Polls portend the toppling of Peters and his extraordinary political career – replacing him in Foreign Affairs won’t be easy

Will  we  miss him  when  he is  gone?

Love him  or  loathe  him,  Winston  Peters   is  one   of the  extraordinary  characters  on the  NZ  political  stage.  Through  his  remarkable  career,   he  has  registered   the  highs — and  lows — of  politics.

But  now  after  his  latest stint  as  Deputy Prime Minister  and  Foreign  Minister, the latest opinion polling show he is  facing political  oblivion.  NZ  First’s support  has shrunk to  just 1%.

This  perhaps  comes  as  no  surprise    after   the  financial  shenanigans  involving    the  NZ  First  Foundation,  despite  Peters   asserting  the  party  and  MPs   have been  “exonerated”.

 The  Serious  Fraud  Office  announced  last week  that two  people  are  being charged  after  a  probe  into  the  foundation.

The   SFO investigation discovered  credible  evidence   of   criminal  wrongdoing   at  the foundation,  which has  no other purpose  than to  serve  the  NZ  First  Party.

No matter how  Peters rails  against  the  SFO,  the  hard  truth  is that one of the  country’s  major  law  enforcement  agencies  is charging  two  people  with  connections  to the  NZ  First  Party, even if  they  are  not current members  of it.

NZ  First’s   coalition  partners   have  been   quick  to   put  as  much  space  as they  possibly can  between   themselves  and  the  financial  scandal.

Peters,  of  course, couldn’t  expect   much  support from  either  Labour  or the Greens  because  he has been trying for  some  months  to  distance  himself    from  them,  arguing that  NZ  First has   acted as   a brake  on  the  government  when   issues  like a capital gains tax   were  high on the agenda.

He  forfeited   Labour sympathy    when he levelled  the jibe that the  2017-20  Labour-Green  government  has been the  most  challenging he had to  deal with.

That was  intended to underline  what  a great  job he had done   in  applying  his  past  experience to help  out the  novitiate ministers  in  the Ardern team.

So, now, the   commentariat  is  virtually  writing   off   the chances   of   Peters  and  NZ   First  returning  for a  second  term  in a  Labour-led   coalition.  Peters’   campaign   is  relegated   to  odd paragraphs here  and  there.

But  is  it  too  soon   to  be  compiling   elegies   for   Peters  and  NZ  First?.   Time  and  again,  they have  made it back from  the  edge of  extinction.

Peters  himself  seems  ageless.  Now in  his    76th   year,  he  has  left  no  stone unturned as he  campaigns  round the  country.

Surely NZ  First has  built   up  its  own  core support,   chucking  all  that  money  through the  Provincial Growth  Fund   at  pet projects  in  key electorates  like  Northland?   Or  with  those engaged  in the racing industry    through the  $70m  of hard-earned  taxpayer  cash.  Isn’t there  a  100,000 votes  in that alone?

Yet astute  political  authorities   like  Audrey  Young   have  already  been canvassing    who  may take  over the  Foreign Affairs  portfolio   when Peters  fades  from  the  scene.

That  just  underlines   how  big   the  shoes  Peters  leaves  behind  will be to  fill.

Peters  is regarded in MFAT as the best minister since Don  McKinnon.  From the start he has championed the Pacific with the US government – his first speech and visit to  Washington in November 2018 made that very point.  The US was allowing “others” to fill a void. He made the case vigorously to Vice-president  Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo.

Peters  has a wide range of  international connections at ministerial level,  vital   for  a  small  country  like  NZ   which is desperate    to  make its  voice heard. Potential  replacements  would  find  it a major challenge   to  get  on  the  same wavelength, given the fractious nature of the global scene. He has brought gravitas and  sensitivity to the role.

He worked Australia well, defusing the most contentious issues and provided much needed guidance to Ardern in the foreign policy role.  Unlike   some of  his predecessors  he  did not micro-manage  the  ministry and left MFAT to do its work provided he was properly briefed on the issues.

As   Point of Order  sees  it,  there  will be  a  real   loss  to  the  government – at  least   in  the conduct  of  NZ’s  foreign  policy – if  NZ   First   goes  down to  defeat  on  October  17.

But  the  odds   appear stacked   against   Peters  making  one   more comeback.  One of the problems of  his own  creation  was  his  decision  to  go  into coalition  with  Labour  after  the  2017  election. That antagonised  those  who  had voted  for  him  in the belief he  would  go into coalition  with  Bill English in a  National-led  government.

The  role   he  carved  out  for  himself   and  NZ  First    in  the  NZ  political  machine  has been sidelined  not  so much   by  a  human hand    but  by a  virus.  The  pandemic  has   rendered  him  superfluous,  in the eyes  of  the  voters  who  previously  regarded  him as a  vital cog  in  the  engine   of  government.

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