeing with Jacinda Ardern on a lot of things or, dare I say it, vice versa, but it does mean we can shake hands and work together and get things done."

The Prime Minister has been at her best when she's been tested by the "exigencies of the moment" whether it be the volcanic eruption on Whakaari, the March 15 attacks, or the Covid-19 pandemic. 

"People will write books in the future about it. Whether we made all the right decisions. The answer is as to some we don't know, only history will say.

"She understood that the exigencies of the moment required a certain response and our discussions supported that."

He hasn't had to worry much about friendly fire from the government benches this term. Ardern has stuck by him, but his ability to kill proposals has begun to outwardly grate the other coalition partner in government.

"I've enjoyed working with James Shaw on many things, but frankly I do feel sorry for him," Peters says, making very little effort to suppress a grin from ear to ear as he takes an unprompted pop at the Greens.

"I sympathise with James big time, but he wants to talk about instability - remember which leader had to go at the last election and two members of Parliament resigning there and then?... so let's not have anybody talking about chaos unless they're looking in the mirror."

The Greens were only grumbling now because they didn't do their homework and get everything set down in their coalition agreement. 

"I went to great trouble in our coalition negotiations to get what we wanted to get.

"The fact that another party didn't do that, has a very loose arrangement, and tried to get it done after the contract is signed - that's no reason for them to criticise us."

So are the jibes between Shaw and Peters evidence of friction in the coalition Government that's been bubbling away in the background? People who say that don't know how MMP works, he maintains.

"The media hasn't seen friction or fracture or anything else. What they've seen is two parties that were a long way apart on many things, but decided to come together in the interests of stable government.

"And stable government we've had above all else."

Peters repeats the word "stable" and its variant "stability" a lot. It is what he believes his party has delivered to the governing arrangements above all else.

By his reckoning, this current arrangement is the first true MMP government to have been formed. His other arrangement with the last Labour government was a confidence and supply one with his foreign affairs portfolio sitting outside of Cabinet. 

Other MMP governments have involved a dominant National Party which gobbled up its minor supporting parties or dominated coalition arrangements with their own demands. 

He credits that stability with allowing them to deliver 2200 new police officers. Assign more money to the Defence Force for its $20 billion programme. Provide free doctor visits for under-14-year-olds and free eye/health checks for those over 65 (delivered on their SuperGold card of course). 

However, others say the price of that stability has been stasis on some big policy decisions - with immigration near the top of the list.

Before Covid-19 hit, New Zealand First's tough talk on slashing immigration had not translated into meaningful action. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

For the first time in history, the country hasn't been able to come up with a planning range target for the New Zealand Residence Programme, despite two out of the three government parties going to the election promising to drastically cut immigration. 

"We gave the Labour Party a year to deliver on their promise. You remember they campaigned using Chinese names for a reduction of up to 30,000 right? We were asking for far more than that, but we said: 'Okay let's have a compromise then, let's settle for that'." 

Until Covid-19 started affecting migration flows, the Government was issuing an average of 28,584 temporary work and student visas per month - 25 percent more than its National predecessor's average of 22,942 a month.

While they were flowing in, the Government cut the residency target to an interim figure of effectively 37,000 per year. That expired at the end of last year, and the parties were never able to come to an agreement on a new one.

That indecision has led to one of the largest backlogs of residency applications in this country's history, with nearly 38,787 skilled migrant applications sitting in the queue at the end of June.

If Peters is back in government, the job for coming up with a new target could very well be his: he has set the immigration portfolio as a bottom line for any future coalition agreement. 

The party is going to the election with an immigration target of 15,000, higher than the target of 10,000 it set last term. 

"We've been left with a legacy where there was no effort to up-skill and retrain people. In essential services, will we need to get people from offshore? Most definitely if we want to finish the projects."

However, with the borders shut and quarantining capacity full to the brim, getting migrants into the country might prove to be a more pressing need than keeping them out - something Peters himself acknowledges.

"We've been left with a legacy where there was no effort to up-skill and retrain people. In essential services, will we need to get people from offshore? Most definitely if we want to finish the projects."

That may include being a bit more flexible on salary levels for incoming migrants, with Peters describing the income test as a "crude mechanism" despite former Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway favouring it as a proxy for skill level. 

And what about those people already here on temporary visas? Peters doesn't think they've been dealt with fairly by past governments. 

"This ability to come as a student and stay was in response to failures in export education and in particular not delivering the product they promised, seriously letting down this country, because when this thing began in the mid 1990s it was based on quality export education.

"We didn't keep our word."

His party was the only one that had taken that stance with regard to a group of 470 Indian students who were sheltered in Ponsonby's Unitary Church, but deported by the last National government after their education provider collapsed.

"Instead of dealing with them fairly and giving them the right to stay - because the system had let them down, which is our responsibility - we sent them home. One party said this was wrong.

"We want the system fixed up."

'I'm the last surviving member of the conservative movement'

A unique characteristic of this Government has been the slow trickle of Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) announcements. A shellfish aquaculture project on the Chatham Islands one day, the upgrade of a drug rehabilitation facility in Northland the next.

New Zealand First has delivered a lot of money on paper for Northland and other regions through the PGF, but critics have panned it for the slow roll-out and for a lack of proper controls in place.

The fund does have some major advocates. Talk to mayors and council chief executives in the regions, and they're grateful for a funding stream that can be used for infrastructure projects that aren't local roads or state highways, and whose benefits aren't nationally significant.

"So many places where they've been asking for years, never thought they'd ever get somebody to say yes," Peters says.

"Two years basically is a pretty short time to get action out there."

Northland voters don't seem likely to show their gratitude at the polls if this past weekend's Q+A Colmar Brunton poll is anything to go by. 

The poll has proven to be good news for the National Party showing that even though the election is likely to weaken their party it could eliminate NZ First from the political landscape altogether. 

Predictably, Peters has few kind words for the National Party, which has historically gone out of its way to rule him out of most coalition governments it might be involved in.

He believes National hasn't adapted to an MMP coalition environment where the biggest party might not get everything it wants. And he's still fuming about its actions after the global financial crisis, when the government halted contributions to the Cullen Fund, then borrowed large amounts of money for bailouts and tax cuts.

"This is the first conservative group in the world I know who is against savings.

"Maybe I'm the last surviving of this conservative movement in this country when it comes to responsible conservatism, but it ain't in the National Party."

Have things changed in the shaky post-Todd Muller era where the future of the party as the largest in Parliament looks seriously in doubt? Haven't they learnt their lesson?

"I think Judith has. I think the rest of them haven't."

Peters is not saying never of course. He never does.

He says on election night you might end up "spitting tacks that you have ended up with a certain sort of malignant circumstance", but you still have to do your best to form a government even if you don't like your potential coalition options.

Outwardly at least, Peters is supremely confident he'll be in the position to make that sort of decision again. He hasn't made any retirement plans.

"I've not even considered and have no need to.

"In fact, we're going to have another date with destiny."

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