New Zealand First ends 2019 with no doubt about its influence within the coalition, but plenty of questions about its mysterious foundation. Winston Peters spoke to Newsroom about his work, the plan of attack for 2020 and why he doesn’t believe in the party’s ‘one-term curse’.

For all the talk about Jacinda Ardern taking lessons in governance and political management from Winston Peters, is the wily veteran starting to pick up tips from the Prime Minister?

Speaking to Newsroom about New Zealand First’s year that was, Peters reels off a laundry list of his party’s achievements – one of Ardern’s go-to moves – before borrowing one of her descriptions of 2019, albeit with a trademark Winstonism.

“It’s been a lot of work, we’re very pleased with the progress we’ve made, and for us it has seriously been a year of delivery.”

He says the party has lived up to its promise of providing both experience and a moderating voice within government, pointing to the decision to scrap plans for a capital gains tax and steps towards “a sensible, focused immigration policy”.

But New Zealand First’s influence within government has rarely been in question. Quite the opposite, in fact, with some arguing whether the current coalition is a case of the tail wagging the dog – an argument Peters has little time for.

“The fact is, if people expect three very different political parties to abandon their various and different pasts and their policies, they’re wrong. What we’re going to do is make, in the case of the coalition, Labour and New Zealand First, our policies work and the way we’ve agreed for them to work.”

Asked how often New Zealand First has been willing to give way to Labour in the interests of the wider coalition, Peters offers this cryptic rejoinder.

“The fact is I bring more experience to this game than anybody in this Parliament. Know that that elephant with the big ears at the end of the jungle sunning himself in the morning is not there because he’s stupid.”

But one target of New Zealand First’s approach – the rural community – has seemed at least somewhat resistant to its charms.

Some members of New Zealand’s rural community have been vocal in their dislike of New Zealand First – but Winston Peters argues there is “silent” enthusiasm for the party in the regions. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Through its Provincial Growth Fund and other coalition commitments to the regions, it looked as if the party had its eye on making incursions into National’s rural vote.

But there appears to be growing frustration at the regions’ supposed ingratitude for New Zealand First’s efforts, with Shane Jones recently decrying what he called “Ngāti Redneckery” after a hostile reception from a protest rally of farmers.

“Well if I’d been given five minutes in front of them, I would have silenced them,” Peters says.

“I would have started off by saying, ‘You three guys with this lewd appalling expletive written on your card, put that down and we’re going to put the cuffs on to you’.

“That’s not the way the farming community should behave, and the leadership should have stopped them.”

Peters cites the more favourable exchange rate with the US for exporters, record commodity prices and efforts to secure “pragmatic environmental policy settings” as reasons for rural New Zealanders to support his party – and in fact, he argues they already are.

“We pack the halls in the provinces. I don’t worry about what the commentariat are saying, about what the so-called polls are saying, I look at the level of enthusiasm which in many cases for New Zealand First is covert – it’s silent.

“But if you look at…the number of people from the most stunning background who say, ‘We’re voting for you Winston, don’t worry’, I’m seriously confident we’re on the rise.”

While Peters is renowned for his distrust of opinion polls, there is one trend that cannot be brushed off so easily.

Since founding New Zealand First, he has never lasted more than a term as a minister without his party falling below five percent and the governing party he backed losing power.

Poor post-Govt results ‘no precedent’

Predictably, Peters brushes off the suggestion that represents a worrying track record: “Look at the hits I took on the way through, and that’s why it’s not a precedent.”

For 1999, he blames Jenny Shipley rolling Jim Bolger and leading National to a damaging defeat – “the collateral damage for New Zealand First was huge, but we still survived it” – while his party’s 2008 performance is attributed to a “vicious attack” in the form of the party’s donations scandal.

“Now we took a massive attack by way of character assassination, and I still came back from that.”

With the New Zealand First Foundation saga set to roll through into 2020, it would seem that history could repeat – but Peters claims his opponents “made one fatal mistake this time: they launched the attack too early”.

On the foundation, he is defensive, saying: “I’ve been to 27 countries this year…and I’ve been offshore 17 different times, and in addition to that I’ve spoken and done things all over this country, and how on earth they expect me to be knowledgeable about that is just plain ridiculous.”

But Peters has received an assurance that the foundation is responding to every question asked of it by the Electoral Commission, and he remains confident that what the party has done is within the law.

“You will notice that every other party’s been using social media and one party’s been keeping this utility in reserve – you’re looking at that party, and I can’t tell you its character, shape and form, but we have got ourselves all this heavy artillery ready to go.”

Among the projects reported by Stuff to have been funded by the foundation is the party’s new Nation Builder website, and one notable trend in recent months has been the use of website surveys on nearly every major policy issue – presumably in the hopes of building up a dataset for its probable or potential supporters.

“It’s all about really knowing not just your members, but knowing the constituency,” Peters says.

“I can’t say too much more than that, because I’ve looked at the other parties and if I looked at the way they sort of stalled, and here’s a party that’s in, well, it’s in a marathon so to speak, but as we close to the last mile, we’re sitting in the right place and well-positioned for a serious run.”

He has also promised the party will use social media like never before – something that will not be that hard given the low base it starts from, not that Peters sees that as a negative.

“You will notice that every other party’s been using social media and one party’s been keeping this utility in reserve – you’re looking at that party, and I can’t tell you its character, shape and form, but we have got ourselves all this heavy artillery ready to go.”

With that artillery in reserve, and a fair few weapons aimed his party’s way, 2020 is set to be explosive.

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

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