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October 1, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Winston Peters: The Full Interview

Below is the (nearly) full transcript of Salient’s interview with Winston Peters published in The Power Issue as You Winston You Lose Some.

Ollie: Having been in Parliament now since the 1970’s, and having spent much of that time advocating for values that you have considered to be New Zealand values, what does it mean to you to be a New Zealander?

Winston: To be a New Zealander means to be lucky enough to live in a country, whether by birth or by choice or by adoption, that has a unique history in a modern sense, and not just that it’s the world’s most beautiful country. Other countries have beauty, but that haven’t got it all in one country. So the greatest mix of beauty in nature is in New Zealand.

But also in terms of its social and political history, it’s had an astonishing past. The level of freedom and equality that was delivered in this country with markets so far away is unparalleled. And there is still great prospects for this country, but not in the way it is being run now, or the way it has been run the last 30 years. [laughs] I’m afraid to say that some of us arrived in politics at the worst time.

Ollie: Was it seeing your idea of New Zealand disappear that got you into politics?

Winston: Preserving that, yes. And improving it, modernising it. There were a lot of things when we came into politics that needed to be done to keep us ahead of the changes that were clearly emerging internationally. Europe had joined the EU—the European economic community. That was a time for alarm-bells that I think this country missed. So we had to look for markets everywhere we could. I saw some politicians back then see the light, and far too many didn’t.

[coffee arrives]

Ollie: Two of your brothers were in parliament at various points—which a lot of students wouldn’t recall. Was that political spirit something you were raised with, or did it come from your experiences later in the world?

Winston: I was always interested in what was happening. Given our university backgrounds and what have you—I did political science and history, and law—it was suggested that I might be interested in politics. My brothers did very similar. We’re quite proud of the fact that there’s never been three other brothers in this Parliament before.

Ollie: That is an achievement. So, did you always set out to obtain a position of influence?

Winston: No, I was a lawyer.

Ollie: How did you get from there to politics?

Winston: One day I saw a government that was miserably …

[lights cigarette]

Winston: …going to take the land off people who had been there for a long time if they were European, and if they were Maori they had been there for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. There was a coastal land grab way up North, up past Whangarei, all the way up in the Bay of Islands.

[sips cappuccino]

Winston: And they came to me as a young lawyer and I thought I’d do something about it. It was about that time that I thought, I could get something done far quicker than this, and that’s when the idea of going into Parliament came in. And I’ve been doing it ever since!

Ollie: It’s been a lucky streak.

Winston: Well, the Devil never rests. Not in life and not in politics.

Ollie: To take a more abstract step now, what does the term ‘power’ mean to you?

Winston: Power has got many faces. Power, as understood by the community, has rather eery connotations, and rightly so. But the power to do good is something else. And I suppose a lot of us in politics are what you might call idealists and romantics in the concept of the society we came from, and believing that there are times when it is a generation’s obligations to step up to the plate, and carry on great traditions. We are a country that lived through a great vision. The men didn’t enunciate it like that; they called it fairness, but it was as fine a vision that I’ve seen politically anywhere in the world. First it was under Seddon, then under Savage, then the National Party picked it up in the ‘50s and adopted it and gave it a new face, and called it a Properly Owned Democracy. In its hey-day—in the National Party’s hey-day—the Minister of Labour knew every single one of the unemployed—because there was only 28. Not 100, not 1000, just 28.


Ollie: Looking at New Zealand’s political system, though we live in a democracy, do you feel that there is a fair balance of power?

Winston: There is a far fairer balance of power now than there was. But you have got to remember that by 1996 a critical amount of damage had been done to this country, first by Labour and then by National, both using the same ideology. Once it was Douglas then it was Ruth. The fact of the matter is that we are still slaving under that, whereas I saw at the very time as Lange and Douglas got into power here, I saw Hawk and Keating get into power in Australia. If you look at the huge differential in growth between those two economies—Australia and New Zealand—it’s as clear as daylight: incremental change was the way to go. But we had an economic revolution, and we’re still living through it. So much so that they will blindly sit there and say the dollar’s far too high and we can’t do anything about it. Crippling manufacturing, crippling exporting. … And there are tens of hundreds of thousands of jobs gone, and my proof of that is 54 000 left as at 5th of August this year to go to Australia. 54 000. They had jobs. But they don’t have them now. So English is talking poppycock.

