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Has Winston Peters Finally Lost It?

I’ve spent a lot of time lauding New Zealand’s election system on this site. One or two have found that pretty annoying, and I don’t care; I stand by my comments. It’s called MMP, which stands for Mixed Member Proportional. Here’s how it works:

This video explains it slightly differently:

Someone who calls himself “Soliloquy” did an analysis of the last United Kingdom election to see what would have happened if it had been run under New Zealand’s MMP system. Many were unhappy with the result of their election because it resulted in the Conservative party winning the right to govern alone even though they received only 37% of the vote nationwide. The United Kingdom system is called “FPP” or “First-Past-the-Post” which is what we used to have in New Zealand. It also resulted in several unfair election results here and that prompted our, ultimately successful, campaign for change. Here is what “Soliloquy” found would have happened in the United Kingdom under MMP:

Our system isn’t perfect, but I really do think it’s better than any that any other country currently has. There are several reasons for this which include:

Unless you vote for an extreme fringe party, your vote counts.

The influence of money is limited.

There is no gerrymandering. Electorate boundaries are decided by an independent commission and are all roughly the same size in population.

The system results in higher numbers of women and minorities becoming members of parliament.

It fairly represents the votes of the population.

Smaller parties get a chance to have their voice heard in parliament.

That last one though can also be a weakness. If you asked any New Zealander what they don’t like about our system, it is the problem of rogue members of parliament getting more power than they should because bigger parties need their support in order to govern – the problem of the tail wagging the dog. And if you asked them to expand on their answer, the name that would come up most often would be that of Winston Peters, leader of the NZ First party, which he established in 1993.

Peters is a man of contrasts, and it’s very difficult to put him in a box. At times his populism and anti-Asian racism will remind you of Donald Trump. His frequent inability to work with colleagues will remind you of Ted Cruz. Like Cruz, he’s also highly intelligent, was very talented in his original career of law and is a very skilled politician. Unlike Cruz though, Peters is extremely charming. In 1998 he was appointed to the Privy Council and he’s the only current parliamentarian in that role. For many years he had a reputation as a man of integrity, though there were allegations of campaign finance fraud made in 2008, that may or may not be true, but put a big dent in his reputation.

Most smaller parties are reasonable about their demands and are often a good limit on the power of larger parties. The Green party for example has been a regular presence in parliament ever since we adopted MMP and has had a positive influence on the policies of the two biggest political parties – National and Labour. Even though there is no likelihood of the left-wing Greens ever entering into a coalition with the centre-right National party, the National party knows there is a sizable number of middle-class New Zealanders who have a positive view of the Green’s environmental policies and they don’t want to lose that voting bloc. If those voters defected to the Greens because National didn’t take it’s responsibilities as guardians of our environment seriously enough, it would likely mean a Labour-Greens coalition government and National would be out of power. Similarly, the centre-left Labour party needs to maintain strong environmental policies in order to retain its strong ties with the independent-minded Greens party.

NZ Parliament 2014

Allocation of seats in New Zealand’s parliament following 2014 election (Source: Wikipedia)

NZ First is the fourth biggest party in parliament, and because they have often been in a position of deciding who will govern, Peters has a pretty big opinion of his own importance. He is already talking about being the kingmaker at our next election in November 2017.

Peters first became an MP when he was only 33 as a member of the National party. He served for them from 1978-1981, then again from 1984-1993. He was made a cabinet member and Minister of Māori Affairs when National took over government in 1990, but soon made himself disliked and mistrusted among his colleagues because of the way he publicly attacked his own party. He was eventually sacked as a minister in 1991. He continued as a National MP until 1993, but as his behaviour hadn’t changed since he lost his ministerial role it was decided he would not be allowed to be a candidate for them at the election that year.

Not being a “team player” made him enormously popular with the public though, and he retained his seat in parliament in the 1993 election with the new party he created, NZ First.

