Matthew Hooton: Move on Mr Peters, your time is up

Author
NZ Herald,
Section
Opinion,
Publish Date
Friday, 29 March 2019, 9:10a.m.
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Photo / Alan Gibson
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Photo / Alan Gibson

COMMENT:

Many tough things have been said about Winston Peters and NZ First over the years.

While other parties have dabbled in populism, protectionism and xenophobia, only NZ First has them at the core of its brand.

Following the Christchurch terrorist attack, the Deputy Prime Minister had the good grace to distance himself from some of his previous comments, telling reporters they may think everything he has done in his long career is blameless but he does not.

In the current kinder and gentler climate, let's accept that as remorse.

In fact, there's some reason to thank Peters and NZ First for their contribution over the last quarter-century.

Free and open markets and globalisation have been the greatest economic and social system in history in raising living standards and reducing global inequality.

But, at the same time, within countries that were previously so privileged compared with the rest of humanity, around 10 per cent of voters have lost out.

In the US and Canada, the UK and Europe, and Australia and New Zealand, a minority have seen their jobs move from Detroit or Dunedin to China, India and elsewhere.

In stark terms, a minority of Western people's jobs have been taken by workers in other parts of the world.

Adding perceived insult to economic injury, these people have then been told to welcome migrants from other nations whose work ethic means they often take what remain of low-skilled jobs.They have seen themselves derided in the popular media as bogans or white trash.

Such people will find public champions. Especially in Europe, deeply sinister individuals have put their hands up to be their voice.

Even in sometimes insufferably liberal countries, ultra-nationalist parties have surged past 10 and even 20 per cent. The economic shift partly explains Donald Trump and Brexit.

In New Zealand, someone was always going to catch the anti-globalisation wave. All things considered, we can be pleased it was Peters who — with some exceptions — has kept his rhetoric more measured compared with the horrendous language used elsewhere.

Through it all, the famous Peters grin sent a message that perhaps he didn't quite mean it. Certainly, in three different governments he has been more about securing benefits for his supporters than punishing minorities.

But the Peters era is drawing to a close. He will be 75 at the next election and while he has managed punishing travel since the terrorist attack, age is catching up. He may still dream of following Sir Winston Churchill into the prime ministership at age 77 or even Mahathir Mohamad at age 92, but his advancing years are the least of his problems.

Both previous times NZ First has held the balance of power, it has plunged below 5 per cent, hanging on in 1999 only because Peters held Tauranga and being out altogether in 2008. The party's polling is even worse this time and any credit the Government gets following March 15 will flow to Jacinda Ardern's Labour, not to anyone else.

There could be a path back for Peters if he is prepared to cross boundaries he never has before, to attract support from the sliver of voters revolted by Ardern wearing a hijab and sure the new gun laws are a globalist plot.

But he can't do that as Deputy Prime Minister and he deserves the benefit of the doubt that he wouldn't anyway.

If Peters is to have anything to show for his 45 years in politics beyond the SuperGold Card, NZ First must survive beyond 2020. It won't with him as leader.

There are theoretically four candidates to replace Peters but, if there is a change, NZ First MPs have no more choice than National MPs with Judith Collins, than to anoint Shane Jones.

While more internationalist than Peters, Jones would need to respect NZ First's heritage by becoming the champion of globalisation's victims and broadening the party's appeal to small business owners — the so-called "white vans". Jones' Labour background might help attract its remaining conservative males.

If Peters accepts change is needed to assure his legacy, he may agree to forgo the leadership but try to remain Deputy Prime Minister. This would be a mistake.

If Jones is to get NZ First back above 5 per cent, it must be him voters see alongside Ardern over the next 18 months. He must become as much part of the political furniture as Peters for so many years. Bad behaviour won't work post-March 15.

Many might prefer NZ First dies in 2020, but be careful what you wish for.

Neither Labour nor National can genuinely speak for the 10 per cent. If Jones is not their champion, it will be someone worse.

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