[takes drag on cigarette]

I used to belong to a National Party where they would tell him that, ‘you’re talking bull-dust’.

Ollie: Would you say that MMP has brought about a fairer balance of power?

Winston: I think it has. But some parties don’t understand how it was to be used. That is, they don’t bargain properly with the other party, and the consequence is that they get their supporters so little. For example, like the Maori Party; they forget the Maori that put them there and act for only the academic and privileged Maori, so that there’s a Maori elite emerging. The balance is there but it’s got to be used.

Ollie: Do you think there’s any truth in the alternate argument, that MMP has given too much influence to smaller parties, like NZ First for example, in terms of determining the balance of power? As an example, people may often look to 1996 and say that the concessions achieved by NZ First was beyond the mandate of the party.

Winston: Well actually, they’re talking nonsense. We stopped asset sales. We brought in free medicine for under six year-olds. We got rid of the surtax. Have any of those things been changed? No. So they accept that we were right. It’s 2012 now, and now no one is doing it. But now they’re starting a new attack. They’re saying we can’t afford super, when in fact superannuation net is costing this economy 3.7 net of GDP. So they’ll put up a straw man and knock him over. But sadly, too many people know the facts. They know it’s affordable.

Ollie: While those policies that you implemented following 1996 may have been maintained, considering your relatively small proportion of the popular vote, is that not a case of you looking forward and telling people what they want?

Winston: Well first of all, NZ First never had the media behind us. We never have and we probably never will. But we have been the highest polling party under MMP than any other party, with no immediate support from the media whatsoever. So if we’d got anything like a fair go in the last election we would have almost certainly have beaten the Greens. But we got a total black out. But we got an absolute mainstream media black-out. Both channels. The Press, the NZ Herald, the Dom, all writing us off.

Ollie: Why is it do you think that the media ignored NZ First like that?

Winston: Do you want the honest answer?

Ollie: Yes, please.

Winston: Because we don’t suck up to privileged entities in this country.

Ollie: Throughout your time in politics, you have occupied a range of influential positions—from in cabinet as Minister of Maori Affairs under PM Bolger’s first term, to deputy Prime-Minister in Bolger’s second, to Minister of Foreign Affairs under Clark’s Labour Govt. At what point do you feel you had most influence on political outcomes?

Winston: Clearly as Treasurer I had a lot of opportunities to change things. My argument and my record of this is that I got hit with the Asian Currency Crisis—everybody remembers it. In that period I ensured that there was liquidity in the economy, spending on critical things like health and education in particular. We kept the economy going through the crisis. We kept the surplus—2.3 billion—at the end of it. And yet if you check from ’75 to now which Treasurer or Finance Minister had the lowest inflation rating across that whole period of time, it’s me. That was 1.2 a year. They won’t say that because they didn’t like me being the treasurer. [chuckles]

Ollie: Would that be your proudest political achievement?

Winston: Well if you think that you went through that crisis and if you think we spent five billion more in areas of need such as health and free medicine and things like that, and kept exports growing and get GDP growing, and kept interest rates down and inflation at its lowest since 1975, it’s a record that I’m proud of. But I don’t expect my enemies to admit that.

And we got the elephant out of the room where America is concerned, when I was Foreign Minister. The Americans say so. The last batch of Americans that left with McCormick made a public statement about that. We had broken the stand-off between the countries. And given it’s the most powerful nation on Earth, the biggest economy on Earth, I think that’s important. That doesn’t mean you can’t retain a high sense of your own national sovereignty—but that’s no excuse to be rude to people.

I made it very clear to the Americans that I expected a fair go for my country, that we had been to war time after time to defend certain values, and in the case of two world wars had got there well before they ever did. So we didn’t want to be looked down on any more. I was dealing with a person called Condoleeza Rice who I think had respect for me, and visa versa. That’s why I got her to come and visit us and go to the Pacific.