The next election in 1996 was the first run under the MMP system. Billboards for NZ First all over the country had Winston Peters standing at the front and the electorate MP standing behind him as some kind of pale afterthought. In many ways his was the first political personality cult New Zealand had seen. There was talk of our elections turning into the presidential-type hype of the United States. Peters though did have several achievements in exposing financial scams to run on, and had a reputation for integrity.

Peters, Winston

Winston Peters (Source: Twitter)

Throughout the 1996 election he ran a campaign in opposition to the then National government. He constantly told voters that a vote for NZ First was a vote against National. His criticisms of National made him very popular with the public. There was also a lot of criticism of Labour taking the Māori vote for granted. When the votes were counted on election night, Peters had not only retained his Tauranga seat but NZ First had swept all the Māori seats, which had been held almost exclusively by Labour for decades. National had the most votes, but Labour wasn’t far behind. Neither had enough votes to govern alone. Winston Peters had 17 seats and held the balance of power.

For a month he negotiated behind the scenes with the two parties. He then held a news conference to announce which party he was going to support. No one knew his decision. The leaders of National and Labour had to wait along with everyone else as he spoke at length, giving little away, to see what his decision would be. He eventually stated he would be throwing his support behind National. It then took another seven weeks to sort out his coalition agreement with National. His taking advantage of holding the balance of power in this way, and the length of time he took – virtually holding the whole country to ransom – made many extremely angry with him.

His campaign manager, Michael Laws, later stated that Peters had intended from the start to support National but had pretended otherwise to gain more concessions from them. Peters, of course, never said whether or not that was the case. Either way the fact that he did this is a weakness of the MMP system. Most smaller parties recognize that 5 or 10% of the vote means that 90 or 95% of the people don’t want them running the country and taking advantage of holding the balance of power only turns voters against them. Further, if they drop below that 5% threshold at the next election, they lose all their seats unless they can retain an electorate seat, and that’s not easy.

Many of Peters’ supporters felt betrayed by both the way he handled negotiations with the larger parties, and his final decision to support National. Further, Peters continued to prove he couldn’t play well with others and his relationship with National steadily deteriorated. The 1999 election saw both Peters’ and NZ First’s support crash. The party received only 4.3% of the vote and they only managed to stay in parliament, with a much reduced presence, because Peters himself held his Tauranga seat – and that by just 63 votes.

Peters modified his behaviour and went after a new constituency – one that no party really held and one that was getting bigger. He began to court the grey vote, especially those who were concerned about the rising numbers of new immigrants. His speeches were (and still are) peppered with comments like:

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

We are being colonized without New Zealanders having some say in the numbers of people coming in and where they are coming from. This is a deliberate policy of ethnic engineering and re-population.

There is a significant percentage of Asians in Auckland. That’s my view. If you don’t like it, vote for another party and let race relations go into chaos.

We are being dragged into the status of an Asian colony and it is time that New Zealanders were placed first in their own country.

Peters visits rest homesThis led to a rise in his support and by the 2002 election his share of the vote was back up to 10%. He hoped this would see Labour leader Helen Clark courting his support. However, much to his chagrin, she rejected him. Perhaps she was recalling the way he treated her in 1996?

In the 2005 election he finally lost the Tauranga seat, though NZ First managed to maintain its hold on enough of the vote to stay in parliament. He entered into a confidence and supply agreement with the Labour-led government, though not a full coalition. (He had nastily stated that he wouldn’t enter into any coalition that included the Greens.) As a part of that agreement he introduced the “Super Gold Card” which provided discounts, concessions and several other special benefits for superannuitants. He has thus maintained a level of popularity with that group ever since.

