Lazarus stirs

It is doubtful many of the political parties represented in Parliament will be trembling as a consequence of the reappearance of Winston Peters on television screens on Sunday, after an absence of six months or so.

Whatever the leader of New Zealand First may have been doing since his ignominious exit at last year's general election and the effective, but perhaps temporary, demise of his party as a political force, it does not seem to have involved reconstruction.

So far as can be ascertained, NZ First does still exist as an entity, though moribund, and Mr Peters still appears to be its leader - but leader of what? As was once said of another politician, he has become "political muzak, a background hum".

Mr Peters' last materialisation in public life was as a list member in his party whose support for the Clark government was exchanged for a post as Foreign Minister outside Cabinet - unless his 83rd placing (out of 100) in the 2009 Reader's Digest "New Zealand's Most Trusted" survey is to be counted.

True, he has been writing a column for a sports magazine, living in Auckland, sniping with journalists and refusing interviews - "Unless I say it, then nothing's true" - and no doubt looking forward to soon receiving his own Gold Card.

To explain the sudden appearance on a televised political show of a political has-been requires the leap of faith that has been implicit in comprehending every single important political decision Mr Peters has made: in this case, the astute side of his character fancies there might just be a cause whose coat-tails NZ First can cling to.

He built his political support by being against something or by raising fears about the future, about events which may or may not occur, and proclaiming them to be certainties.

Negative politicking has always found itself a core of support in this country; from the naysayers and from people who resist change, as well as from those who sustain their anger by rallying their fears - of immigration, of "Maoris", of crime and criminals.

Over the course of a long career in politics, Mr Peters exploited them all.

The very name of the party he founded is sourced in the limited focus that is exclusive, rather than inclusive.

Now he has perceived another cause - the foreshore and seabed controversy - that might provide the smelling salts to revive his political corpse.

He seems to have correctly calculated that with just another percentage point of support, NZ First would still be represented in Parliament, although the man himself would not, under John Key's National Party, likely be enjoying the baubles of ministerial office.

One more percentage point of the party vote is in theory within reach of NZ First by 2011, but to get it Mr Peters needs to resuscitate both his own public profile and that of his party.

At least with the foreshore debate he can claim some consistency, for NZ First supported the Clark government in passing the Act in 2004.

Opposing its repeal gives him a platform to appeal to voters uneasy with the Treaty of Waitangi settlements process, the cost to taxpayers and the prospect of yet more "compensation" being paid to restore "mana".

But more particularly, he can foment fears that any replacement legislation might threaten public access to the beaches (which has emphatically been ruled out by Mr Key), or give tribes the ability to gain freehold title to the foreshore and seabed.

He claimed on Sunday the Government was proceeding down a "separatist" path with its promised repeal of the Act, and that this was linked to activist Maori desire for separate court, prisons and education systems - none of which has come to pass or is even on the Government's agenda.

Mr Peters, the racing industry's cherished darling, is riding his "certainties" horse - "if that's the way that New Zealand is to go then our future towards the Third World is certain".

It is rhetoric that is undoubtedly attractive to those who believe Churchillian-sounding astrology is more meaningful than reasoned argument.

Winston Peters is also a keen amateur fisherman who knows how to bait a hook.

But voters, however hungry, should not be tempted by this morsel.

They might instead remember that it was Mr Peters' contempt for the rules of the very institution he professed to admire above all others, Parliament - our Parliament - which led last year to the collapse both of his own political career and his party's future prospects.

 

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