The nature of New Zealand politics is, if they can’t beat you, then character assassinations are a big item on their agenda.

Ollie: Is it true that you’ve survived a number of attempts at being ousted from your position at the top of NZ First, such as from Tau Henare back in the 1990’s—

Winston: —it was hardly an attempt.

Ollie: What does it take though though to stay on top?

Winston: Well look, I never thought in 1993 that I would be leading NZ First in 2012. There’s a whole range of things that are at matter here. First of all, you can’t do much for people unless you can win. That’s pretty axiomatic. You’ve got to be able to win. I certainly hope to put the party in the strongest shape in 2014 to be able to go on with new leadership and winning.

Ollie: But looking within the party, does it ever require one to take a hard line internally and be a little ruthless perhaps at times?

Winston: Put it this way, the whole party has to be ruthless upon itself. Every member of caucus has got to be ruthless upon themselves, because it’s the team that’s in there. Like any business or enterprise in any field, if you have got articles of association, if you have got a plan, if you have got a strategy, then that’s what’s going to get there. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself and have a great deal of fun. The fact is that when you hit the paddock—like on the rugby paddock—you’ve got to know what you’re going to do, and every time someone fouls up, you lessen your chances of winning. So of course we—

[passersby interrupt]

Winston: Kia ora. Kia ora. [laughs] That’s why I know we’re going to win next time.

I’m back because I can get back, and that being the case I certainly intend to get the party in the best possible shape. We’ve got a lot of reasons to be encouraged because if you could win the percentage of the vote that we did with $1 per vote, when other were spending $38, $40 per vote, I think that party has got potential. Seriously. It taught us how to focus though. [laughs] Look, we would have put a Scotsman out of business, that’s how well we spent our money.

Ollie: Looking through Parliament and the halls of government, is it clear which MPs are more eager for influence and power-hungry than others?

Winston: Ah yes, right across the board. There’s some great people in Parliament, and across a wide number of parties. People who I’ve got a lot of respect for. People who I think are inherently honest. If there’s one factor that’s not as present as it should be, it’s a thing called courage. And you need courage in this game.

Ollie: Do you see many MPs who are in it for the wrong reasons?

Winston: Yes, yes. That’s always sad. It’s disappointing in the extreme, because you think, surely there is something glamourously romantic and self-sacrificial about the reasons they came in the first place. But they just come here to become somebody. That’s what disappoints you. Let me explain.

[Lights another cigarette].

Winston: If you watch nature, compared to politics it’s not too different. In the African plain, there’s all the animals chewing grass out there, and then out of the long grass comes these lions. And all you can see is this dust and small pebbles as they hit the road flat to get out of the way of these predators. The moment the lion gets one they slam on the brakes and they’re chewing grass again. Politics is like that. So few will come to the defence of someone who has been wronged. Very few will. And that’s across a lot of political parties, which is sad to say.

Ollie: Are there any politicians who you feel hold a lot of influence despite perhaps not holding the highest positions of office? The dark-horses, if you will.

Winston: The Machiavellians?

Ollie: Yeah.

Winston: There’s quite a few of them. Scheming and plotting 24/7.

Ollie: Who at the moment would you say are those characters?

Winston: Well I shouldn’t actually defame them.

[collective chuckles]

Winston: I would have thought that would be rather obvious to everybody! But they’re in a lot of political parties as well.

Ollie: As a slight detour, what’s the most abominable political gaffe you’ve witnessed across your time in politics?

Winston: Oh, quite a lot. I remember one time, it’s 1980, the Minister of Internal Affairs arrives into the House to say that we’re not going to go to Moscow. We’re boycotting the Moscow games. To this day I regret I didn’t get up and say, well actually with respect that’s nonsense, this is about sport. You’re saying that the invasion of Afghanistan is the reason why we’re not going to go. Sport should be, where ever possible, separate. I regret I didn’t get up, but one guy that did and I’ve always remembered it, was Prebble—even though Labour supported the idea.

