Winston Peters says there was a serious consolation to being kicked out of Parliament in the last election.
"I had my life back."
In the past three years, the NZ First leader has been busy working on boats, riding horses and starting his own business.
"So many things I couldn't do all those years. Even though I find politics fascinating and rewarding, there is a serious downside."
He is coy about his business and his clients, saying only that he uses his legal experience to help people solve their problems. One such problem involved a government department misinterpreting the law.
Mr Peters has an enviable life. He and his glamorous and successful partner, Jan Trotman, the former managing director of pharmaceuticals company Janssen-Cilag, live in a beautiful house in St Marys Bay, Auckland, with their chocolate labrador, Bella.
The three-level home, which boasts a swim-jet pool and bar facilities, was bought for $2.25 million in 2008 and has expansive views of Waitemata Harbour.
So why did he want to return to Parliament?
"I think New Zealand has two prospects," he says.
"One is a serious recovery to being the country we always could have been these last few decades, or our decline is permanent. I think it's worth my drive and my energy to try and fix it."
Mr Peters is back in Parliament, bringing with him seven other MPs.
It has been an impressive feat and makes NZ First only the second party (ACT was the first) to enter Parliament under MMP without already having a presence.
Many point to Mr Peters' ability during the campaign to capture media attention by drip-feeding information about the so-called "teapot tape".
But support for NZ First was already growing by then. The day National leader John Key met ACT's Epsom candidate John Banks in a Newmarket cafe, TVNZ decided it would let Mr Peters into its minor party leaders debate, a debate in which he was voted the winner.
While other politicians were busy at Parliament, Mr Peters has used the past year to hit town halls and Returned and Services' Associations throughout New Zealand, using his wit and charismatic smile to win over audiences.
NZ First ended the 2008 campaign a broken party when it failed to return to Parliament after Mr Peters was dogged with controversy over donations.
The experience led to some members leaving NZ First disillusioned and privately expressing their disappointment that Mr Peters could have avoided the party's time in the political wilderness.
Former MP Ron Mark said Mr Peters knew the NZ First brand was solid but he needed to repair and rebuild it.
"Winston himself knew what he had to do, personally and for the party."
Although still combative, Mr Peters has changed his approach to the media. He may not always give a straight answer but he now answers his phone and returns calls.
"Winston took the message on board that you can't be at war with the media," Mr Mark says.
Another former MP says Mr Peters had to "tidy up" his act with the media. "People don't like middle-aged to old men picking on young women."
Mr Mark says it was a different Mr Peters in this campaign.
"I think we saw more of the old approach from him."
After years of being urged to start a NZ First youth wing, Mr Peters finally took that advice on board. "There has always been a love for Winston at the universities."
Mr Peters has also learnt about the value of social media and has "very solid businesslike women" behind him in the party organisation, Mr Mark says.
"That wouldn't surprise anybody. We all know who makes the marae work and it ain't the old koro sitting on the paepae, it's the old aunties and nanas in the kitchens."
A donations bucket was passed around NZ First's town hall meetings and rallies, but it is likely Mr Peters has financial backers other than old ladies with their coin collections.
During the campaign, Mr Peters told TV3 that the controversial Spencer Trust was no longer handling NZ First's finances, and the party treasurer has taken over that role.
However, when asked about it, Mr Peters refused to elaborate or say how NZ First was being funded. "What you're going to find out and know is what the law requires you to find out and know.
"If the law doesn't require you to know, then you better become a party member and I'm happy to send you a membership form."
No-one was asking National where the party got "all their millions".
"We're not having another spurious anti-NZ First campaign conducted by people who never asked any of the other parties that question but asks it of us. We're not going to have two standards, one for NZ First and one for the rest of them – that's not going to wash."
BUT a former party insider says Mr Peters has the same backers he's always had. "The money always came from New Zealand businesses: fishing, forestry, agriculture. It was never a huge amount of money and it wouldn't have been this time."
NZ First would declare its donations, the former insider suggested, but like other parties, donations under $10,000 went under the radar because they aren't legally required to be declared.
"Everybody does the $9999 donation."
Past donations to NZ First declared to the Electoral Commission have included those from Resource Finance, directed by Philip Vela and Donald McIlraith, Gold Times Sports, Talleys Fisheries, Shorts Transport and Tamatea Fisheries.
Another NZ First source says the Spencer Trust was set up by Mr Peters without the party's knowledge so he could control the party finances but didn't have to file receipts and account for every spending item.
"It was just a copycat of the trusts that National had. It was never set up to defraud anyone."