Winston Peters greets Condoleeza Rice at Auckland Airport 2008 (Ola Thorsen, Wikipedia Commons)

Winston Peters greets Condoleeza Rice at Auckland Airport 2008 (Ola Thorsen, Wikipedia Commons)

Once again his presence in parliament was proving difficult to manage. While many members of the public loved him as a rogue element, his colleagues found him problematic. Prime Minister Helen Clark devised an interesting solution – she offered him the role of Minister of Foreign Affairs which would see him spend most of his time out of the country. Peters had recently spent a lot of time going on about not being interested in the “baubles of office” as cover for not negotiating a full coalition with the Labour government, but when the position was offered, he quickly accepted. And in truth, he did a good job. He’s intelligent and capable and a big part of the problem had always been, in my opinion, that his level of skill was never put to its full use – a lot of the issues with him had arisen because of his own frustration.

However, Peters had made one too many mistakes in the last three years. He lost the 2008 election for Tauranga by a huge margin and NZ First only got just over four percent of the nationwide vote. He was out of parliament.

Anyone who knows anything about New Zealand politics though will tell you never to underestimate Winston Peters. In 2011 he was back. Peters still couldn’t win Tauranga, but NZ First got 6.8% of the vote so they were in parliament. They kept their heads down and focused on their anti-immigrant message, targeting older voters, and in the 2014 election increased their vote to 8.6%.

Some bad behaviour by National MP for Northland Mike Sabin (I think he assaulted someone, but the details have been kept pretty quiet) led to his resignation and subsequently a by-election last year. National had held the seat for decades. But Peters is originally from that part of the country and has extensive personal links there. He decided to run and against the odds not only won the seat, he did it with a big majority. Because of the way our electoral system works, Peters becoming an electorate MP and getting a greater share of nationwide votes for his party in the process meant that NZ First got an extra seat in parliament as well.

So everything is looking pretty good for Winston Peters and NZ First. As I noted above, because of the way the polls are shaping up for next year’s election, he is already talking about being the kingmaker again. He wants to be the one to decide whether the current National government will get to stay in power or whether they will be replaced by a Labour/Greens/NZ First coalition.

This weekend NZ First held their annual party conference in Dunedin to discuss their strategy to ensure that decisive role following the election. But early on the first day (Saturday) he said something in response to a question from a journalist that led New Zealanders to ask, “What the f**k was that?!”

So what did he say?

I’m not personally interested in going on and nor would my party be [if we didn’t make it into parliament at the next election]. Oh, look, it’s in the good book, “Any man who sets his hand to the plough then looks backwards is not fit for the kingdom of heaven.” [Luke 9:62]

Boyed, Greg TVNZ

Greg Boyed (Source: tvnz.co.nz)

The clip was replayed on Q&A on Sunday (a New Zealand current affairs show), leaving host Greg Boyed looking completely bewildered. Viewers could hear giggles in the background from the panel members, including the head of the Islamic Women’s Council. If you’re a USian, you might not see what the big deal is, but in New Zealand a senior politician quoting the Bible is just not normal.

When Boyed went back to the panel, who were all still looking highly amused, he asked political scientist Raymond Miller what he made of the comment. Miller replied:

Well, I never know what to make about comments like that from Winston Peters, um, it’s, um, I mean, I can understand at age 72 or whatever age he’ll be [at the next election] if he doesn’t get the opportunity to exercise the kingmaker role then he might want to give it away, um, but on the other hand I do believe that he thinks that he can make it and if he does then I think he’ll want to extract as much as he can from whichever party’s in government.

Peters clearly saw the segment, because he commented on it in a speech he gave at his party conference later that day. He claimed that Q&A didn’t give him the opportunity to respond:

… never had the intellectual fortitude, integrity, or outright decency to ask us on the programme.

Q&A stated though that Peters was twice asked to appear on that day’s show and twice backed out. Further, as TVNZ News (of which Q&A is a part) had a reporter at the conference all weekend, it would have been easy enough to arrange a segment at a moment’s notice if Peters had changed his mind. However, attacking the media has always been one of Peters’ standard operating procedures, so he wasn’t going to let the truth get in the way.

