NZ POLITICS DAILY: The Infuriating and fantastic Winston Peters

Bryce Edwards

Many hate him. Many love him. Regardless of people’s support for, or opposition to, Winston Peters he’s always fantastically colourful and interesting to most. He’s particularly relevant at the moment, because he’s on track to become the post-election kingmaker. And with Labour rebuffing the Greens’ pre-election coalition proposal in favour of being more attractive to New Zealand First after the election, suddenly everyone wants to know Peters’ views on what’s going to happen.

An interviewer’s nightmare
Winston Peters has been appearing on all the major politics shows on TV and radio, and is being interviewed by all the political journalists. You can watch his latest 11-minute interview with TVNZ’s Corin Dann here: Peters – Polls don’t tell the real story.

But are we much the wiser after such appearances? Political broadcaster Rachel Smalley has this week described just how infuriating it is to interview Peters: ‘He is hands down one of the most difficult politicians to interview, exasperating at times. He taunts, he mocks, he keeps you on your toes, and sometimes tips you over. It's a game to him – you ask a question and he will answer in a way where he says a lot but he won't give a definitive position on anything’ – see: Winston shows how to play the politics game

Similarly, TV reviewer Paul Casserly recently described his interviews like this: ‘As a TV spectacle these encounters with Peters are unequalled, like the joy one gets from watching someone attempting to wrestle a greasy pig’ – see: Into the void. Casserly includes a lengthy quote from Peters directed at his inquisitor, Patrick Gower on The Nation: "You say 'you'! Straight away we're back talking about Winston Peters. The New Zealand First Party is having it's 21st birthday in July of this year, which means that we haven't been around because one guy has been running the show himself like a dictator ... In terms of walking away we're not even walking in until we get what we believe New Zealand economically and socially needs ... Paddy look, I'm not going sit here like someone in a star-chamber federal case in the United States while you think you're going to nail me down’. You can watch the original 15-minute interview here: Winston Peters: Asset buy-back 'a priority'.

I’ve got the pleasure of interviewing Winston Peters today at 1pm, as part of the University of Otago’s Vote Chat 2014 series of internet live-streamed events with politicians. You can watch my hour-long interview live on the New Zealand Herald website here. We’re also live-tweeting the conversation, so you can read what’s going on Twitter by following @OUVoteChat

If you’ve got any questions you’d like me to ask Winston Peters, please tweet them using the hashtag #votechat14

I also interviewed Winston Peters in a Vote Chat session at the last election – which you can watch here: Vote Chat 2011: Winston Peters

All eyes on Winston Peters
Peters’ increasing relevance is due to New Zealand First’s improving opinion poll results. The latest five different poll results for the party are: 7.0%; 4.9%; 5.5%; 3.6%; and 5.3%. In addition, the iPredict website has a forecast result of 5.4%.

Writing in the NBR today, Matthew Hooton says: ‘If NZ First gets to 5%, Mr Peters chooses the prime minister.  Increasingly, Mr Peters is tilting towards Labour.  While he loathes the Greens, he knows they have no option but to acquiesce to whatever Labour decides to do.  Co-leader Russel Norman has already announced he has no bottom lines.  Mr Peters can form a government with Mr Cunliffe, insisting the Greens be left out, and there will be nothing Dr Norman and his sidekick Metiria Turei can do about it’.

The Australian Spectator magazine has an overview of the New Zealand election campaign, Key to defeat written by Luke Malpass, which also singles out Peters as the key player: ‘In the upcoming election, what this all means is that a man called Winston Peters, New Zealand’s urbane version of Pauline Hanson but with less principle, could decide, for the third time, who the prime minister will be. Peters’s NZ First Party is a marginal proposition, but if it gets 5 per cent of the vote, there is no electoral maths under which he will not decide who governs’.

And as Rachel Smalley says about Peters, ‘He's surely the wiliest old fox of politics these days and he comes into his own a few months out from an election. He's certainly playing a good game’.

