Old warhorse leading the charge

BILL MOORE
Last updated 08:16 11/11/2013
rachel reese
FAIRFAX NZ
SMOOTH OPERATOR: Winston Peters shows a mellow side that contrasts with his often prickly TV persona.
rachel reese
FAIRFAX NZ
CAMPAIGN TRAIL: Winston Peters says NZ First ‘‘has some highly nationalistic beliefs, and we’re proud of them’’.

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Winston Peters is one of New Zealand's great political survivors. He entered Parliament as National MP for Hunua in 1978, lost that seat in 1981, came back for National in Tauranga in 1984 and held it first for National, then from 1993 for NZ First, the party he set up.

A list MP from 2005-08, he was out of Parliament from 2008 until 2011, when NZ First confounded the pundits to come back with 6.8 per cent of the party vote, giving it eight seats. He's not done yet, he told Bill Moore on a recent visit to Nelson.

After 35 years in politics NZ First leader Winston Peters is showing every sign that he's ready for another campaign.

"There's a lot going on. I'm seriously motivated," he says.

For a man who is known for tackling the media, Mr Peters was both genial and forthcoming in Nelson yesterday, after he had given a speech on Thursday night to the Nelson branch of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs.

Immaculate at 10.30am in a dark blue double-breasted suit, blue and red tie with matching handkerchief in his top pocket and sporting a new-looking haircut, the smokey-voiced 68-year-old looks fit, trim and surprisingly youthful, the deep lines that show up on television not so evident in person.

He laughs when this is mentioned.

"My advice to everybody is, if you have a seriously good diet, and watch your diet, it's the most important thing about being healthy. And I have had one of those. Since the 6th of June 1980 I don't eat dessert, cakes and sweets and all that stuff - if I do it's an absolute rarity."

The fact that he's smoking a Dunhill cigarette at an outside table at the Rutherford Hotel while saying so doesn't seem to register.

Think of Mr Peters in many a TV clip over 30 years and words like combative, prickly, tricky and even wily might come to mind. In person yesterday there was none of that. No attempt to duck a question, steer the interview or lecture the reporter. No needle, and lots of the trademark grin.

Known for picking up political speed when an election is in sight, he says he's feeling energised, still finds his job fascinating and that his message is as strong as ever.

The way New Zealand has handled globalisation has been "100 per cent wrong", he says. It has failed to extract value in the way that countries like Singapore and Norway have done, instead falling prey to "some great international idea where accidentally you might get some benefit".

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"That's what I think has happened to New Zealand. We're accidentally getting some benefit but if you look at our exports, our level of debt, our wealth creation, our dependence on foreign money, there's a lot wrong with our economic structure that we could have done better.

"I suppose when you've lived through that as a politician, you stay in the game because you think that one day soon you could possibly correct some of that.

"That's why I am for New Zealand banking, New Zealand insurance companies and New Zealand savings schemes, and for an export dollar that is much lower than it is now, because it will help exports and help the provinces."

He says the provinces are providing New Zealand's lifeblood and when it's pointed out that various National politicians have been saying just that in Nelson recently, responds: "They're discovering that lesson somewhat the same way as Columbus discovered America, purely by damned accident. Now we're getting close to an election they're starting to say it - but it's not reflected in their actions and their policies."

Mr Peters can keep this sort of thing up apparently effortlessly, never searching for words - and, given his track record, being surprisingly supportive of journalists.

He says since the 1980s he's been saying that investigative journalism in New Zealand has been starved of resources and support to the point where it has been "almost stifled out of existence".

"There'd be only one politician who has constantly kept that message up, about not the quality of journalists but the lack of quality of the environment that they're meant to be working in.

"To do their job properly and to be the watchdog for the public they need resources, and I'm saying to the Fairfaxes of this world, and others, don't rip the eyes out of this country's Fourth Estate."

With several far-reaching inquiries into the doings of others behind him, he confesses that he'd love to have been an investigative journalist himself, then turns it into a joke: "I was just a poor country boy, I didn't have the time and the resources, like you guys."

(In fact he has a BA and a law degree, is a barrister and solicitor and a former teacher.)

The friction between Mr Peters and Prime Minister John Key is frequently reported but the NZ First leader is reluctant to offer a judgment on Mr Key.

"I'm hardly an independent commentator, am I? We don't have a relationship and why would I? He leads a political party that has an economic plan to do with asset sales that's diametrically opposed to mine, he has a view on international banking which is diametrically opposed to mine, and he's happy to borrow printed money from America but does not see the potential capacity in the people's credit in this country. These are fundamental differences. But I happen to be a real conservative, he's not."

He says the jury is still out on Labour's new leader, David Cunliffe, but that ousted leader David Shearer is "a fine individual" who was turfed into the deep end before he was ready.

NZ First believes in environmental sustainability but far too many of the Green Party's comments are about "stopping everything".

"We have difficulty understanding a lot of their intentions and motives," Mr Peters says, adding that the chance of being part of a coalition that would include the Greens is "extremely remote".

As for the growing media attention paid to the tiny Conservative Party, he sees something almost sinister in the way that leader Colin Craig was quoted on the three TV news bulletins the night of the NZ First conference last month, making comments about NZ First.

"John Key and the Right have signalled that they're desperate for a partner, so let's grab another one from out of mid air. NZ First is not remotely intimidated by that."

It brings us to the next election. Mr Peters predicts that his party is going to do a lot better in 2014 than 2011, when it came from nowhere to get eight list seats.

"Last time we were out, Cinderella-ised, shut down, marginalised, we had $42,000 to spend nationwide. This time we'll be far better prepared and with the resources to do the job.

"The most critical words in this business are get it right and work at it, don't be clever. Now the odd time in the past we have been a bit clever, I have to admit that."

It's wrong, he says, to think of NZ First as a one-man band. It has thousands of hard-working supporters all over the country, and that's why it can pack halls for public meetings.

"Other parties can't fill a telephone booth."

The party will campaign on economic policy, push its KiwiSaver fund idea launched three weeks ago, KiwiFund, and continue to advocate a state-owned insurance company, KiwiSure, an idea he says Labour has attempted to claim for its own. And he'll be around to lead.

"I don't have an exit plan, because I seriously enjoy what I do. It's worthwhile to give the country a choice. "We're not bound with the Left, we're not bound with the Right, we're an independent, middle-of-the-road commonsense practical party that has some highly nationalistic beliefs, and we're proud of them. An exit strategy is for people whose Plan A is not going to work. We think our Plan A is going to work."

He's also going to campaign on race relations, saying that a Wellington-driven "rush back to Maori tribalism" is "a growing disaster".

"What I'm saying to the people in New Zealand is, stop and ask yourself, where does this lead? If we're going to pick Maori up and improve Maori outcomes, it has to be pan-Maori, right across the country - this idea we're going to do it tribe by tribe is going to lead to elitism of the worst sort and the mass bulk of Maoridom will get nothing whatsoever."

As political interviews go, this has been relaxed and easy-going. The one uncomfortable moment is when Mr Peters is asked about the two cigarettes he's smoked during it.

If he'd known it would be mentioned, he wouldn't have smoked, he says.

"It's private. The fact is, I probably smoke a fraction of what I used to. Some days I don't smoke at all."

- Nelson

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