After attacking the media he said:

You know, I’ve seen some downright lies in politics …

Yeah, look who’s talking. And it got worse:

There are some in parliament who think manual labour is the prime minister of Mexico.

Actually, it’s the sort of people who vote for Winston Peters who are more likely to think that. Either way, it’s not the sort of “joke” a respectable politician should be making.

So we’ll see how things pan out over the next year or so. NZ First attracts voters with some pretty nasty attitudes that we can do without. As we’ve seen in several other countries though, there’s always a niche for anti-immigrant politicians. That niche is not very big in New Zealand because we’ve had few problems where the blame can be squarely placed on immigrants and there’s a low tolerance for racism. However, for years we haven’t been building enough houses to keep up with population growth, which is mostly as a result of immigration. It’s especially bad in Auckland where the average house price is now NZ$950,000. Unless that gets sorted soon that anti-immigrant niche could get big enough that no one will care whether Winston Peters has lost the plot – they’ll vote for him anyway. And to be fair, he looks pretty good next to Donald Trump.


 

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6 Responses to “Has Winston Peters Finally Lost It?”

  1. Diana MacPherson says:

    That whole rogue party issue was pushed way too hard when Canada had a referendum about changing from FPP. It terrified people into thinking there would be a Nazi party taking us over. So we are stuck with our unfair system. The new Liberal government is making progress (starting) to address the issue though and I hope we ditch the stupid old thing!

    • That’s a shame. Despite everything, we still have one of the most stable governments in the world, and there are limits to what a rogue party can get away with.

      Would 5% of Canadians even vote for an all-out Nazi party anyway? I have my doubts. We had the Conservative party trying to get in at the last two elections, but they couldn’t make the threshold. It’s over 100,000 vote in a population of 4.7 million. They might like a new party on one or two issues, but usually not enough want them actually running the country. Peters was a familiar figure who had a long-term following from a mainstream party. We have another party that only makes it because their leader is also a former National MP and he keeps winning his own electorate.

  2. Ken says:

    That’s an odd comment from Winston, but I think he was just playing around. If he didn’t get back in in 2017, of course he’d have to consider whether he could make another comeback at 76. As for quoting the bible, no one in Parliament would do so on a policy matter, only something personal like this, which is another reason it isn’t seen as as outrageous.

    And if I may add a bit of additional information:

    “For many years he had a reputation as a man of integrity, though there were allegations of campaign finance fraud made in 2008, that may or may not be true, but put a big dent in his reputation.”

    Whether it was technically fraud can be debated, but Winston was definitely playing the system close to the line and hypocritically claimed nothing was wrong. He eventually admitted he’d misled the public, in part because several key staff threatened to quit in protest at the damage he was doing the party, but by then it was too late.

    “Even though there is no likelihood of the left-wing Greens ever entering into a coalition with the centre-right National party,…“

    Though note that it was National who ruled out the Greens at the last election, not the other way around.

    “If those voters defected to the Greens because National didn’t take it’s responsibilities as guardians of our environment seriously enough, it would likely mean a Labour-Greens coalition government and National would be out of power.”

    I hope you mean “perceived” to take its responsibilities seriously, as there is no evidence that National actually does so, as the deterioration of our rivers and drinking water attests, not to mention their terrible record on climate change, lack of protection of Maui’s dolphin, thwarted desire to mine in national parks, plans to allow deep see oil drilling, the list goes on.

    “He was made a cabinet member and Minister of Māori Affairs when National took over government in 1990, but soon made himself disliked and mistrusted among his colleagues because of the way he publicly attacked his own party. He was eventually sacked as a minister in 1991. He continued as a National MP until 1993, but as his behaviour hadn’t changed since he lost his ministerial role it was decided he would not be allowed to be a candidate for them at the election that year.”