Labour-Greens coalition arrangements
Peters and New Zealand First appear to have become even more important, with Labour’s rebuffing of the Greens’ proposal to form a pre-election coalition. Labour has been quite open about their logic in spurning the Greens: ‘David Cunliffe indicated that such a pre-election arrangement could have posed problems with post-election negotiations with other parties, such as New Zealand First’ – see Audrey Young’s Labour rebuffs Greens plans to get closer. It now seems that the Peters party is replacing the Greens as Labour’s ‘first cab off the rank’. 

Peters himself has responded to the Greens attempt to outmanoeuvre him with the exclusive Labour-Green deal, accusing ‘the Green Party of attempting to destabilise the Labour Party over its approach to Labour for a pre-election coalition agreement’ – see Audrey Young’s Peters takes Greens to task. His language is noticeably more hostile towards the Greens: ‘You have an attempt by one party to destabilise another party by seeming to offer friendship and collaboration in a deal before the election campaign has even started, knowing full well that the other party has not invited that and does not want that. What do you call that? I call it unsuccessful politics’.

Other commentators have also reiterated that Labour’s rebuff of the Greens was all about attracting Winston Peters. Russell Brown explains Labour’s logic: ‘It’s also very likely that any possible centre-left government will require the support of New Zealand First. Is Winston Peters more likely to be wooed into a prospective government that includes the Greens, or one in which he is the wedding guest to a formal Labour-Green coalition? I think the answer is clearly the former’ – see: To be expected

Josie Pagani also points out that the unsuccessful attempt by the Greens to cut Peters out was a hostile act: ‘When a party publicly offers to collaborate with another party and there’s no agreement behind the scenes, that’s not a friendly gesture - that’s an attack’ – see: Labour does not need to promise a coalition with the Greens.

Gordon Campbell is less impressed with Labour’s decision, but also see it as being all about placating and wooing Peters – see: On the failure to create a Labour/Greens alliance

Foreign ownership ban
The major policy announcement that New Zealand First has recently made is about restricting home and land sales to New Zealanders – see TVNZ’s Winston Peters says foreign ownership policy unchanged. The response from National can be seen in the TVNZ report, Winston Peters' foreign ownership policy 'a bit silly' and Audrey Young’s Key disputes NZ First's bottom line on foreign home owners. But Labour has been more receptive – see TVNZ’s Labour backs ban on foreigners buying NZ property.

Matthew Hooton, as usual, is Peters’ harshest critic – see his NBR column, Peters’ promise to restrict land sales can be ignored.

Coalition intentions
Many people want to know what Winston Peters and New Zealand First would do if they’re in the kingmaker position after the election. Would they choose Labour or National? As I’ve explained in another column, Six months for voters to demand coalition transparency, Peters is giving absolutely nothing away. On the recent TVNZ Q+A programme, the panel commented on his reluctance to make any commitments or give details – watch: The Panel on Winston Peters

Rachel Smalley has also commented on this, pointing to his continued ideological ambiguity: ‘He has a foot in both camps at the moment. I think he belongs naturally on the right of politics, but he won't concede that. He never will. … He knows that when support for one of the two main parties wanes, New Zealand First picks up some of that disgruntled vote. He plays both sides. His slogan should be "If you're not happy, then I'm your man. New Zealand First is your party."’ – see: Winston shows how to play the politics game

Finally, with Peters firmly against discussing his post-election possibilities, let alone giving any hints as to which scenarios are more likely than others, the public has to resort to other methods of guessing. So for what it’s worth, the iPredict website lists four post-election possibilities, with traders giving their forecasts about their likelihood:

1) NZ First to use balance of power to support Labour-led Government - currently a 24% chance;

2) NZ First to use balance of power to support National-led Government - currently a 10% chance;

3) NZ First to have balance of power but not give confidence and supply to Government - currently a 10% chance;

4) NZ First not to be in Parliament after next election – currently a 30% chance.

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