‘Momentum is building’, claims come back king

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters speaks to supporters. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters speaks to supporters. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
In the final in a series of profiles of party leaders, political editor Mike Houlahan talks to New Zealand First leader Winston Peters about being in and out of Parliament.

When Winston Peters was last in Dunedin, in late June, any casual observer would have been given an almighty hint that the comeback kid of New Zealand politics could be on the verge of returning to Parliament once more.

The Fullwood room was close to full, and as the New Zealand First faithful filed in, party officials were hurriedly putting more chairs out to accommodate them — this in a seat where both the party and its candidate had garnered fewer than 1000 votes in 2020.

New Zealand First was polling in the 2% range back then, but the meeting was a precursor of polls to come.

Mr Peters, always a wily campaigner, was building up a head of steam and now, with the election just weeks away, several polls have the party he founded in 1993 — and which he has previously brought back to Parliament after being dropped by voters — likely to be back to the House once again.

"Campaigning is the most essential part of the electoral process," Mr Peters said.

"It is about democracy and people having a say ... it has been an incredible campaign and this week we have had a huge audience in Palmerston North and then an even bigger one in Whanganui. The momentum is building and it has been organic.

"You (the ODT) are one of the few mainstream media outlets to have covered this campaign in any respect, despite the fact that we are riding much better in the polls than the mainstream media will concede. If you keep it real and keep it honest, people will respond."

One notable thing about that Dunedin meeting was the mix of people there. The core New Zealand First support base, superannuitants, were out in force, but there were also several people from the fringes of the political spectrum, people who had become interested in Mr Peters due to his opposition to maintaining Covid mandates for longer than he thought necessary.

Hence, as well as the usual questions from the floor about co-governance and the provincial growth fund, Mr Peters fielded queries about New Zealand remaining a member of the World Health Organisation and vaccine efficacy.

That day, and again today, the fully vaccinated Mr Peters is treading a fine line between keeping such people on-side should he need their votes, but also expressing the traditional centre-right views which have long been New Zealand First’s stock in trade.

"Those people have lined up with other parties now, not ours," Mr Peters said.

"But if you are asking about people who got mandated out of existence in October 2021, then I am on their side because, frankly, that was not justified, and the South Island should know that because at that time there was not one case there ... if they are asking for a proper accounting of what happened then I am on their side because we were not told all the things that we should have been told."

New Zealand First was a partner of Labour in the first three years of it being in power, and helped bring in the early Covid-19 prevention measures, votes Mr Peters stands by as being based on the best available information at the time.

"An earlier generation lived through the Spanish flu. We had to take it deadly seriously, but as time went by I started to see things that simply could not be true, like that it could be caught from a hotel door handle ... it all ended up with a massive riot on Parliament lawn which should never have happened and it would never have happened if parliamentarians had done what democracies have done for all these decades and talk to people about their different views."

Since 2020 what was an occasionally tetchy relationship with Labour has ended in a messy bust-up — pledge No1 on the New Zealand First 2023 election commitments is that the party will not form a government with Labour.

"I made that very clear when we found out just how racist their policies are and how they hid them," Mr Peters said.

"They cannot be trusted to ensure that we have a democracy going forward where we are one people and the same vote is of the same value no matter who you are."

Should New Zealand First indeed clear the 5% threshold, Mr Peters will bring a southerner with him: Lawrence farmer Mark Patterson, who has already served a term as a list MP for the party.

"I am pleased that he will be back in Parliament ... we need people with a serious background and people like Mark Patterson is one of them."



Winston Peters on:
A Covid-19 inquiry: "We need a proper inquiry with proper terms of reference, not hand-picked people with terms of reference designed to cover the butts of members of Parliament."

New Zealand First’s prospects: ‘‘You don’t pack out halls without a sense that we are on a mission, and that we will be in a position to implement the changes that this country desperately needs.’’

Fiscal responsibility: ‘‘Other parties have put their promises out like the pre-election fiscal update did not exist. We didn’t.’’

Keeping people honest: ‘‘That has been our record over a long period time over a wide variety of things. Other people haven’t raised a finger, we’ve raised the roof.’’