Get ready for Prime Minister Winston Peters
Winston Peters made a mixture of colourful, grandiose, and rather ridiculous statements in the weekend that will infuriate many, and delight others. Much of it was in riddles but all made with his customary swagger. These ranged from stating complete confidence in New Zealand First’s ultimate victory at the coming election through to repeated scathing references to the “shiny bums” of Wellington and “fake news” in the media.
“Explosive” policies announced
His party conference also announced new policy and stances. The most important of these were referendums on getting rid of the Maori seats, and reducing the size of Parliament to 100 MPs – see Nicholas Jones’ The two binding questions Winston Peters will ask the nation if NZ First is in Government.
This policy has the potential to make a major impact on the election campaign, and on New Zealand First’s popularity – especially if it acts as some sort of lightning rod for popular discontent about political elites and race relations. The referendum could even morph into New Zealand’s own version of Brexit or Trump.
There were also region-based policies, such as a Northport rail project to Marsden Point, costed at up to $1 billion – see Newshub’s Northland rail 'going to happen', Winston Peters promises.
None of the policies announced were particularly surprising. In fact, it was really business as usual for the Peters party. As Jo Moir explains, Peters already has a winning formula that hardly needs updating, and he has “absolutely no need for an election strategy. Why? Because what Peters is pitching to voters this year is no different to the message he has been selling them for decades. It explains why he doesn't discuss policy until the moment he delivers it – it's not uncommon for him to just do it on the hoof – because when your messaging doesn't change you don't need a whole lot of prep time” – see: Winston Peters can relax as election strategy hasn't changed in decades.
A highly confident Winston Peters
There was all the usual posturing against Peters’ rivals, including the warning that Labour’s leader might lose his place in Parliament – see Jo Moir’s Peters: Andrew Little is on the verge of not even getting back into Parliament.
Notably, Little responded strongly to this – see Isaac Davison’s Labour leader Andrew Little slams 'blowhard' Winston for doubting his re-election chances. And now, Little is also accusing Peters of being the source of the leak of an internal UMR poll, which showed Labour dropping from 34% to just 26% – see Isobel Ewing’s Andrew Little accuses Winston Peters of leaking poll that made Labour look bad.
Peters has even challenged the right of Andrew Little to be accorded the title of leader of the opposition, given Labour’s low poll ratings – see Winston Peters – new leader of the Opposition? This follows on from Peters also declaring he must be included in any leaders' debates against Bill English – see Jo Moir’s Peters: Leader debates without NZ First would be 'deliberately anti-democratic'.
Clearly Winston Peters is in a highly confident mood. So, it’s a question of just how confident he might be after the election if NZ First gets a strong result. If his party is the third party, perhaps not too far behind Labour, would that embolden him to chase a bigger prize?
Could Winston Peters be seeking out the role of prime minister?
The most interesting article on NZ First from the weekend was Audrey Young’s New Zealand First party leader Winston Peters: How the Kingmaker could become PM. This must-read feature explains how “At 72, the kingmaker of New Zealand politics could make a final play to snare the top job for himself.”
Here’s Young’s main point: “The chances of Peters becoming prime minister this election are not high. But they are not impossible, despite Bill English and Andrew Little having ruled it out, as they must. There are several ways it could happen. NZ First could go into coalition with National, conditional on Peters leading the government for half of the term. No other support would be required but, after three terms leading the government, National is likely to be the least receptive to being led by Peters. Any deal involving Peters leading the government is more likely to be with Labour, which has been in opposition for three terms, and the Greens who have been outside government for six terms. NZ First could go into coalition with Labour, conditional on Peters leading the government for half a term, say the first half, which would give Labour the benefit of incumbency at the 2020 election and half the term to decide who its PM would be.”
Although the idea of a minor party leader becoming PM might seem ridiculous, “The idea that the country could be led by the head of the smaller party in a coalition is not without precedent. Peters himself has cited the early 1930s, when George Forbes of the United Party was Prime Minister in a coalition with the Reform Party, led by Gordon Coates.”
But would Peters really have the nerve to chase the top job? Young details how NZ First made some attempt to win this role when it last negotiated with both Labour and National – back in 1996.
A New Zealand Herald editorial in the weekend also examined this issue, saying “Peters' prospects of becoming prime minister, for at least part of a term, may depend on the strength of the leading party in the coalition he joins. To come out of the election with 27%, or anything much below 35%, would not leave Labour in a strong position. The Labour leader would be bearing the blame for such a dismal result and might be persuaded to give Peters the role, especially if Labour wanted to change its leader” – see: Low-polling Labour Party might make Peters PM.
Today, Patrick Gower has also come out as a proponent of the plausibility of Peters becoming prime minister. Gower says: “I have always doubted the "Winston as PM" scenario, especially the "shared prime minister" version (where Peters gets to be Prime Minister for part of a term), which is in my view is totally unrealistic. However, I now see that Peters has a workable strategy to get there in a certain scenario” – see: Winston reveals his plan to become Prime Minister.
According to Gower, “Winston Peters has revealed his strategy to become Prime Minister – and it involves collapsing Labour's vote and destroying Andrew Little. Peters dropped a big hint during his interview with me on The Nation on Saturday, and for the first time I saw exactly what his audacious but workable plan to get the top job is. The moment came when Peters questioned whether Labour leader Andrew Little would make it back on Labour's list if it polls poorly.”
Peters has a strategy, Gower says, of deliberately targeting Labour’s vote: “Peters' tour of the regions was all about attacking National – which is all about taking potential Labour voters. When he starts attacking Labour and the Greens – which he will – that's when he will start trying to take National's vote. But his priority right now is Labour.” And Gower even mentions a "political earthquake" scenario: “where he manages to overtake Labour (for example, NZ First 21%, Labour 20%).”