Ollie: So does this mean you supported the Springbok Tour in ’81?

Winston: Look, I tell you what, I did. I never went to one game, but I remember it very very well. But in 1981 they came here with a re-jigged team. The second thing that when they left here they went to play in America against the American side—the Grizzlys. There was an injunction that went all the way to the Supreme Court of America against them coming and the Supreme Court of America handed down a judgment saying that this would be an infringement on the American peoples’ liberties, freedom of association. And the judgment was handed down by a black judge, Judge Thurgood Marshall. I never forgot it. I didn’t see one game, but I thought other people had the right to make that choice. And I have been to Mandela’s home, OK? In Soweto.

Ollie: Ha! When was that?

Winston: A few years back.

Ollie: NZ First is often labelled as a populist party. Is that a label that you agree with?

Winston: [laughs] Well, I always think that that criticism is ridiculous. Democracy is about policies that are popular.

Ollie: Surely there’s a balance there. For example, if the majority wants policies that severely infringe upon minority groups, do you think that will should be realised?

Winston: One of the great principles of democratic government is protection of the minority. That’s fundamental. That is a critical issue. Protection of minority interests.

Populism is usually an allegation that’s used against someone because they’re popular, and I just don’t get it. I don’t give that criticism the option of respectability. It’s insubstantial, it’s non-intellectual, it’s everything. It’s a put-down usually from those who are not popular.

Ollie: That accusation is made at times with regards to policy of yours like maintaining the superannuation eligibility age at 65—which groups like Treasury say is unsustainable, as do many in Parliament.

Winston: They could say that and back it up with some facts—except they can’t. You see Germany is at ten per cent now. We’re not. We’re at 3.7. So for them to say, like your country, no you don’t, you need to prove it for your country. Get your facts right. So you tell me it’s not sustainable? I’ll tell you what’s not sustainable: running a hopeless, shocking economy  that can’t afford anything, which is what you created from your thinking, post ’84. They all line up behind Douglas, all the Chicago school of economics. They’re running an economy that’s unsustainable and now they’re blaming us.

Ollie: So is treasury just telling fibs then?

[drags on cigarette]

Winston: Well they won’t actually put a paper up about it now. There’s enough people out there saying you are talking duncum and I can prove it on the figures. 3.7 net is not high. We supported the Cullen Fund, which is a cost smoothing exercise. Now what things are different than from the day that treasury did the figures for Cullen? They aren’t different. They supported the mass immigration policy. And mass immigration has not delivered to this country what they all said it would deliver.

The Treasury philosophy has been seriously debunked. By who? Malaysia, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, and now China—and it’s a communist country. The day that communists are practising capitalism better than you is a day to scratch your head.

Ollie: Who would have thought?

Winston: Who would have thought it? But that’s what they do. 24 years ago they introduce an economic experiment, and the results are all there, and they still hang on and say, but only if. Like I saw today the head of Federated Farmers in the paper and he says you can’t do what Winston Peters wants with the dollar. What you’ve got to do is cut government spending. And the question is, if you want to help your farmers Mr. Willis, which decade are you going to do that? Because they need help now. Tomorrow.

Ollie: What kind of levels of growth are needed to keep up with the growing numbers of elderly though?

Winston: I think New Zealand can achieve nationally now four per cent year on year on year.

Ollie: Would that be enough?

Winston: If all our policies were focussed on exporting we could achieve that again, but it means substantial amounts of your immigration, your education, your up-skilling—all of these policies are focussed on outcome and expanding wealth. And one other thing, then working harder would be more rewarding, because we are working harder now than we have for all my life. New Zealanders are working longer hours, the second highest hours after Japan in the OECD, and we’re going backwards. New Zealand is not lazy. Look what they’re pushing out there now. Sure we’ve got problems, but New Zealanders are working far harder than they used to.

Ollie: A lot of younger New Zealanders have the perspective that New Zealand’s elderly are amongst the very best in the OECD in terms of poverty rates, yet see the immense problem of child poverty, and wonder whether doing what’s best for our generation and certainly our children’s generation requires prioritising child poverty over say maintaining the superannuation age.

