How quickly the political landscape can change. A month ago, Deputy PM Winston Peters, along with PM Jacinda Ardern, was deep into a trans-Tasman sledging match after Ardern attacked Australia’s hardline deportation.
But as the coronavirus crisis broadened, it was Peters on the line to Canberra seeking Australia’s assistance in repatriating stranded New Zealanders in places as far apart as Nepal and Peru.
Whether Peters offered an apology for his earlier megaphone diplomacy is not known (we suspect not). He thought he was on a winner back then in March (the coronavirus pandemic at that time was being glossed over lightly by the government ) as he gave the Scott Morrison government a verbal towelling. He told the ABC it was a bit rich for Australia to be shipping its unwanted people to NZ when an Australian has been charged over the deaths of 51 people in the Christchurch mosque attacks.
“Did we make a song and dance about Australia about that? It was the worst tragedy we’ve ever had – 51 people lost their lives – scores and scores were damaged forever. Far worse than Port Arthur, and nobody in my country sought to abuse Australia about that, that’s my point … and we want a thing called respect.”
Peters then told Sky News Australia he was itching to argue deportation with the Australian government.
“I’m happy to have a debate with them, anytime they like … the whole lot of them.”
In the event, subsequent conversations have probably had a rather different tone, though Peters admittedly is a master of switching his political tune when he needs to.
In his remote Whanamaki retreat in Northland this past week, between calls to Wellington, Canberra and other foreign capitals, he’s probably had the chance for reflection on his remarkable political career.
And with his 75th birthday coming up on April 11, he may be scanning the horizon for what lies ahead. The seemingly ageless Peters thrives in the heat of political battle. Retirement from the fray may not even have crossed his mind.
Without any sign yet whether the general election will be postponed from its September 19 date, Peters may be pondering how NZ First can escape the fallout when the ranks of the unemployed start lengthening.
There are some dark clouds circling over the party. Take the racing industry, which was one of the props for NZ First in the last election campaign, when leading figures supplied cash to the party, in the expectation Peters could fulfil his pledge to rescue the industry. Now the industry is in even deeper crisis than it was then, unable to win recognition as an essential industry, trainers unable to exercise their horses, and race meetings cancelled. Almost certainly the thousands of dollars of funding from industry players channelled towards NZ First will slow to only a trickle.
Property developers who looked fondly on NZ First when it blocked Labour’s policy on a capital gains tax have other worries on their minds now, as many businesses fold their tents and depart the premises they rented.
And the $3 billion regional development fund, which was expected to shore up support for NZ First, will look like only a drop in the bucket of what is needed to revitalise the economy once NZ emerges from lockdown.
NZ First certainly won’t want to be reminded it was Peters who in the 1917 election campaign asserted he would be first down the Pike River drift to recover the bodies in that mining disaster (particularly as the coalition has in effect wasted $57m hard-earned taxpayer dollars on the recovery project)
If the government’s campaign to subdue the virus is successful, it is unlikely any of the plaudits will spill over to Labour’s coalition partners, least of all to NZ First.
As a UK commentator put it, coronavirus is revealing the true nature of political power. Here in NZ it is being wielded by Jacinda Ardern. And the credit, if she succeeds, won’t be shared with NZ First.
Labour has ensured the focus has been on Ardern’s skills as a leader and a communicator, squeezing other key ministers outside the range of cameras, exploiting the absence of normal political argument. And when business leaders mark the government ten out of ten for its performance, none of that spills over to the subordinate members of the coalition.
When it comes to the recovery phase, voters will be demanding far-reaching and imaginative programmes to rehabilitate the economy. NZ First with its small-scale conservatism doesn’t play in that league.
But Peters has never been a politician who has cut-and-run. Few can doubt he believes he can beat the odds, as he has done so often since he founded his party 29 years ago.
Truly the old master will have to deploy all the tricks of the trade he has learnt in his political career spanning more than four decades (and probably some more as well) to get across the line again.