As an eleven-year old boy, I remember driving back from my standard four school camp at Okains Bay on Banks Peninsula. I was listening to a scratchy AM radio. It’s funny how these moments stick with you – I think I was just really excited to be allowed to sit in the front of our family van and I craned my neck to listen to the radio news as we slowly crawled back into reception.
The news was all about Winston Peters. He’d just been sacked from cabinet. The coalition government was in tatters. Dad spent much of the drive home explaining to his exhausted son what all of this actually meant.
That was 1998. 22 years ago. Peters had been a high-profile minister and MP for years at that stage already. When the next election rolled around, there were many who thought he was done in politics... New Zealand First slipped under the five percent threshold... but would you believe it, Winston Peters held his Tauranga seat by a margin of 63 votes.
Love him or loathe him, Winston Peters is a survivor. THE survivor. One of only a few New Zealanders who need only be introduced by their first name.
But here we are, three months from the 2020 election. 12 weeks today. And New Zealand First is polling at less than 2 percent.
To me, that was the most interesting number in Thursday’s ONE News Colmar Brunton Poll. I know, I know... Polls are polls. But whereas every other party in parliament could spin their number as a relative success, New Zealand First is flopping about on shore, trying desperately to get back in the soothing waters of five percent.
I’m not going to rule New Zealand First out. Hell no. But presuming Labour don’t offer them a lifeline in Northland, which I don’t think they will, the party faces a massive challenge if it’s to be back in parliament come October this year.
Depending on how the next few months shake down, we could reasonably expect Labour to drop a couple more points, and National to gain a couple more. If the Nats had a really disastrous time of things and were languishing at 30 percent, say... that might encourage a few blue voters to vote New Zealand First as a check on the left. But if National is anywhere near that 40% mark in the polls, which seems more likely, I think fewer National voters will be tempted to cast a ballot for Winston.
Of course, there will be opportunities to make noise. But some of those traditional bastions of New Zealand First populist rabble-rousing aren’t available in the same way they usually are. There’s not much point in rallying against immigration when our borders are closed. And I’m pretty sure everyone is onboard with buying local!
If there is one issue yet to be sorted that has the potential to be red meat moment for New Zealand First voters, it’s probably the government-organised deal at Ihumatao. We know Labour’s MPs, the Kingitanga, and Fletchers are pretty much there, but that New Zealand First will not be happy about using taxpayer funds to sort it out. Maybe kicking up a fuss will buy them one or two percent.
Or hey... maybe the Nats will offer Winston a deal in Northland. Matt King sits out and Shane Jones, presumably, wins the seat. Maybe Tracey Martin scores an upset in Ohariu. There are definitely paths to another term.
But for all Winston Peters’ bluster, there is still no escaping the blunt truth of his predicament. He is 75-years-young, leading a party polling at under 2 percent. For all the things New Zealand First has achieved in coalition – and they’ve had more their way than any other party, including Labour – Winston Peters hasn’t yet been able to substantially progress his efforts to move Auckland’s Port. Even though the average voter mightn’t care that much... the Serious Fraud Office is still investigating his party’s foundation.
We are 12 weeks from the election and you’d be a fool to rule out the survivor. But how many lives does this cat really have?