Winston: That’s got two strands to it. Look there are billions of dollars out there in the hands of elderly. Why would they put it into our economy when all they’ve seen is an absolute nightmare of a jungle? Where the’ve been lied to, cheated to, and where the laws been created to protect directors not investors. So what do they do? They put all the money into housing. And then they say, oh look, we’ve got a housing bubble. Well who constructed that? But if you had sympathetic policies for the elderly to invest in our economy, then a great deal of the borrowing that we’ve got from overseas, we could have financed from within this country. But you have to create a conducive environment for investors who are protected properly. In America, they don’t just go for the investor who’s a cheater, they go for his advisor. In fact, Madoff will be out before our guys go in. We keep on saying we’re the least corrupt country in the world; that’s just nonsense. We are severely corrupt in that respect. 51 finance houses went down owing billions and billions to elderly who lost everything. Who’s in jail? Barely a person. Now that stinks. I know that our elderly would be investing in our country and our youth.

Ollie: Would that be all that is required to address child poverty?

Winston: First of all, when you say child poverty—270 000 children live in poverty—no, they don’t. It’s dramatically less than that. And so much of New Zealand’s child poverty is parent neglect and irresponsibility.

Ollie: Surely the children suffer just the same?

Winston: Yeah but they’ll suffer more unless you address the parental problem we’ve got. Look, I’m not unsympathetic to that cause, and my past shows it, but I am unsympathetic to someone who gets a decent family support and is spending so little of it and starving their children, not sending them to school for lunch. It’s not hard to make a lunch and send your kid off to school. It requires you to get your bum out bed and do it. I come from a family of eleven children. I know what poverty smells and tastes and feels like—and we never ever went to school without lunch. And times were tough.

But these people today have far more wealth today than they ever did back then. We were coming from the ‘50s, where the Depression lingered far longer in the North and the East Coast—and I suspect the West Coast. Those circumstances were different in that those people had a far greater sense of parental responsibility. You had district nurse coming once a month, all sorts of things were happening that the Labour Party put into place and the National Party kept going, and then there was something better that was most critical: we had hope then that tomorrow would be better. And it was. That’s what we haven’t got now. People think it will be worse, and they’ll be right.

But back to this poverty thing. We will never get on top of it unless we bring enormous peer pressure in the Maori world, in particular. We’re not going to put up with that sort of parental neglect any longer. In short, they have to be outed. Nobody minds helping the children, but it’s no use giving the money to someone who’s putting it up against the porcelain.

Ollie: What kind of social mechanisms can one use to achieve that? Is it really just a matter of telling people?

Winston: I’ll give you an example. The first Labour Government never gave family benefit to the father; it went to the mother exclusively. They took a punt that it would get to the kids better. And how right they were. But now we don’t do that. But also we’ve got to get to young mothers well before they become young mothers. Let them know that there’s responsibilities with having kids and all that sort of stuff. There’s all sorts of social dislocation which we want to avoid today. Philosophy doesn’t sort this out; practical policy does. And where you can actually get practical policy, it can change peoples’ lives. It can change communities. I’ve seen good communities and I’ve seen bad ones.

Where do you see the greatest responsiveness for what you get from the state, in this country? Well the colder you go, the more responsiveness you see. The South Island is totally different from the North Island. They pull their finger out down there. They do! Maybe it’s because it’s cold! [laughs]

Ollie: Who is New Zealand’s greatest ever Prime Minister?

Winston: Oh, Seddon.

Ollie: What made him the greatest?

Winston: I suppose he had some very good men around him—at the time it was a very chauvinist society. He did have a vision of what he wanted this country to be. Then I suppose the next one, though for different reasons… There’s no doubt that Peter Fraser was a great Prime Minister. And I think Holyoake as well.

Ollie: How would you say Mr. John Key compares?

Winston: He doesn’t.

Ollie: How would you rate his performance—right down the bottom?