    You make it sound like National were innocent bystanders. Remember that the fourth labour govt were kicked out, because people were sick to death of the most extreme neoliberal economic policies ever unleashed on the country. Until National came in that is. The new finance minister was even more extreme than the previous one as the Nats turned the screws and the suffering increased even further. Winston, who was expected to be the next leader of the National party and the first Maori Prime Minister, to his everlasting credit, said no. This is also why the public, fed up with both sides, voted in MMP at the next election in the first place.

    “For a month he negotiated behind the scenes with the two parties. He then held a news conference to announce which party he was going to support. No one knew his decision. The leaders of National and Labour had to wait along with everyone else as he spoke at length, giving little away, to see what his decision would be. He eventually stated he would be throwing his support behind National. It then took another seven weeks to sort out his coalition agreement with National. His taking advantage of holding the balance of power in this way, and the length of time he took – virtually holding the whole country to ransom – made many extremely angry with him.”

    I’m not sure you have this quite right. I don’t know of an announcement at four weeks, but believe that he negotiated for nine weeks with both sides before going with National. I have it from some one involved in those negotiations that National’s leader, Bolger, was so sick of it that he offered the Labour leader a grand coalition. She knew her time would come and wisely refused.

    “This led to a rise in his support and by the 2002 election his share of the vote was back up to 10%. He hoped this would see Labour leader Helen Clark courting his support. However, much to his chagrin, she rejected him. Perhaps she was recalling the way he treated her in 1996?”

    I’m sure she was, but it really just came done to the numbers. She didn’t need him so he was out. Same with the Greens, until it all changed when the special votes were counted and seven Greens made it in. This meant Clark no longer had a majority and had to include them in the team.

    “In the 2005 election he finally lost the Tauranga seat, though NZ First managed to maintain its hold on enough of the vote to stay in parliament. He entered into a confidence and supply agreement with the Labour-led government, though not a full coalition. (He had nastily stated that he wouldn’t enter into any coalition that included the Greens.)”

    Coalition was never on the table. It was always going to be confidence and supply with or without the Greens. Again, the numbers decided. He had one more MP than the Greens and enough for a one seat majority without them. So he could dictate that the Greens would have no Ministers. Unfortunately, Clark didn’t call his bluff, as no way would he have supported a Brash-led govt, though you of course could argue that she couldn’t take the chance having been burnt by the same guy before.

    “Anyone who knows anything about New Zealand politics though will tell you never to underestimate Winston Peters. In 2011 he was back.”

    Again true, but the Nats know it was their fault too, for how they played the tea pot tape scandal. With two weeks to go, they gave Winston all the air time and that led to his numbers climbing back over 5%.

    “However, for years we haven’t been building enough houses to keep up with population growth, which is mostly as a result of immigration.”

    That’s not the real problem, as there are lots of houses sitting vacant too. We stupidly allow non-resident aliens to purchase private homes, and don’t have a decent capital gains tax, which has helped cause a huge housing bubble that no major party is brave enough to address. So Kiwis have to compete with rich overseas buyers who don’t want to live here, but just seek a quick capital gain, and houses in Auckland are appreciating $1000/day. It’s insane, but you’re right that immigrants may bear the brunt of the backlash from those who don’t know all of what’s contributing to the problem. And yes, Winston will exploit them for further political gain in 2017.

    • I didn’t mean to make it sound like the Nats were innocent bystanders. You and I have discussed the economic policies they pushed in the 90s before and you know I thought they were wrong. It was just a very long post and there’s a limit to how much detail I can go in. The post wasn’t about policy, so I largely left that out. That applies to some of your other comments too – I don’t disagree with your characterization, although I might have expressed things differently, it’s just that I can’t include everything.

      I admit though I’d forgotten about the tea pot saga, which was stupid of me, because without that I’m also quite sure he wouldn’t have made the 5% threshold that year.

      And yes, I do mean “perceived” about Green/Blue voters, though I suspect their opinion of what’s enough is different from the Green Party.

