New Zealand First leader Winston Peters joked at a public meeting of mainly older people that, unlike his questioner, “I don’t act my age.”
The man in a wheelchair had asked when the politician might retire, and the veteran former MP wasn’t getting into any suggestions of failing capability or diminished political energy or mobility.
At last week’s Newshub Nation live TV debate, two younger party leaders Marama Davidson of the Greens and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer of Te Pāti Maōri repeatedly referred to Peters as “Matua” or uncle or chief, a warm term for an older male relative or friend. While respectful, it also served to underline the many, many years of seniority of their opponent.
Peters’ age in this campaign is the old bull tusker of an elephant in the room.
Having turned 78 in April, he will be older, if sworn in after a likely return to Parliament in October, than US President Joe Biden was when he was inaugurated early in 2021.
He will likely be the oldest person ever to lead a party back to Parliament and possibly into power. Labour’s Sir Walter Nash was only a spritely 75 when he won the 1957 election. Nash did go on to stay as an MP, post his prime ministership, until his death, aged 86, making him our oldest parliamentarian.
Peters started at Parliament in 1978 when Christopher Luxon was in Standard 2 at primary school, Labour leader Chris Hipkins had just been born (September 1978) and David Seymour was still another five years from emerging into the world.
This year, the oldest MP in the outgoing Parliament was National’s retiring Rangitikei representative Ian McKelvie, aged 71.
The New Zealand First matua has always presented as being in vigorously good health (other than time away for keyhole surgery in 2020, which was explained as ‘following food poisoning and dehydration’). He suffered a mystery insect bite – possibly on what he would call his ‘derriere’ – when sitting on a spider in Malaysia when foreign minister in 2006, was treated and discharged from hospital and was off work for a time in Australia on the way home.
But, in general, Peters has been an original exponent of the now cliched quality of being ‘resilient’.
This campaign, more than last, he has seemed focused (while maintaining his permanent stance of wilful opaqueness), and clasping his hands tightly for composure at the podium while timing his debate interventions and practised ripostes.
Last election, as the tide went out on his party, he had meandered at times at media stand-ups and was not at his best, checking himself at times to recall names of old foes, for example National’s finance minister of the early 1990s, Ruth Richardson.
He reminds audiences now that he has fought away for 40 years on some issues – protecting superannuitants’ rights and Māori and Treaty issues taking up decades among them.
Out-serving his heroes
Peters first entered Parliament in 1978 with Sir Robert Muldoon as his party leader and Prime Minister. When Muldoon eventually left Parliament at the end of 1991, considered an old warhorse by that stage, he was just 70, the age at which he died the following year.
If, as major polls are indicating, Peters’ party wins more than 5 percent of the vote and re-enters Parliament after October 14, and he can hold everything together over the next three years, he will mark some milestones for the history books.
His years in and out of the House (he has the rare distinction of holding then losing three separate electorates – Hunua in 1981, Tauranga in 2005 and Northland in 2017) have him on the cusp of eclipsing several knighted titans of New Zealand politics for their longevity.
For example, he is currently eighth on the list of longest-serving MPs, his interrupted career having him currently at 36 years and 51 days in the House.
If returned, Peters would within a year overtake the former Liberal and United Prime Minister of the early 1900s and late 1920s, Sir Joseph Ward, who served 36 years, 308 days.
By 2025, and all going well, Peters would surpass the 37 years and 253 days of the sixth placed, the great Maōri leader Sir Apirana Ngata, a parliamentarian and minister regularly praised by Peters and quoted on issues around the Treaty of Waitangi.
Then in the final year of the term, Peters would have the satisfaction of nudging ahead of the Labour grandee Jonathan Hunt, who sat through much of Peters’ early decades and dealt with him as a one-time Speaker; then Sir Walter Nash himself, with 38 years, 168 days and then Sir George O’Rorke, the House’s longest serving speaker, who was an MP for 38 years and 235 days.
All big names, and note, most were knighted or, in Hunt’s case, appointed to the exclusive Order of New Zealand.
Peters would just miss, in this next term of Parliament, knocking off one of the House and National Party’s all time greats, Sir Keith Holyoake, whose total of 39 years and 94 days sits tantalisingly at the very end of the year 2026, at the extreme end, and probably beyond, possible election dates.
Peters would need, at age 81, to do it all again to catch Holyoake (who was both Prime Minister and later Governor-General) and become the second longest serving MP ever. Holyoake was just 73 when he exited Parliament in 1977 to take the vice-regal office. It was deliberately shortened to three years for him on account of his age.
For Peters, a year and a bit further on, he could take the top spot from Labour MP Rex Mason who served 13 consecutive terms from 1926 to 1966 (40 years and 194 days). Mason was made CMG in 1967’s New Year Honours.
A relative young ‘un
While Peters re-entering Parliament at the age of 78 might seem old when Muldoon was done and dusted politically at 70, Holyoake at 73 and even Nash had left the Cabinet at 78, he remains a young buck by some of the kinds of international political figures he’s well familiar with over the decades.
President Biden is to stand again at the end of 2024 and would be 82 and three months old at a second inauguration.
The former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was re-elected to that country’s leadership at 93 and is still offering his successors and countrymen advice on Twitter aged 98.
And former US Senator Strom Thurmond, the famed segregationist who served 48 years in the Senate, died aged 100, just months after leaving office.
The determination of such old politicians to go on and on has pricked the interest of one observer, the 75-year-old former Labour minister and Act leader Richard Prebble, who wrote in The New Zealand Herald:
“It is a mystery what is driving these old men. US President Joe Biden is 80, Donald Trump is 77 and Peters is 78. If elected again, all will be still serving in their 80s.
“Old men are a tribe which is much misunderstood (and for which I have considerable affection) but being the leader of a political party or the nation is not a job for an old man. Old fellows should stick to giving sage advice.”