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

You Winston You Lose Some

Winston Peters has received many labels over his thirty-seven years in politics. Charming, cheeky, charismatic, slippery, stubborn; his politics is an art so much his own that his name has nearly become an adjective. Sacked from Cabinet in 1991 due to a troublesome tendency to speak his mind, Peters’ left the National Party to form what has become one of the country’s most dominant minority parties, NZ First. Twenty years later, Winnie remains on the scene. 

Despite a brief absence from Parliament from 2008 to 2011, Peters’ influence has seen him determine the fate of governments and occupy offices as varied as Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Treasurer. While he remains one of the country’s most broadcast figures, there is still much to learn from New Zealand politics’ proverbial kingmaker. Salient coeditor Ollie Neas sat down with Winston to find out what secrets lie behind the halls of power. 

Outside His offices on Lambton Quay, He was recognised immediately. “Winnie!” shouted a child of about ten, launching upon Him with a hug. Unphased, Winston hugged back. “I voted for you!” yelled an older woman, delirious, “Remember From New Brighton? At the hair salon?” Always suave,Winston acknowledged the praise then strode across the street. At The Occidental, He was kind enough to offer your correspondent a coffee before ordering Himself a cappuccino and sitting down for a cigarette. His smoke of choice? Horizons.†

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 eerie 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 as 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 heyday—in the National Party’s heyday—the Minister of Labour knew every single one of the unemployed—because there was only 28. Not 100, not 1000, just 28.

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]

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]

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

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 did it take 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?

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. […] 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.

Ollie: Looking at New Zealand’s political system, while 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. […] 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.

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 determining the balance of power? As an example, people 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. […]

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.

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: 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. […] 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: Throughout your time in politics, you have occupied a range of influential positions—from 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. […] 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. […] The nature of New Zealand politics is, if they can’t beat you, then character assassinations are a big item on their agenda.

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 been 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: A final, very very very serious question Mr. Peters, that’s on everybody’s mind: how many ties do you own?

Winston: Ahhh… not many. [mutual 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.

† After the interview, he clarified that he does not support smoking due to its ill health effects, but opposes plain packaging. 

▲    ▲    ▲

Winston On The world

Other choice quotes from Salient‘s extended interview with Mr Peters which can be found here.

On current Finance Minister Bill English:
“I used to belong to a National Party where they would tell him that, ‘you’re talking bull-dust’.”

On His time as Minister of Foreign Affairs:
“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.”

On alcohol prohibition:
“And we all know what happens when you over-price alcohol. People start dying.”

On His support of the ’81 Springbok Tour:
“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.”

On plain packaging for cigarettes:
“Do you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to persuade young people to smoke because of that.”

On the rise of China:
“The day that communists are practising capitalism better than you is a day to scratch your head.”

On societal changes since the ‘70s:
“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.”

On NZ First’s 2011 election campaign:
“Look, we would have put a Scotsman out of business, that’s how well we spent our money.”

The full transcript of this interview can be found here.


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.

Comments (2)

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  1. Matthew says:

    “I certainly hope to put the party in the strongest shape in 2014 to be able to go on with new leadership and winning.”

    This makes it sound as if Winston Peters is stepping down as leader for/after the next election. Is he?

  2. potential factual error in second paragraph; I was given to understand he preferred Dunhill Blues.

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