      I’ve since discovered that this isn’t the only time he’s resorted to this particular Bible verse. This clip from YouTube looks like the Northland by-election:

      https://youtu.be/Jl0O0tNT408

      By saying it was National who rejected the Greens, you’re implying that the Greens would have gone into coalition with them. You know that’s not true – their conference has held votes on it because there are a small number saying they should, and they routinely get voted down. I am glad they work with the Nats to get things done that are on their own agenda, like the insulation programme.

      I don’t remember what happened very well with the fraud thing. I vaguely remember a ?privileges committee hearing that cleared him but I also remember thinking he was guilty and that was just a technicality. Thanks for your info on that – I knew you would know what happened and I hoped you’d comment on it!

      I distinctly remember the press conference where Peters made his announcement in 1996, though I could easily be remembering incorrectly the order of things. I know half way through I knew he was going with National because of something he said, but I seemed to be in a minority with that opinion. I also remember that the idea of a grand coalition was very popular with the public, and I think most people would have preferred that. Whether it could have worked or not is another matter. However, I think I’m right in saying that the Labour party currently votes with National more often than the Maori Party does, so maybe it could have worked. (For non-NZers, National and the Maori party are in coalition.)

      • Ken says:

        “I didn’t mean to make it sound like the Nats were innocent bystanders. You and I have discussed the economic policies they pushed in the 90s before and you know I thought they were wrong. It was just a very long post and there’s a limit to how much detail I can go in.”

        Sure, I accept that, just felt it should be mentioned because it’s the strife caused by the policies those two govts pushed that gave us the MMP system we’re so pleased to have now. And for all Winston has done wrong since, he played an important part in bringing that to pass by opposing his own party at no small personal cost.

        “By saying it was National who rejected the Greens, you’re implying that the Greens would have gone into coalition with them. You know that’s not true – their conference has held votes on it because there are a small number saying they should, and they routinely get voted down. I am glad they work with the Nats to get things done that are on their own agenda, like the insulation programme.”

        No, I’m not implying a coalition would have happened, I’m just saying that while unlikely, the Greens have left the door open the last two elections. You are wrong about the conference votes; the minority was those of the opinion that the Greens should not consider National under any circumstances. The same logic that has led the Greens to work with National on items of mutual interest was applied by the majority to argue they should always be open to talk, no matter how unlikely an agreement might be. The Greens usually get criticised for having such a nuanced position, but its totally in the spirit of Green politics, not to mention MMP itself.

        “I don’t remember what happened very well with the fraud thing. I vaguely remember a ?privileges committee hearing that cleared him but I also remember thinking he was guilty and that was just a technicality. Thanks for your info on that – I knew you would know what happened and I hoped you’d comment on it!”

        I figured you were expecting a long comment from me and didn’t want to let you down 🙂

        In 2008, the privileges committee recommended Winston be censured for “knowingly providing false or misleading information on a return of pecuniary interests” in relation to the handling of a $100k donation from Owen Glenn. This was supported by all parties on the committee except NZF and Labour.

        “I also remember that the idea of a grand coalition was very popular with the public, and I think most people would have preferred that. Whether it could have worked or not is another matter. However, I think I’m right in saying that the Labour party currently votes with National more often than the Maori Party does, so maybe it could have worked.”

        I’m not so sure. As the two traditional parties of power, they really despise each other no matter how much they agree on. It’s a zero sum game for them and I can’t see it lasting the term, and Clark would have been stupid to gamble Labour would come out on top. Sure would have been interesting, though.

        • Thanks for all that info. Very interesting. 🙂 And I stand corrected about the Greens cooperating with National thing. I obviously got mixed up there!

          You’re right about the grand coalition thing I think – in the end it wouldn’t have worked, especially back then. The personalities were all wrong. Of course, the NZ First/National thing didn’t go that well either. It was no wonder they were thumped in 1999.

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