NZ POLITICS DAILY: The year of Winston Peters

New Zealand First is where most people are looking when they're thinking about the election outcome as Winston Peters is likely to decide who will govern.

New Zealand First is on track to make it big this year. Opinion polls have the party on higher numbers than usual at this stage of the election cycle, and, if history is anything to go by, they will rise during the campaign. Furthermore, with the expected announcement of Shane Jones as Peters’ new co-campaigner, the party might even see an additional surge of support.

The increasing relevance of NZ First is accompanied by media scrutiny, evaluation and speculation. In the weekend, TVNZ’s Q+A programme ran Whena Owen’s useful seven-minute campaign trail item, Who are NZ First supporters? This was followed by a wide-ranging panel discussion about the party’s support base, the potential impact of Shane Jones and who Mr Peters might choose to put into government – see: NZ First and Winston Peters – Panel. There seemed to be a strong feeling Mr Peters would choose National, based largely on the perceived potential for greater policy wins from the right.

Signs of NZ First’s buoyancy 
Opinion polls throughout the year so far seem to have NZ First at about 10%. Of course, Mr Peters often campaigns well during election years, and the polls tend to underestimate his party’s support. And perhaps for this reason, the party is confident of greater support, pouring scorn on the current polls – see, for example, Benedict Collins’ Peters calls polls fake, claims he'll win 20% of vote.

And there have been some other surprising polls in the party’s favour, such as the World TV-Trace Chinese voter poll, which put Chinese-New Zealand voter support on 4.7% (up 3.6) – see Lincoln Tan’s Rise in Chinese voter support for New Zealand First, survey finds.

In his blog post on the state of the election campaign race today, Martyn Bradbury is pointing to Winston Peters being on the rise: “He’s like a hungry fox who knows the hen house is unlocked. The grin, the sly eyes, the huge turnouts he’s getting whenever he speaks, Winston is going to damage National in the provinces and has the real opportunity of leapfrogging the Greens as the third largest party. Winston will have an eye to legacy, and Labour could offer him that by allowing the Super Fund to invest in a massive infrastructure rebuild” – see: 4 months out from 2017 election.

Similarly, two months ago, Mr Bradbury wrote (using a different fox metaphor): “The old silver fox of NZ politics must be licking his lips in anticipation because the current political landscape has never been better for his nationalist rhetoric. This election Winston will out-Trump Trump. NZ First had the ability to benefit in the past from Labour vote collapse, but this time around I think he will benefit from a National Party vote collapse” – see: 6 months out from Election: National fading, Labour stalling, NZ First about to go nuclear & Green failure.

Such a “wave of discontent” in Peters’ favour is also reported by former Labour Party president Mike Williams in his column, There is only one Winston.

Another sort of metric – Facebook activity – also suggests Mr Peters is doing very well. According to Facebook’s measurement of “total interactions – likes, comments, shares – in the 30 days prior to Budget week,” the politician's Facebook page with the greatest success is that of Mr  Peters – see the Herald’s Bill who? Winston Peters the king of Facebook.

And even when Peters makes a stuff-up on social media, he manages to turn it into more publicity – see the Herald’s Winston Peters' Twitter fail draws comparisons to UK 'Balls up'.

But not all commentators are sure Mr Peters is firing on all cylinders, and fomenting his usual controversy. According to John Armstrong, “Peters seems to be holding something back,” and “is instead in serious danger of being bestowed with elder statesman status” – see his TVNZ column, A mellowing Winston Peters is showing a disturbing tendency towards being reasonable.

For Mr Armstrong, part of the explanation is that Mr Peters is wary of campaigning too strongly, too early: “He has previously peaked too early in some election campaigns he has fought. He won't make that mistake this time.” And second, he has possibly decided there are more votes to be found in the less angry part of the centre of the political spectrum of voters: “Like Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen's nemesis, Peters may find far richer pickings await him in the political centre. That may be another reason he is behaving ever more like a graduate of Charm School rather than a drop-out from Reform School.”

Will Peters choose Labour or National?
In April, one poll of New Zealand First voters suggested they would overwhelmingly (77%) prefer that the party went into coalition with Labour  – see Richard Harman’s National using Maori Party to freeze Winston out.

