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.