Winston Peters cops it with both barrels in today’s Dominion Post. In his weekly column, former TV3 political editor Duncan Garner launches a withering attack on the New Zealand First leader and concludes that the public is tired of his games. On the same page, Dom Post political editor Tracy Watkins says New Zealand First is a clock that has been slowly winding down since the 1996 election. (Remember? That was the pantomime when Peters kept the country in political limbo for six weeks while he went fishing.)Both commentators are especially critical of Peters’ vicious and cowardly counter-attack against his former protégé Brendan Horan, whom he likened – under parliamentary privilege – to the serial child abuser Jimmy Savile.
It all tends to reinforce a perception that Peters is losing his mojo. Certainly there has been a marked change in the tone of media coverage of him in recent weeks, starting with his failure to deliver on the promise of a killer blow to Judith Collins. The press gallery was almost unanimous in its scorn for him over that, which leads me to wonder whether they’ve finally had enough of his bluster and bullshit.But before those of us who abhor Peters’ political style get too excited, hang on a minute. Yesterday he held a public meeting in Masterton, and out of curiosity I went along. The room was packed long before the guest of honour arrived. I counted more than 100 heads, nearly all of them grey. The meeting was chaired by octogenarian New Zealand First stalwart George Groombridge, who deferentially referred to Peters as "the Boss".
For Peters, the 2014 election campaign is already underway. He spoke, mostly without notes, for nearly an hour. It was vintage Peters, delivered in that characteristic hoarse staccato bark, and it pushed all the usual buttons.We have a government that grovels to wealthy foreign interests. Immigrants are placing huge demands on housing and infrastructure, which the rest of us (meaning real New Zealanders) have to pay for. Australian banks are robbing us blind. The Budget was a big con; the only good thing in it was the extension of free doctors’ visits for children, and we all know where Bill English got that idea. Honest, hard-working Kiwis in places like the Wairarapa are being forced to subsidise the Auckland super-city, which even Aucklanders didn’t want. We wouldn’t sleep at night if we knew how few police cars were on the job (and this after New Zealand First heroically pushed Helen Clark’s government into increasing police numbers by 1000). Wealthy Chinese donors to the National Party who can’t even speak English are demanding that we change our immigration policy (“Just try that in Beijing!”). Twenty-one of Barfoot and Thompson’s 25 top real estate agents are Asian. We’re an economic colony of China and Australia. John Key was the only person in New Zealand who didn’t know in advance of the raid on the Dotcom mansion, and he’s the minister in charge of the SIS and GSCB. The free market is a total nonsense. Cameron Slater is a dysfunctional twit who knows nothing about politics. (Journalists were repeatedly scorned, but only Slater was paid the compliment of being mentioned by name.) The most profitable investment in New Zealand is a donation to the National Party. Chardonnay-drinking clowns have nothing but contempt for the concerns of ordinary people – “but we’ve got news for them, and it’s all bad”. And so on, and so on. You get the picture.
Peters repeatedly invoked memories of a kinder, fairer and more prosperous New Zealand, where everyone pulled their weight and was duly rewarded for their hard work. There were nostalgic references to Keith Holyoake, Robert Muldoon (his own political mentor, whose imprint remains all too visible) and even to the Seddon government of the 1890s.Underneath all the bluster was a plaintive, and politically potent, question: how could we allow that legacy to be snatched away from us? It was a message that resonated sharply with his audience. And while it would be easy to dismiss the speech as classic populism, it was hard not to feel a grudging admiration for Peters’ ability to zero in on the National-led government’s weak points. He certainly has no shortage to choose from.
What was conspicuously missing (not that anyone brought it up at question time) was any coherent prescription for tackling the issues Peters sees bedevilling New Zealand. But then, Peters was always, by instinct, an opposition politician, triumphantly finding fault with everyone else while shirking the hard work required to come up with workable policy solutions.Not that this mattered to his adoring audience yesterday. They hung on his every word, nodding and murmuring in agreement and laughing on cue even when he said things that weren’t funny.
Now here’s the thing. Most of the people who turned out to hear Peters in Masterton probably wouldn’t have bothered to read the comments of Duncan Garner and Tracy Watkins in the paper this morning; and if they had, they would have dismissed it as the posturing of a Wellington elite that’s out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. Winston has told them so, many times.And while it’s easy to deride New Zealand First supporters as frightened and bewildered (I’ve done so myself), they all have a vote. And nothing I saw or heard yesterday gave me any reason to believe they won’t all be giving it to Peters – which is why it would be premature to say he’s lost it, no matter how much we might cherish the thought.
Footnote: Immigration was a dominant theme of Peters’ speech, but I couldn’t help noting that the first four people to get to their feet at question time had British accents. Obviously immigration from the UK is fine; it’s that other lot we don’t want.