NZ First leader Winston Peters looks set to again assume the kingmaker role as other parties fall down around him. As part of Newsroom’s election coverage, Sam Sachdeva spoke to Peters about how he will slash immigration and what he makes of Jacinda Ardern.

Winston Peters has not been shy about his party’s ambitions for this election.

“This time, in our 24th year, we are going to transform the electoral system. We will be, most definitely, the Government,” he told NZ First supporters in June.

Two months later, with Peter Dunne bowing out of politics, the Greens dropping precipitously in the polls and Labour edging closer to National by the day, it looks all but certain that he will get his wish.

In elections past, Peters has spoken about staying on the cross benches rather than joining government, a decision he puts down now to a lack of confidence in the major parties.

“I looked at the particular political parties’ manifestos of that time and I thought, we couldn’t agree with either of those parties.”

Not that there’s much he agrees with now, giving little away about any inclinations he may have.

“Can you tell the economic difference between National and Labour? Well that’s the decision we have to make, because we’re not going to go downtown and compromise and tweak away with a failed economic plan.”

Immigration to the fore

One of Peters’ pet peeves, high immigration, has come to the fore this parliamentary term, with Labour and the Greens joining NZ First in calling for tighter controls or a “breather”.

“If the election can go on with parties like some dope addict, addicted to this mass immigration, then our country’s going nowhere,” he says.

With New Zealand’s population growing by over 100,000 in the year to June, and a net migration level of about 72,000 over the same period, Peters says cutbacks are necessary for the country’s strained infrastructure.

“The very idea that you can pursue this is just utter madness – we’re not even building enough houses for the people who get off the airplane, or trains, or infrastructure, or hospitals, or schools.”

Peters is not opposed to all immigration, supporting farmers who called for the Government to back down on tighter rules.

“Because of the dilemmas farmers got ourselves in, they’ll [migrant workers] be essential because you can’t stop production.”

The party would “hold the line” in essential industries, allowing migrant workers to remain while young Kiwis were retrained to take their place.

However, he argues that are tens of thousands who have come into the country “totally unqualified”, also highlighting what he says is “mass corruption” in the export education sector.

“It’s a total abuse of the term ‘export education’ because our economy’s paid for so much of it…

“Some of these poor things, they’re working 40 hours [longer than allowed] and trying to study, and you can see it in their blank eyes, they’re just totally out on their feet, but they come from the third world and this is starting to look like heaven to them.”

“The very idea that we can face the world separately and based on race, and that privilege should be based on your ethnicity, is what I’m utterly against, and that will be the thing to decide me to not to go with any government, with any party.”

Peters says NZ First would take on education agents “ripping their own students off”, while arguing student visas have been “corrupted and perverted” by the addition of work rights.

“They didn’t come here with work rights – they came here to ask our country to educate them. Where did the work rights come from? These things were never there.”

What would he say to those worried about how a crackdown on migration could stunt economic growth?

“I’d say to them, stop being an economic moron for a start. The economy’s not roaring, the economy – on per capita GDP rising – is down the bottom of the OECD. Your real growth rate, when you take out the population growth of 2.1, your real economic growth rate is 0.9.

“So stop deceiving yourself, stop acting like a moron. If you don’t like that, vote for somebody else, because we’re not going to go on lying to the rest of the country.”

Another of Peters’ concerns, one which has aligned him with odd bedfellow Don Brash, is with what he calls the “parallel governance that’s coming our way from the Treaty industry”.

“The very idea that we can face the world separately and based on race, and that privilege should be based on your ethnicity, is what I’m utterly against, and that will be the thing to decide me to not to go with any government, with any party.”

“The very love fest that you guys are engaged in, sooner or later somebody’s going to be asking the question…where’s the beef? Where’s the substance?”

He has called for a referendum on whether the Maori seats should remain – a potential bottom line that could prove a stumbling block for any deal with Labour, which has ruled such a move out.

New Labour leader Jacinda Ardern has made some overtures to Peters, quipping that they both shared an appreciation for single malts, but the favour isn’t returned when he’s asked about her performance so far.

“Well she hasn’t [performed]. You guys might think she has, but she hasn’t done anything at all – I’m not making any comment about her in this campaign at all.

“The very love fest that you guys are engaged in, sooner or later somebody’s going to be asking the question like that famous hamburger ad in the United States – ‘where’s the beef? Where’s the substance?’”

Peters also takes issue with Labour’s uncertainty around taxes, which has also been pounced on by National.

“Their water rights [royalty] has got $52 million, $108 million or $500 million all on commentary they’ve made and with a fourth option that they’ll sit down with the industries and we’ll sort that out after the election – sort out what?”

Ardern has committed to extending the current “bright line” test on the sale of properties other than the family home from two years to five, but he doubts an extension would make a marked difference.

“From my knowledge of offshore buying, parked up in China, it’s security they want – they couldn’t give a rat’s if you make it 10 years.

“Besides which, everyone knows how with good lawyers…you can get around these laws, you can drive a horse and cart through them.”

Ardern has also refused to rule out a capital gains tax, but Peters appears lukewarm at best on the idea.

“If I’m going to be advocating a tax I’ll be telling you about it – if I haven’t said a word about it you can bet your bottom dollar it’s not going to be part of our manifesto commitments.”

NZ First is keen for tax reform of its own, “gunning for some tax change that actually is out incentivising exports”.

He names Singapore, Taiwan and Ireland as countries where business-friendly tax systems have succeeded.

“They do work but you’ve got to be careful with it…you attract this incentivisation if you do the following things, and we want to see the paperwork that backs it up, we want to see the 
papers that warrants their returns, but we will bring here billions which we’d not normally get, and I’ve seen that policy in action and it does work.”

Still giving 100 per cent

A perennial subject of interest when it comes to NZ First is a leadership succession plan – namely, whether there is one.

In that light, Peters’ recruitment of former Labour MP Shane Jones to run for the party in Whangarei is an interesting move.

He says Jones has a good record and something very rare in politics – “the ability to talk intelligently”.

“It’s as scarce as hen’s teeth, the ability for somebody to get up in front of a crowd and go for 45 minutes making sense is one of the rarest things in New Zealand politics.”

That doesn’t mean he’s willing to endorse Jones as a potential successor, however.

“Contrary to what the perception is, I’ve never ever decided what the party did after the election…

“That [the leadership] is for my colleagues to have a say on, and I’ll only be one vote when it happens.”

Not that you should expect that discussion any time soon: asked about his retirement plans, Peters talks about meeting US politician Strom Thurmond.

“Strom went on to be in the Senate when he was 100 years of age, and don’t forget he ran on the Dixie ticket in 1948 and he won seven states, so Strom was around for a while…

“You’ve got a whole lot of people who are ageist in this country, it’s only youth that are somehow highly qualified to do something – really?”

Peters says he will go when he is no longer interested in politics, and that hasn’t happened yet, with his newly-acquired, sprawling Northland electorate to defend.

“I go to the South Island, I can go 60, 80 kilometres – nobody lives there. Up north, they live everywhere.

“I’ve got a big electorate, I’ve got five offices, and I’m round the country as well, and very shortly I’ll open up a big campaign, and I’m going to give 100 per cent.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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