Will Winston Peters rise in 2017? Tim Murphy explains why comparisons with Trump are off the mark
Way back in 1990, just before National won a landslide victory to take government, Winston Peters and a couple of press gallery journalists were bar-hopping in Dunedin during the party’s annual conference.
As we made it back to where the conference function was being held, music wafted out of the bar area. It was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising. Peters flashed his big smile and announced: ‘They’re playing my song.’
Back then he was a maverick in the caucus, a non-team player, a rival – in his own mind and in the opinion polls – with Jim Bolger for leader of the National Party.
‘There’s a Bad Moon on the Rise’ did come to pass for Bolger, as Peters’ time as a Minister in the Bolger government ended badly – unable to deal with Ruth Richardson’s ascendancy he was sacked and broke away to form New Zealand First. Then in 1996, the bad moon shone again, sweeping 17 seats via his 13 per cent of the vote. He was young, still had black hair and fewer lines than the Goldie painting of a face he has today, and claimed his seat as deputy Prime Minister and – can you believe it – Treasurer in that National government.
It ended badly. He left that ministry too.
Helen Clark’s government needed him in 2005 to hold off Don Brash’s National Party and so Peters ended up back in government, this time as Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was soon disgraced, falsely claiming not to have taken money from businessman Owen Glenn, being chastised by Parliament’s Privileges Committee and being ejected from even his beloved Tauranga electorate seat by a public fed up with being mooned.
New Zealand First got back into Parliament in 2011 and held its position last election. Last year, Peters upset National again to win an electorate seat, Northland, at a by-election. His party is now polling around 10 percent in the opinion polls and could help a Labour-Greens coalition oust National in a year’s time.
And he may well achieve that. MMP puts almost any party in play. New Zealand First should get five to 10 per cent. It is a kind-of mix between the wackiness of Social Credit and the bellicosity of the National Front.
But, contrary to many one-dimensional predictions, Peters isn’t going to be our Donald Trump. He won’t rise up in his own right to conquer the Establishment, upend the chess board of politics and benefit through New Zealand First from the Trumpist, Brexit populism dogging western democracies.
Trump would label Peters part of the Broken Wellington Establishment. He’s been in (and twice voted out of) Parliament for 40 years. He’s been a Minister in THREE governments over 26 of those years.
He’s a Privy Councillor for goodness sake, and still takes the Rt Hon (Right Honourable) title.
To the Trumpist view, he is a part of the problem, not the solution. You could imagine Trump debating Peters and asking the same question he asked of Hillary Clinton: ‘Why didn’t you do any of this over the past 40 years?
More than that, Peters has already played his anti-immigrant and anti-globalisation and free trade cards. He’s banked those votes. They’re in his current 10 percent, which may well get him back in government, but as a collaborator not a revolutionary.
The intensity of feeling over immigration may well ease in the next year as Reserve Bank conditions on lending levels to foreigners for residential real estate bite and as that price growth in the Auckland housing market plateaus or falls.
Peters and NZ First can claim the anti-immigrant mantle, but they are not the party of housing affordability, which will be the issue that remains. That is Labour.
New Zealand First has run through its caucus’ anti-Muslim, anti-Treaty and anti-markets peccadilloes.
Peters has even played Trump’s anti-China card. Part of the Clark government that signed the first western Free Trade Agreement with China, he rails against the unfairness of China’s economic rise at the expense of the mythical NZ version of Trump’s white, uneducated, working-class voters.
Yet Trump’s very rise complicates Peters’ position on trade. If the US turns against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and advances its own interests over those of all-comers, some economies like ours will need China’s growth and opportunities even more than ever.
On race, has the Treaty of Waitangi and one-law-for-all issue got anything left in the tank? Brash gave it a good go in 2005 but came up short. Helen Clark and John Key’s governments have worked hard to remove the Iwi-Kiwi sloganeering from the political debate.
NZ First has its own internal tensions. Peters is widely thought not to have full confidence in his deputy Ron Mark and the much-touted return to politics of former Labour MP Shane Jones, perhaps to bid for National’s Whangarei seat, will be both a benefit and a curse internally. Jones would be the obvious deputy and successor to the Great Leader.
In a way, Peters was onto the Trump and Brexit phenomena earlier than Donald or UKIP. Before his time. Had his chance to act and now suffers the indignity of political commentary here linking him to their Bad Moons.
There are similarities between Trump and Peters. One is their age – Peters is older. Another is their lack of real belief and ideology. Both, really, play politics to win, not to do anything in particular with that win once they get there. Both seem to have short attention spans.
Both can pull crowds for the live performances. Peters is not coarse in the vulgarian way of Trump, he is a better teller of jokes, has better-cut suits and has a few clues on the limits of deniability when caught out making things up. Oh, wait…..
When he was in ministerial office, according to those who worked alongside him in different administrations, he was a bit more of a Jeb Bush, in the famous words of Trump – ‘low-energy’, not across his papers and briefings as much as his predecessors.
So if not Peters, who benefits here from the Fed Up factor in election year?
The Greens could get the equivalent liberal surge of Bernie Sanders’ Democrats; Labour just has to win votes on its housing affordability issue and will steer clear of the Identity Politics that Peters feeds off; National will not leave issues on the table for the pure populists to exploit. New Prime Minister Bill English inherits an administration as fixated on public opinion polls as Peters has ever been.
Other than Gareth Morgan’s TOP party, there’s no obvious outsider.
MMP has put a few of the outsiders on the inside, a pressure valve that should prevent one populist garnering enough support to really surprise.
Peters is no surprise. He’s a veteran Establishment player. He’s played many of his cards already. Others will seize his ground. He’ll feature, but he won’t overwhelm.
I don’t see a bad moon a-rising
I don’t see trouble on the way
I don’t see earthquakes and lightnin’
I don’t see bad times today.