The Spencer Trust backfired for Mr Peters. "You can't go around bad-mouthing trusts for 20 years and then set one up. It was right to backfire, it was stupid."
NZ First has often been referred to as a one-horse show starring Mr Peters but Mr Mark says that is not the case.
"Winston's always had a vision of sitting in his armchair, watching the six o'clock news and seeing the leader of NZ First speaking in Parliament.
"He's always known that at some stage, there needs to be a successor to carry on the torch. For that to happen, NZ First had to be back in Parliament."
Mr Mark wouldn't be drawn on who he thought Mr Peters' successor would be. There could be a clue in who the party picks as its deputy or whip.
NZ First is waiting to be appointed offices before Mr Peters comes to Parliament and the caucus elects its positions. The party's board will also have some say.
Former North Shore mayor Andrew Williams is an obvious candidate for deputy and has not ruled out putting his hand up.
Another candidate could be former television weatherman Brendan Horan.
Rodney board member Tracy Martin is seen as the organiser in the caucus, and former MP and teacher Barbara Stewart is the only member with Parliamentary experience.
Also coming into Parliament is Corrections Department adviser Asenati Taylor, former Christchurch councillor Denis O'Rourke and Investigate magazine columnist Richard Prosser.
Mr Mark says there will always be a place in the political landscape for NZ First.
Many parties have adopted NZ First policies such as free healthcare for under sixes, compulsory savings schemes and amending the Reserve Bank Act to control the dollar and help exporters.
"They might find a jacket that fits but they won't find the trousers as well."
The Fall And Rise And Fall And Rise Of Winston Peters
APRIL 1993 – Winston Peters was re-elected as MP for Tauranga after a by-election. After disputes with the leadership, he quit the National Party when it was decided he would not be allowed to seek renomination for the seat.
JULY – NZ First was formed.
NOVEMBER – Mr Peters retained his seat, and candidate Tau Henare won Northern Maori.
NOVEMBER 1996 – Under the new MMP system NZ First won 13 per cent of the vote and 17 seats – including all five Maori seats. It won the balance of power but despite Mr Peters' attacks on the National Party during the campaign, he joined forces with them after seven weeks of talks. Mr Peters became deputy prime minister.
1997 – MP Tuku Morgan was embroiled in a scandal which revolved around his spending NZ$4000 of Aotearoa Television funds on clothes including an $89 pair of underpants. He was later cleared of fraud.
AUGUST 1998 – After a fall-out over the privatisation of Wellington International Airport, Mr Peters was sacked from Cabinet. He ended the coalition and NZ First went into opposition. A caucus room coup failed, and several MPs chose to stay in government under the banner of a new party, Mauri Pacific.
NOVEMBER 1999 – NZ First took a drubbing at the polls, only scraping back into Parliament, with Mr Peters holding on to Tauranga by just 63 votes.
NOVEMBER 2002 – The party, campaigning on immigration, Treaty costs, and crime, won 10 per cent of the vote and 13 seats, but Labour prime minister Helen Clark chose to seek support from other parties.
2003 – The scampi scandal broke – allegations about corruption in the fishing industry – culminating in a primary industries select committee inquiry. Allegations against Winston Peters and fellow MP Ross Meurant were found to be untrue.
NOVEMBER 2005 – As the election approached, Mr Peters promised not to "seek the baubles of office" or enter into coalition with the Greens. Mr Peters lost Tauranga to National's Bob Clarkson, the party returned with seven MPs. There was surprise that Labour, which won the most seats in the election, gave Mr Peters the foreign affairs portfolio, given his outspoken views on immigration.
NOVEMBER 2008 – Mr Peters again lost Tauranga this time to National's Simon Bridges by a margin of 11,742 votes – and NZ First entered the political wilderness for three years.
NOVEMBER 2011 – The teapot tapes scandal helped revive Winston Peters' fortunes in the latter weeks of the campaign, and NZ First was returned to Parliament with eight MPs.
What They're Saying About NZ First
Prime Minister John Key:
"He's likely to spice up question time, that's for sure."
Grey Power president Roy Reid:
"Winston Peters campaigned on a reduction in power prices for the elderly and we would be very keen to encourage him to work to achieve that aim."
Outgoing Labour leader Phil Goff:
"I think probably John Key ensured [Mr Peters' return] over the cup of tea saga. That was mana from heaven for Winston and he took full advantage of it."
Former NZ First MP Ron Mark:
"He'll be devastating. He should be the leader of opposition."
Maori co-leader Pita Sharples:
"Winston's back but he's never been one to favour things Maori ... one law for all means squash anything for Maori. So that will be an ongoing battle."
- © Fairfax NZ News