But few commentators seem willing to predict with much confidence which way Winston Peters and his party are going to go after the election. In the weekend, John Key’s take on this was published in Vernon Small’s Former PM John Key tops Queen's Birthday honours with knighthood for services to the state. Here’s what Key said: “I don't think anyone knows which way Winston's going to go, including Winston. History shows he has gone with the biggest party and he's been fairly consistent on that front. It will be easier for him to do a deal without me being there I would have thought. I don't think that was a deal breaker in itself. It wasn't the factor that made me step down, I just think inevitably a little bit easier. He'll come along with the demands that he historically always has and we'll see either who can form a government or who meets them. But there are no guarantees even for Winston. He was talking a big game in 2014 and in 2008 and on neither of those occasions did he get over the line and put himself in a position to form a government. So the fact that Winston Peters says he will be the kingmaker doesn't mean he will be.”

Leftwing bloggers are certainly divided on which way Peters will jump. Phil Quin has no doubt Peters will prefer to go for a “straightforward two-party coalition” with National: “I can't see Winston agreeing to share power with the Greens. He may at a pinch accept their cross-bench support to uphold a Little-Peters government. If that's not a recipe for disaster, I need better recipe books. No, Peters will giddily toy with, but ultimately reject, a grand centre-left coalition” – see: Labour in box seat – for 2020.

But on the Daily Blog, Labour gets the pick: “NZ First’s policies are so in tune with Labour’s they could have been spawned in the same think tanks. Winston Peters and Andrew Little seem to get along fine and I’m told the back benches of both parties have a useful working relationship in opposition. I’m also firmly of the belief that Winston still wants revenge for National’s successful campaign in 2008 to remove NZ First from Parliament” – see: Will Winston Put NZ First?

This forecast is shared by Alex Tarrant, who writes that Mr Peters will be happier be in a Labour-led coalition he can more easily dominate, compared to the National cabinet: “How much power will Peters and Shane Jones be able to wield at such a vastly experienced cabinet table, headed by a prime minister who knows how to deal with him? Add into the mix that there isn’t much policy overlap (yet) and it looks like this combination would result in fewer big, free-kick wins for Peters on the policy front” – see: The latest polls show Winston Peters could be Kingmaker in September. So what way will he go?

Does New Zealand First have any bottom-lines?
In choosing which party to put into power, much could depend on Peters’ so-called “bottom lines” for coalition negotiations. But as always, it’s almost impossible to work out what these are, and Peters can’t necessarily be taken at face value with so many of his promises and demands later turning out to be illusionary – or at least that’s what Claire Trevett argues in her column last week, Winston Peters and the 'I Can't Believe It's Not a Bottom Line' bottom lines.

Trevett goes through some of Peters’ possible bottom line coalition deal-breakers: re-entering the Pike River Mine, rebuilding the Christ Church Cathedral, and abolishing the government’s smoke-free target. She says “Those voting on such antics should be wary of Peters' mastery of the art of illusion when it comes to ‘bottom lines’.”

The NZ Listener magazine says it’s important for potential NZ First voters to know what they’re voting for: “Without knowing NZ First’s policy must-haves and deal-breakers – which the party itself may not know before the election – voters can only guess what a vote for NZF actually means” – see the February editorial: Is Winston Peters right to keep us in the dark?

The magazine wasn’t confident picking which way the party would go: “Though small ‘c’ conservative, NZF has considerable commonality with Labour and the Greens, despite having blocked the Greens in 2005. Monetary reform, regional development, restricting foreign-asset and property sales, saving rail, raising health and education funding, concern about immigration and free trade – the list of common causes on substantive policy is striking. Yet Peters knows the risk, in a scenario where National will likely win the most votes, of enabling what could be seen as a coalition of losers. And if Labour again fails to achieve a vote respectably above the 30% mark, such a regime would strike many voters as barely legitimate.”

And at the end of last year, blogger Pete George had a go at working out and evaluating the reality of Winston’s bottom lines. He listed five bottom lines as more police numbers, no Maori Party in government, protecting superannuation, cutting immigration, and re-entering the Pike River mine.

Finally, for satire on the New Zealand First leaders’ anti-immigration campaigning, see Steve Braunias’ Secret Diary of Winston Peters.

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