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.