Love him or hate him, vote for him or against him, either way, on June 16, Winston Peters will finally achieve the role of Prime Minister for an elongated period of time – albeit as acting PM only.
I have to admit up front that I gave a party vote to the New Zealand First Party in 2008. Was I on the whisky? Probably.
I spent six years, from 1999-2005, observing Winston. In fact, that’s what all MPs in the New Zealand Parliament do – observe him. But how can you rate this man?
His impact on our body politic, and therefore society, has been remarkable. But he will never get the acknowledgements for the service to his country that I suspect he rightly deserves. Why? Because he polarises. Sometimes you want to hug him, scream out “we love you Winston”, then in a heartbeat you want to strangle him and tell him in good old-fashioned Westie speak to “bugger off Winston”.
But Winston has always done things his way. In 1975, Winston unsuccessfully stood for the National Party in the Northern Māori electorate seat. He captained the ethnic-based Māori Auckland rugby side. Then in 1996, five years after ditching the National Party, Winston’s newly formed New Zealand First Party took all the Māori seats. He even funded the start of the Māori Sports Awards. Dial forward to campaign 2017, and Winston pledges a referendum to get rid of the Māori seats.
It’s fair to ask how do you square a man who started his political career vying for a Māori seat, whose party captured the balance of power in 1996 by taking all five Māori seats but then runs consecutive campaigns against race-based funding, against Treaty-related matters. That’s the Winston I want to strangle.
The other side of Winston we love, ensured from 1996 that free GP services to children under 6 were concreted into New Zealand’s health DNA. He is the Winston who consistently defends the rights of the elderly. All societies, all countries should be measured on the way in which their communities look after the interests of their babies and their elders. The force of Winston’s personality has ensured that these two populations have been front and centre throughout his political career.
On the basis of sheer scale of time as a sitting parliamentarian, no one in the history of New Zealand politics comes anywhere near to serving as many years in our parliament. No politician from our first parliament in 1854 has had the staying power of Winston. No politician has had a consistent impact on our parliament, and in fact from 1854-2054, no other New Zealand parliamentarian can come close to beating Winston’s record of being elected and then outperforming hundreds of MPs who have come and gone – including myself. Put another way, no other politician can match his parliamentary record over that 200-year period. Absolutely gob-smacking.
When thinking about writing this column, it actually become quite daunting because this man has been on the political scene for many generations. In fact, for those born in 1958 who voted in their first election in 1975, Winston has been a constant. That is many lifetimes on a political calendar.
In terms of his political career, he has served with absolute distinction in the New Zealand Parliament through 13 election cycles – a total of 39 years.
And a telling point is, everyone knew Winston was in that House for every one of those 39 years. He was never a blushing bride. He has always been extraordinary well dressed and groomed – bordering on the over dapper. To have performed to the level of service that he has for his country takes a significant toll on all politicians’ personal lives, and there’s no doubt this occurred with Winston. Like all great politicians, he will reflect on his sense of duty to his politics, causes and country at the expense of that family.
Much has been written about Winston, given his length of service. His is a household name, but given the fact he is a contrarian, he only needs one person in 10 in a room to support him given our MMP environment.
So as a consequence, 90% of us probably see the Winston we all want to strangle, rather than the one we all want to love. That’s the magic of MMP. But even before MMP, he beat First Past the Post by resigning from the National Party and registering his own party, New Zealand First.
The only other insight I can add is, like Lazarus, Winston in 2008 was a political cadaver. But in 2011, his political tribe bought him back to life.
Winston has always had a sense of the drama and theatre of a controversy. But at 73, he still has the constitution of a new MP aged 30. Whilst he is not as sharp as he was when he first entered the House, he still leaves the opposition for dead at question time and in debates.
Winston has achieved everything a politician could want to, but has never been elected as the New Zealand Prime Minister. The sad thing is, he never will.
• Winston Raymond Peters
• Ngati Wai/Scottish
• Born April 11, 1945
• Entered Parliament 1978 (National/Hunua, following High Court electoral petition)
• 13th (& 19th) Deputy Prime Minister NZ (16 December 1996 & 26 October 2017)
• Leader New Zealand First (July 18, 1993)
• 35th Minister Māori Affairs (November 2, 1990)
• 41st (Acting) PM (June 16, 2018)
• Winston Peters trained as a teacher but abandoned teaching in 1967, and spent several years living and working in Australia as a blast furnace worker with BHP in Newcastle and later as a tunneller in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales.
• He graduated from Auckland University with a BA and LLB and worked as a lawyer at Russell McVeagh between 1974 and 1978.
• He entered national politics in 1975, standing unsuccessfully for the National Party in the electorate seat of Northern Māori; he got 1873 votes, and was the first National candidate in a Maori seat for some years who did not lose his deposit.
• In the face of the Labour government’s plan to create coastal land reserves for the public, he and his Ngātiwai iwi campaigned and lost virtually no ancestral land on the Whangarei coastal areas. This helped inspire the 1975 Land March led by Whina Cooper.
• As Minister of Maori Affairs, he co-authored the Ka Awatea report in 1992 which advocated merging the Ministry of Māori Affairs and Iwi Transition Agency into the present Te Puni Kōkiri (Ministry for Māori Development).
• In May 1998, he was appointed to the Privy Council and later given the title of “The Right Honourable” – an honorific reserved for the Prime Minister, Speaker of the House, Governor General and Chief Justice.