(First published in the Dominion Post and on stuff.co.nz, June 14.)
So we’re going to have Winston Peters as our acting prime minister for six weeks. Not bad for a politician who was rejected by his own electorate at the last election after failing to complete a single term.
Not bad either for a politician whose party won only 7 per cent of the vote and which, judging by recent polls, would struggle to scrape back into Parliament if an election was held tomorrow.
This is democracy New Zealand-style, in which the rewards – the baubles of office that Peters once insisted he wasn’t interested in – go not to a politician who commands broad public support, but to a crafty minor player who has learned how to game the system and manipulate the bigger parties.
We should all be ashamed at this travesty. But in the welter of media excitement over Jacinda Ardern’s impending motherhood, we’ve somehow overlooked the embarrassing fact that the most powerful office in the land is being placed in the hands of a politician with no popular mandate.
Perhaps we have short memories, so allow me to help. The Peters party lost three of its seats at the last election, including Peters’ own. Its share of the vote dropped from 8.6 per cent to 7.2 per cent – hardly a resounding endorsement.
We don’t know, and may never know, exactly what happened in the subsequent negotiations to form a coalition government, because the politicians prefer to keep all that stuff secret. Transparency? Pffft.
What we do know is that Peters largely controlled the process because his party’s puny share of the vote gave him the balance of power.
We also know now, although no one knew then, that on the day before the election, Peters had quietly instituted legal action against senior National Party figures over the alleged leaking of details about the overpayment of his national superannuation.
This made it highly improbable, to say the least, that he would agree to a coalition with National. But both major parties continued to negotiate with him in good faith, each believing it was in with an equal chance and each trying to outbid the other for his favour.
With the benefit of hindsight, the negotiations can be seen as a charade with only one likely outcome. Both major parties were played for suckers.
We eventually learned what Peters’ price was. Not only did he emerge as deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister, but four Cabinet seats were allocated to NZ First – twice the number it would have been entitled to if Cabinet appointments were proportionate with the party’s poll result.
Of course all these inconvenient details are swept under the carpet now, because they reflect badly on our flawed electoral system.
Rather than ask awkward questions about the murky circumstances in which the Labour-led coalition was formed, we’re expected to marvel at what a good job Peters is doing as foreign minister.
Well, of course he is. After all, it’s hardly the most taxing gig in the Cabinet. And who wouldn’t relish a job that involves hob-nobbing with world leaders in exotic locales?
It’s perhaps telling that his one serious misstep so far was his misplaced enthusiasm for a trade deal with Russia. I have a sneaking suspicion that Vladimir Putin is the type of leader Peters admires.
We’re also assured that Peters will do a great job as acting prime minister – but again, why wouldn’t he? He’s onto a good thing and he must know it. He probably considers it due reward for a long and tumultuous political career which now, please God, must be nearing its end.
But we should also remember that this is Winston Raymond Peters we’re talking about. And where Peters is involved, the potential for mayhem and debacle is never far away.
We’re encouraged to believe everything is hunky-dory in the coalition and that it will be business as usual – Ardern’s phrase – when Peters steps up. But only this week Peters humiliated Justice Minister Andrew Little by derailing Little’s plan to repeal the Three Strikes law.
He also provocatively re-activated the legal action over the leaking of his superannuation overpayment, in which one of the defendants is his Cabinet colleague David Parker as Attorney-General.
This is classic Peters. The timing could hardly have been accidental. He can’t help himself.
But I’m picking the real test of Peters’ new-found statesmanlike mantle will come when he has to deal with journalists. Almost alone among New Zealand politicians, Peters has never quite accepted that accountability to the public, via the media, goes with the territory.
Will he be able to suppress his natural antagonism toward journalists in his new role? The sheer improbability of it conjures up Dr Johnson's famous image of a dog walking on its hind legs. But it might be fun to watch.