Also dealing with the “Peters as PM” issue in the weekend, Newsroom’s Tim Murphy looked at Peters’ age, and the age of some other PMs: “If Peters truly thinks he could become Prime Minister after the election, stitching together the remnants of Labour, the Greens and his party or strong-arming a marooned National Party into acknowledging his prime-ness, he would be the third oldest leader of the country after Walter Nash (75) and Francis Bell (74). The latter lasted 20 days in office in 1925” – see: It’s NZ Second vs NZ Third.
Theories about Peters as PM
The original proponent of the “Winston Peters for PM” theory is rightwing political commentator Matthew Hooton, who explained this back in April 2015 in his NBR column, Don’t laugh: Winston’s plan to be PM (paywalled).
Hooton argued that, for Peters, this role would be seen as the pinnacle of his career: “To date, Mr Peters has served as deputy and acting prime minister, treasurer and foreign minister. There is only one post that remains and one last chance to get it. National and Labour/Green strategists should not be naïve, no matter what is said between now and the start of post-election negotiations: a substantial amount of time in the prime minister’s office will be Mr Peters’ price for their party controlling the cabinet.”
Hooton believes that either Labour or National will cave in the demand: “Whichever side gives him at least some time as prime minister will become government, with the alternative an utterly unstable three years of Mr Peters sitting on the cross-benches, deciding legislation vote by vote. One side or the other will blink.”
The same theory was put forward in 2016 by Tracy Watkins: “Peters will only retire after he has fulfilled his ambition of one day being prime minister” – see: Arise Sir Winston, Prime Minister of New Zealand?
Watkins admitted it might appear far-fetched: “It might seem outlandish to give the keys to the ninth floor of the Beehive to a minor coalition partner. So too, seemingly, would be installing as prime minister someone who has nothing like the popular support of the major opposition leader.”
But she also pondered what would happen if New Zealand First really did break through with a high vote: “Under that scenario, NZ First would almost be a first among equals. And Peters would be the only one among the other leaders with cabinet experience. He was even deputy prime minister once.”
Hooton has written about the theory again this year, pointing out that when he first suggested it, NZ First was only at seven per cent in the polls, but now the party has twice that support – see: Winston's top job ambitions on track (paywalled).
Furthermore: “As preferred prime minister, Mr Peters is second only to Bill English and ahead of the leading Labour candidate, Jacinda Ardern, with Mr Little bringing up the rear. Yet Mr Peters hasn’t even got started yet. His attacks on immigration have so far been muted compared with what is to come and he is now able to speak with a new authority on the subject, being proven to have had a point for at least 20 years and now being tacitly endorsed by every major party including even the Greens.”
Hooton has – like Peters – reflected on the fact that if Labour tanks further in the polls, Andrew Little won’t even be in Parliament after the election, which would make this theory even more plausible: “The result might be something like 23% for Labour, 17% for NZ First and 12% for the Greens. The crisis in the Labour Party would be ready-made for Mr Peters to step in, declare that he will be prime minister, Ms Ardern his deputy, Mr Robertson finance minister, Mr Jones foreign minister, Phil Twyford transport and housing minister, and James Shaw climate change minister. Ms Ardern would then become prime minister after 18 months and Mr Peters would retire.” You can also see Hooton discuss this all on TV3’s AM Show with Duncan Garner: Could Winston Peters be New Zealand's next Prime Minister?
And Gower has painted this picture of post-election coalition negotiations in which Little isn’t in Parliament: “With Labour having no leader, Winston Peters puts forward a combination that with him as Prime Minister. There is a joint policy agenda with concessions for all sides. Labour MPs would be in senior roles like finance, and Green MPs would also get top jobs. Labour and the Greens can either take that deal – or Winston Peters goes into government with National and they are out of power for three more years. Labour and the Greens accept the Peters plan – and Winston Peters is Prime Minister of New Zealand.”
But others are far from convinced that such a scenario could even occur. Blogger Danyl Mclauchlan wrote about the idea back in 2015, protesting that “there’s no way you’d get the whole of the Labour caucus to back this. And I’m pretty confident the same is true of National.”
Mclauchlan saw the theory more as an attempt to scare Labour voters: “No one who knows anything about politics believes this could work. And Hooton knows a lot about politics. It’s a line, manufactured to create fear about the potentially dire consequences of voting Labour, without any relationship to political reality. It’s stupid.”
More comprehensive objections were put forward by Andrew Geddis, who drew parallels between the theory and Scandinavian politics – see: What Winston Peters could learn from binge-watching Danish drama.
Geddis’ first objection is that the public wouldn’t like it: “Politically, the idea of a prime minister from a party that is not the largest on the government side runs counter to public expectations. We just assume that the leader of the party that “won” the election will be the country’s leader.”
The second, more substantial, objection is that Peters couldn’t govern as prime minister, because his party would be in a small minority in the cabinet, which would require “Winston to preside over a collective decision-making body where his people can be outvoted constantly. You may very well ask whether Winston has the sort of personality that would deal well with being overruled by his cabinet colleagues on a frequent basis. Equally, you may very well ask if anyone could serve as PM, having to front repeatedly for collective government decisions that she or he disagrees with.”
Finally, there might be other titles that could be created for Peters, and Toby Manhire has previously speculated on the appropriateness of such roles as Premier, Minister of State, First Minister, Chairman, Rangatira, Primo Minister, Uncle Winston, Prime Minister At Large, Top Dog, or just King – see: Introducing Winston Peters, New Zealand’s Prime Minister At Large.