Turnout was strong at a New Zealand First rally in Whangārei on Sunday afternoon, where leader Winston Peters distanced himself from both major parties and announced transport and infrastructure policies that seem aimed at pleasing Northlanders in particular.
Around 500 people showed up to a reception room at Whangārei’s Semenoff Stadium for the announcement of the party’s Whangārei candidate, ex-policeman and current district councillor Gavin Benney.
Peters made several policy announcements, a full independent inquiry into how the pandemic was handled and whether successive lockdowns were justified, and bringing economic activity to Northland through road upgrades, naval bases and a reopened refinery.
Several attendees said they usually voted for the major parties, but were keen to hear what Peters had to say.
They weren’t disappointed. Although it was Benney’s big debut, the headline act was Peters, who performed for an hour-and-a-half.
In his marathon sermon he traversed the political landscape, from vaccine mandates to restoring mothballed public assets.
Once question time came, it was clear many in the crowd wanted their views were represented on polarising issues like co-governance and how the Ardern government handled Covid.
Peters had answers at the ready, and distanced himself from both the actions of past Labour and National governments.
It wasn’t raised at the meeting, but a common criticism online that he will face if he courts the votes of the centre-right involves his kingmaker role in 2017.
It was his decision that put Dame Jacinda Ardern in power, and for voters decrying the current Labour government, that could remain a difficult pill to swallow.
But to hear Peters speak, it’s as if he was always on the outside with the former Prime Minister and her Government.
He said while he supported initial lockdowns, later instances were unjustified, and he promised a full-scale independent review of the Covid response. if elected and in power.
“This inquiry must not be run by Parliament, and nor can it be narrow in its scope… it must not be run by parliamentarians who will cover their .. what? Cover their derriere,” he said. “Do you trust them? I don’t, and I know them better than most.”
New Zealand First would reinstate people who lost their jobs and ensure they are recompensed – a promise that drew riotous applause from the crowd.
Peters fired shots at both major parties, saying Labour and National had let down Northland when it came to roading.
It’s a potential political winner in Whangārei, where the idea of State Highway 1 upgrades are popular.
Like National Party policies announced on the same day, Peters announced he would fast-track a four-lane road from the city down to Marsden Point, where he also wants the country’s main port and naval base moved.
It’s a set of policies that feels almost specifically targeted to centre-right voters in Whangārei, which also happens to be near Peters’ home base.
He was able to take the mostly older crowd on a walk down memory lane to a time when the city had a full menu of industrial assets creating work for locals and spurring economic growth.
“You know, Whangarei used to be a thriving city,” he said. “We used to have here a central government that believed back then in the city and this province.”
His nostalgia was chiefly aimed at big, creaky, old industrial buildings – the Portland cement works, the government mint up on the hill by Onerahi, the refinery down at Marsden Point.
“What’s left?” he asked the audience.
“Nothing!” Somebody shouted back.
It’s a line of argument that fits well with his campaign slogan – ‘Let’s take back our country’.
Like National’s ‘Get New Zealand Back on Track’, it promises a return to something that once was, and echoes the same rose-coloured rearview mirror alluded to in the slogan of a recent controversial American President.
But part of the appeal of politicians like Donald Trump and Christopher Luxon for voters agitating for some kind of change was fresh blood – a politician who wasn’t a politician. It’s not something Peters could ever claim.
Benney described him as the country’s most experienced politician, having been in Parliament on and off since 1978.
For some of the vote he’s courting that will go down just as bitterly as his role in the 2017 election. It’s not an argument he’s shying away from, however: experience is being framed as one of the four main pillars of his campaign.
He told the audience to ask themselves if it was the first rodeo for whomever they were voting.
“Because for many it is. They have never had a minister inside of Cabinet. They will need our certainty, our common sense, and our experience.”
Peters’ experience comes across pretty clearly when you see him hold a group of people in his thrall. At times he’s the statesman-like uncle down at the pub, leaving his point for a minute to regale the table with a joke poking fun at Australians, and at other times it’s like he’s reflecting the id of the amassed crowd, bemoaning past governments’ actions with visible disdain.
But as a long-time populist, Peters’ rhetoric has woven back and forth, appealing at times to both former Labour and National voters.
This time around, Peters has ruled out a coalition with Labour, so it seems the votes he’ll want to snare will come from the right of centre.