NZ First keen on the South

Today, the Otago Daily Times concludes its series of interviews with the leaders of the political parties now in Parliament. In part five, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters talks to Mike Houlahan about political longevity, the importance of the provinces, and how he wants to save the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter.

Having first been elected to Parliament before many younger MPs were even born, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has seen most of the surprises that politics can provide.

But even he cannot believe the alarms and excursions that have unfolded over the past three years.

"The level of outside incursion is unparalleled," Mr Peters said.

"I know we have been through war time and lost far more people, but we did have some sort of fix on what we were up against.

"In this case [Covid-19] we don’t because it is a silent

killer ... and there is no reason to be careless."

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters address dozen of Tiwai workers during his ‘‘Back Your...
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters address dozen of Tiwai workers during his ‘‘Back Your Future’’ campaign bus tour.PHOTO: LUISA GIRAO

Quite apart from Covid-19 — enough to test any government — Mr Peters has, as deputy prime minister, been alongside Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as she also dealt with terror attacks and natural disasters.

A three-party governing arrangement, which sceptics claimed would not last three months, has proven remarkably resilient in the past three years, with Mr Peters mostly refraining from goading favourite target Green co-leader James Shaw until the very end of the parliamentary term.

Much of New Zealand First politics for the past three years has focused on the provinces, and it is in the heartland where Mr Peters hopes to find much of his hoped-for 5% of the vote.

Last week, the party bus toured the South, taking Mr Peters through Oamaru, Dunedin and Invercargill, where he made his second visit to Tiwai Point in recent weeks.

Along for the ride was Lawrence-based New Zealand First list MP Mark Patterson, who his party leader said had done "tremendously well" in his first term in Parliament.

"He is very highly respected and we are very lucky to have him; he has worked very hard."

Mr Patterson’s presence emphasises that this election New Zealand First has a southern strategy, having had its focus further north in previous campaigns.

Hence Tiwai Point was a definite port of call, Mr Peters calling the smelter an asset which needed to be defended.

"Tiwai Point should not be going, Tiwai Point is a seriously viable, 20 years at the very least, business, and as for those who talk about modernity, well profitability is the key point.

"I’m very confident it can be kept open. All they have got to do is make sure that I am here — it goes both ways.

"$450million a year is what is going into Invercargill and Southland and the rest of the country from Tiwai Point — that’s huge. Big industry is something that we have got to save."

Before reaching Tiwai, Mr Peters visited another southern cathedral of industry, the Hillside workshops.

"In Dunedin, we’re reviving your railway workshop. That’s New Zealand First’s plan and I am the KiwiRail Minister," he pointed out.

"Dunedin is where we’re building a new hospital, where we have some great ideas about adding value to things like wool, and of course you are surrounded by a hinterland dependent on exports — we got the dollar down from 82c US to 64, 65. That alone is a magnificent change for the provinces."

The diversity of Mr Peters’ portfolios means that while he has perhaps gained favour in the South for championing local industry, he has also earned local opprobrium as Racing Minister for the revamp of the sport which has cast real doubt on the future of several Otago and Southland racing venues.

"If you can’t keep it going how do you expect central government to keep you going, because you are just sucking the whole lifeblood out of the industry’s future, so let’s have some rationalisation," Mr Peters said.

"Parochialism has stopped it all this time, but anybody who is interested in racing’s long-term future, we are putting it all together now ... I know that people will be upset and won’t want this to happen, but if you enjoy racing you want racing to be performing like the Irish racing model does, and we haven’t been."

While Mr Peters claims many wins on New Zealand First’s watch, such as the provincial growth fund, increased funding for Foreign Affairs and Trade and substantial investment in equipment for the defence forces, it is perhaps an on-the-hoof policy change which was his most significant political moment in the past three years.

In the wake of March 15, New Zealand First, which had previously proven difficult to budge on firearm reform, agreed to sweeping changes to gun laws; Mr Peters explained simply that the world had changed.

Although it might have cost his party some much-needed votes, he stands by his shift in position.

"We are from the countryside, we have lived on farms, we have used guns, we know that pest control is massive and it is literally a matter of survival in some cases. We understand all that, but we were never going to be the puppets of the NRA from the USA.

"You can’t have 51 people lose their lives and 49 almost dead or damaged for the rest of their time on this earth without you doing something ...

We don’t want to be the party that does that. When I was challenged I said yes, we have changed our mind. We want rules that work."

Mr Peters said the past three years had been hard work, and, as was to be expected, not all of the governing parties agreed all of the time.

He has copped considerable flak from National — which polled the most party votes in 2017 — for backing Labour, but Mr Peters (75) contrasted this term with his first in Parliament in 1979, when he was part of a National Party which had 10,000 fewer votes than Labour but a substantial first-past-the-post majority.

"At least now it is a transparent and honest system," he said.

"My colleagues and I took a massive risk going with Jacinda, but we could see that there was a better chance of a leadership change and a directional change and the system would regain its human face, and it has."

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

Comments

The Second Keening of the South will be heard if D Seymour takes an interest.

Keen: to wail (Gaelic).

Despite Winston's best efforts to build up electoral support using the same tactics he has used every election for over 20 years it seems the NZ public has finally got wise to him, hence his drop in the polls and apparent inability to get some up[ward movement.
However, ACT and it's leader David Seymour is a different story he is likely to attract a large number of seriously disgruntled National party voters in the South who want to send a message to crusher and band of losers.

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