Winston: I don’t rate his performance because there’s be no performance yet at all. Where are the indicators going? What’s better now than it was when he got into power four years ago? Now, honestly, anyone who can bail out South Canterbury finance, number one, and not put a cap on it, give a hundred million to Hollywood, give the casinos a special deal in Auckland, and a few other things that are going to come out shortly, there’s a long way to establishing a track record yet.

Ollie: Would Labour do a better job?

Winston: Are their better Ministers of Finance than Bill English? Of course there are. I’m not saying from which party, but of course there are. He’s tied down in Treasury thought. And dog-whistles away anytime he thinks this is getting too hard. He says the dollar’s too high but he won’t do a thing. I’ll put it to you: can you imagine the Minister of Finance of Taiwan, or Singapore, with a country with resources like us? It’d be roaring. And worst of all they’re not even nationalistic! They’re globalists. [laughs] Let me ask you this question: they keep on boasting about the free-market and free-trade deals but not of these deals are a free-trade deal. If they are, how come our farmers are shut out everywhere? […] Which is winning: us to China, or Australia to China? Australia is, and they haven’t got a free-trade agreement. But we just love the spaghetti-bowl of free-trade agreements. It makes a whole lot of civil servants think they’re doing something.

Ollie: You’ve talked a lot about why you got into politics, and how things have changed since the 1970’s. Would you say that New Zealand society is better off than they were back then? Has it gone down hill?

Winston: Economically we’re way better off. Because the comparative figures show it.

Ollie: Is life living in New Zealand as a New Zealander better off in your opinion?

Winston: Some aspects are. We’ve got more people catered for, newer groups are getting fairer treatment. But I’ve never been enamoured by the view that our world is immeasurably improved by having all these restaurants. The last people that I knew that ate their way to security was Hansel and Gretel. See we’ve been obsessed with change and difference, where the Scandinavians and Singaporeans looked out for their national interests at all points in time. And they’ve got an economic record to prove it; a marvellous record of performance, from nothing. And we’ve had literally everything. I saw Bollard on TV the other day and he’s going on about how we’ll never catch Australia, because Australia’s got oil and minerals or what have you. Well they had them when we were way ahead of Australia. They had all those things then. I worked for BHP, as a student, and Australia had all those things then. We lost the plot, took our eye off the fact that we’re an export dependant nation, and there’s where job security and wealth come from.

Ollie: A lot of people say that much of New Zealand’s course over the past 20 years has been steered by uncontrollable global processes, would you say that’s all… poppycock?

Winston: I say Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, all give lie to that. English always points to the failures—the ones he’s matching up against—but he’s getting us very close to something like the Greeks. We haven’t got far to go to start looking like Greece. So if you put up the worst examples of course you’re going to win. It’s like racing the slowest guy in the school.

Ollie: A final, very very very serious question Mr. Peters: how many ties do you own?

Winston: Ahhh… not many. [mututal lols] Look it depends what people spend their money on. Ties are not expensive. It’s paying attention when you’re out. I bought ties at the flea market. You have a look there you see all these ties, and they’re going for a song. I’ll buy that one.

[chat commences about plain packaging]

Winston: oh you know, plain packaging… we want to ban it by 2020… we’ll all go smoke-free. Do you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to persuade young people to smoke because of that.

Ollie: Yeah, I think they do.

Winston: Young people are saying, up your nose. Maybe another approach is better, more educational.

Ollie: Do you think it’s inevitable that cigarettes will be completely banned?

Winston: They won’t be able to. Well how are they going on marijuana?

Ollie: Terribly.

[mutual laughs]

Winston: And we all know what happens when you over-price alcohol. People start dying.

Ollie: The old moonshine.

Winston: These are serious issues which call for a better approach.

[talks about whaling].

Winston: How is that?

Ollie: Great, thanks.

Winston: Now look, you have the power to cause a whole lot of harm in politics, but you also have the power to do a whole lot of good.

The published version of this interview can be found at You Winston You Lose Some.


About the Author ()

Ollie served dutifully alongside Asher Emanuel as Co-editor of Salient throughout the tumult of 2012. He has contributed to Salient since 2011 and intends to do so for the rest of his waking life.

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