Long live the kingmaker: Winston Peters and the NZ election

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters may hold the balance of power in NZ parliament after this September’s election. NZN/David Williams

With New Zealand’s election date set for September 20, early polls suggest that the balance of parliamentary power may once again be held by controversial populist politician Winston Peters and his New Zealand First (NZF) party.

Upon announcing the election date, NZ prime minister John Key also addressed the prospect of Peters deciding the parliament’s fate:

… goodness knows how long it could take for him to actually decide what he’s going to do.

The prospect of him playing kingmaker again is making some in New Zealand very jittery.

Peters’ history in NZ politics

A former National Party MP, Peters quit the party after being expelled from the cabinet in 1991. He subsequently formed New Zealand First (NZF) in 1993. The party promotes itself as centrist, but quite what that means has not always been clear. As New Zealand’s treasurer (1996-98), Peters produced budgets which were models of economic orthodoxy: tax cuts, reductions in public spending and state asset sales.

NZF endorses small government and would place limits on immigration. In the past, Peters has made a good deal out of Maori “privilege”, and remains of the view that welfare should be administered to those who are in “genuine and deserving” need. In short, its policies are more centre-right than they are centrist.

But the nervous sounds coming from the offices of Key and the opposition leader, Labour’s David Cunliffe, can be traced to events following the 1996 election, when Peters played a critical role in forming New Zealand’s first coalition government.

The election was the first held under the mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system. During that campaign, Peters had clearly indicated he would not support his former National Party colleagues.

After the election, however, Peters and his party found themselves firmly in the driver’s seat. Neither the governing National Party nor the Labour opposition won enough seats to form government in their own right, and needed NZF’s support to government.

Peters proceeded to play the two major parties against each other in a bidding war, dragging out negotiations for eight weeks.

In the end, the NZF agreed to form a government with his former colleagues, the National Party, despite NZF’s pre-election vow that it would not work with them. But Labour refused to match the National Party’s offer to split the finance portfolio and offer Peters a newly created role as treasurer. Peters became both deputy prime minister and treasurer in a National Party-NZF coalition government.

It would all end in tears. After just 20 months, New Zealand’s first coalition government of the modern era fell apart when prime minister Jenny Shipley sacked Peters from cabinet following a dispute over the privatisation of Wellington International Airport.

Peters’ willingness to play fast and loose in 1996 was not an isolated incident. In the 2005 election campaign, Peters indicated he had no appetite for the “baubles of office” and that he would not form a coalition with either major party.

Once the electoral dust had settled, however, then-prime minister Helen Clark’s offer of the foreign affairs portfolio proved a bauble too far. Peters duly accepted the job. It must be said he made a decent fist of it.

What are his views?

Since he entered parliament in 1978, Peters’ political career has been a catalogue of this sort of grandstanding. His performances on the floor of parliament are the stuff of legend and his propensity to take offence at real or imagined slights from others is unmatched.

Peters’ sense of outrage is something to behold. In full flight he has a tendency to invent colourful new political syntax on the run.

One of the last great mavericks in New Zealand politics, Peters is also motivated by a populist tendency to rail at the injustices that “real” New Zealanders suffer at the hands of business, bureaucratic or political elites.

New Zealanders are, fundamentally, a phlegmatic people. Peters strikes a chord in the psyche of a section of socially conservative voters who are deeply unsettled by the increasingly multicultural and morally plural nature of New Zealand society. They hanker for a time long past when the country was, or seemed to be, a simpler place.

While that section of the public takes Peters very seriously, others tend to cast him as a lovable rogue with a penchant for tailored Italian suits. For many, he echoes an era when parliamentarians had more of the mischievous mongrel about them than is now typical.

That is a mistake, as it obscures the distasteful positions Peters has taken over the years. The nadir, perhaps, came some months before the 2005 election when he alleged members of the Muslim community were harbouring potential terrorists. Peters warned that:

New Zealand [was] being increasingly infiltrated with anti-Western rhetoric.

Other lowlights include describing Asian migration as “imported criminal activity” and, in a speech entitled Securing Our Borders and Protecting Our Identity, both accusing Labour of running an “ethnic engineering and re-population policy” and blustering that:

… we have now reached the point where you can wander down Queen Street in Auckland and wonder if you are still in New Zealand or some other country.

Into the future

For all that, Key will strike a deal with Peters if he has to. The National Party has demonstrated a pragmatic approach to such matters in the past.

New Zealand prime minister John Key may be forced to strike a deal with Winston Peters. NZN/Rob Griffith

Although the caucus is now led by a younger generation of politicians for whom Peters is the past rather than the future, the parties upon whom National has relied for parliamentary support since 2008 are imploding.

Labour would deal with Peters too, given the chance, although that is more difficult to envisage. On present polling, Labour will need the support of both the Greens and NZF to govern. The antipathy between Peters and the Greens is such that a red-green coalition supported by – or including – Peters is much less likely than the centre-right alternative.

Whoever receives the nod from Peters will never be quite sure which politician they are getting. It may be the seasoned parliamentarian with the colourful personality, but it might be the unpredictable master of dog-whistle politics. In all likelihood, it will be both - sometimes on the same day.

Governing under MMP demands stable and predictable relations between political partners, and Peters is not in the habit of providing either over the long haul. For that reason alone, the sounds of trepidation will last long into the night of September 20.