Winston Peters is blaming the Government for a lot, but if he’s serious about his party returning in 2023, he needs to accept some fault too, writes political editor Jo Moir.

For all his promises that New Zealand First will be back, Winston Peters hasn’t committed to his own return when the next election rolls around.

He might have assumed that was implicit, but as the man himself loves to say, words do matter.

More likely than not, Peters knew his leadership intentions would be questioned by the media following his long and antagonistic speech, leading to the greatest Houdini of all time.

Six media outlets split in separate directions to find him immediately after his speech on Sunday afternoon, but the 76-year-old had pulled off at record speed and gapped it next door, where he was prepared to wait it out.

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The New Zealand First conference began on Saturday with what members described as an “open and frank’’ discussion about the campaign and what went wrong

The resounding consensus was that it was a positive conversation – former minister Shane Jones summed it up as being like the All Blacks and when coach Steve Hansen lost a game, he “flushed it down the dunny and moved on’’.

All the caucus members and list candidates from last Parliament were given the opportunity to provide feedback through an interview process, though not all did.

When pressed whether Peters had addressed the campaign review or taken any responsibility, [party members] shut down.

Party members spoken to by Newsroom at the conference in Auckland agreed Covid-19 was to blame and even claimed the New Zealand First ministers had been shut out of the Cabinet room by Labour whenever the pandemic was discussed.

That’s not actually how Cabinet works but it is a convenient conspiracy to spread amongst members who may not understand the inner workings of a coalition government.

When pressed whether Peters had addressed the campaign review or taken any responsibility, they shut down.

One member told Newsroom they weren’t allowed to talk about the leader and scolded their friend when he started to respond.

An issue that was raised by those close to the party ahead of this weekend was the value placed on women, if any at all.

Some had claimed women did the heavy lifting in the roles of president and secretary but when it came to decision-making it was a boys’ club.

Peters couldn’t contain his glee when he took to the stage immediately after the new board had been elected, which consisted of four women and two men, and new president Julian Paul.

He used the start of his speech to criticise those in the media who had attacked the party over its treatment of women.

He somehow missed the point that electing them wasn’t the issue.

Peters then took aim at what he described as a “cancel culture where anyone who asks legitimate questions is belittled as a colonialist, a racist, a bigot, a chauvinist’’.

As for the speech itself, it was eight pages long and meandered from one grievance to the next, starting with why Aotearoa was an official name for New Zealand, separatism and the controversial He Puapua report.

Peters then took aim at what he described as a “cancel culture where anyone who asks legitimate questions is belittled as a colonialist, a racist, a bigot, a chauvinist’’.

The popularity of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whom he put into that role when he chose Labour in 2017, wasn’t lost on him.

He was quick to point out that he wasn’t “challenging the Prime Minister’s good intentions and her crisis leadership’’.

The Greens didn’t escape a verbal bashing over the newly-announced Auckland Harbour cycle bridge, or as he calls it “the bridge to nowhere’’.

Then it was electric vehicles and the Government’s feebate scheme announced a week ago.

It’s a policy New Zealand First handbraked last term.

Somehow Peters’ argument became less about cost and who it would impact, and more about what would happen to the old EV batteries.

After about five mentions of batteries even his most loyal supporters were looking a little lost.

Peters did make a couple of valid arguments yesterday – the Government’s Budget announcement to restore the Hillside train workshop in Dunedin and a make-over of Scott Base were blatant New Zealand First policies, re-wrapped and sold as Labour’s.

The tail-end of his speech was dedicated to rattling off his party’s achievements in Government – the exact thing he failed to do during the campaign.

Instead, he railed against Ardern and her Labour ministers for keeping the whole country in alert Level Two so close to the election.

On Sunday he told party faithful there was much to be proud of after he and his colleagues successfully pulled the handbrake on bad ideas and helped get the funding for their own good ones.

He said the party took pride in turning around the previously run-down Kiwi Rail and Defence Force.

Former Defence Minister Ron Mark has called time on New Zealand First. Photo: Supplied

Peters acknowledged former Defence Minister and New Zealand First loyalist Ron Mark for his efforts in beefing up the country’s military presence in the Pacific.

He added, if Mark was at the conference, he would tell the party all about it too.

And perhaps that’s the crux of the problem.

People like Mark and long-serving member and MP Tracey Martin were notably absent at the weekend.

Both have left the party after deciding enough was enough and taking issue with the way the campaign was run into the ground so close to the election.

The party needs Peters to stay on if it has any hope of surviving.

But if true believers like Mark and Martin have lost faith, what hope is there of convincing the rest of the country?

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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