Peters turns from maverick to statesman – and may further blossom beyond 2020

Winston Peters  heads   for  Singapore this week,  after completing  his  six-week term as  acting PM,  for  several  high-level meetings, including a vital one with  US Secretary of  State  Mike  Pompeo.

He came to the  prime  ministerial  role (even if it was no more than a fleeting moment in a political career spanning 44 years)  as  if  to the manner born.  He has kept  ministers across  three parties  in line and  run a  mature  and serious leadership,  at the same  time working hard in  his  own patch of foreign affairs. 

He handled a  visit  by the  Japanese Deputy PM and Finance Minister  Taro Aso  with aplomb, strengthening  what has  become a  key relationship as Japan takes leadership of the CPTPP.

He  has been  working the lines to  Washington in the  drive to  get exemption for NZ  steel and aluminium exports from the tariffs  President Trump has imposed – and is hopeful of a positive result.

He has had  to  pursue  some careful diplomacy with China after Beijing  delivered a  serve  to the NZ  government against its criticism of the militarisation in the South China  Sea.

It’s  all as  if  we are  witnessing  the transformation of  a  one-time  maverick politician  into  a statesman – and an elder one  at that.

In  Parliament  he has  shown a  mastery  (and  good humour)  which has  confused  his opponents and  drawn admiration  from his  coalition partners.  He still likes  a  bit  of one-upmanship  (and no-one laughs harder at his own jokes than himself).

Of  course   journalists who deal with him  up close and personal  every day might not  see him  in that manifestation.  Peters  is  not  going to  give them  an  easy  ride.  His memory  of  what they have written  about him is  legendary, just as it is  with those politicians  who have rubbed him up the wrong way in years  gone past.

What Peters has  shown in  his weeks  as  acting  PM is  that he is  not a  one-man orchestra.  Certainly   he leads  from the  front  but he  also  backs  up  his colleagues.

He joined with Andrew Little in speaking out strongly against the Australian Government’s deportation  policy  of  NZ residents  without a  fair hearing.  He has been  loyal  to  Jacinda Ardern,  yet  has  shown  a very  different   style of  leadership  to  those  who  voted Labour/NZ First/ the Greens  at  the  last election,   and may even have  impressed  some within  National who are  immune  to the kind of gaga enthusiasm  shown in  some  quarters  to  a  PM who has just become a mother.

Peters’  contribution  to the  Labour-led  coalition  (and it has been a  major one)  has  been to  deliver  stability and consistency  inside a  very  diverse group of politicians,  and to   project  both  sensibility and  sustainability  after some of  the wilder prophets  had  predicted  the  coalition would  collapse in a heap within months.

The  other interesting point  about  Peters’ stint  as  leader of the government is that he has appeared  to thrive  on the heavy   workload.  Critics   of Peters  in his  earlier years identified  a  lack of  enthusiasm  for  detailed   paperwork or  listening to long-winded advisers.

National Party president   Peter Goodfellow   at the weekend wrote  Peters  off, saying National had “dodged a whiskey-swilling, cigarette-smoking, double-breasted and irrational bullet”.

If  National  bases its  strategy  around that  image,  it  could be  making  its  biggest  mistake  since it  stuffed  up   its coalition negotiations.

Peters  is  following a  much stricter   regime  these  days  and  his  stamina  shouldn’t be under-estimated.  Some of those  close to  him  are convinced   he  won’t be  ready  to  put on his slippers  and  retire to the  fireside armchair in 2020.

 

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