Breaking bread and wine with Winston

PHILIP MATTHEWS
Last updated 09:10 24/08/2014
winston peters
IAIN MCGREGOR/ Fairfax NZ

CENTRE OF ATTENTION: NZ First's Winston Peters talks to Grey Power at the Cashmere Club in Christchurch.

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Winston Peters did not arrive first, but he sat down first. He sat in the centre and made it clear that the other five candidates were to arrange themselves around him, like a version of the Last Supper.

The New Zealand First leader was the main attraction at a Grey Power debate at the Cashmere Club on Wednesday. Everyone else was a warmup act.

He sat beneath Grey Power's yellow flags exuding gravity and seriousness. He looked at his watch as others talked, as if he was also the timekeeper.

The carpark was full and more than 250 people had packed the hall. You could call it 250 shades of grey.

Labour's Megan Woods spoke first, but a reference to Dirty Politics fell flat with a crowd that showed no sign of having read the Nicky Hager book.

But it was a good line regardless. Woods said as a gathering of Christchurch people, "we prefer to call ourselves the cream rather than the other substance that rises to the top, which we've been called in recent days".

As Wigram MP, she spoke of "the giants" who preceded her in Sydenham - Mabel Howard, Norman Kirk, Jim Anderton - and promoted Labour's Aged Care policy.

Next up, Jo Goodhew. How many present knew that National's Rangitata MP is the minister for senior citizens?

You could wonder if even Goodhew knew.

She told the crowd she was sick of hearing that old people are a problem and then went on to list the ways in which their lives could be a problem.

She talked about boy racers and hip replacements, television captions and dementia.

Questions from the audience stumped her. She was embarrassed to know nothing about a Grey Power petition on rest homes in the red-zone.

"I can't commit a future government to anything," she declared and left before Peters started talking. But before the main event, we still needed to hear from Green Party co-leader Russel Norman and United Future leader Peter Dunne.

The ongoing Dirty Politics scandal was hanging around outside like a bad smell, but they had conflicting views on the need to bring it into the room.

Dunne thought all the coverage was muckraking and it was time to move on. Norman suggested it was important to talk about right and wrong behaviour.

"Politics isn't about the dirty stuff," Norman said. "It's about being the best people we can be."

Then the main event stood up, looked at his opponents and grinned. What were Dunne and Woods even doing in Peters' territory?

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," he said.

The audience loved every minute of him.

He said "Gerry Brownlee" and they booed on cue.

So he made a joke about Brownlee running. He had a crack at the "foreign-owned" Press.

He told the audience they should be "enraged" about the reported gap in Earthquake Commission (EQC) accounting.

"We are!" one or two voices yelled back.

There was a bigger picture. "We have been the victims of a blind ideology that started 30 years ago," he said.

In the 1980s, New Zealand sold assets, "mainly to foreigners", and now the Government expects the Christchurch City Council to do the same? If the Government can find $800 million for South Canterbury Finance, "they can find the same funds to help you".

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They cheered, they laughed. They seemed uninterested in Dirty Politics, so he saved those prepared lines for the reporters who followed him out to the lobby.

There was still one more speaker, but the energy left the hall with Peters. Conservative Party candidate Leighton Baker talked to a quiet room.

Prime Minister John Key must have hoped that Dirty Politics was a world away from a cosy lunchtime walkabout at Barrington Mall on Thursday.

For the most part it was. But a member of the public who used the moment to confront Key and talk about her negotiations with the EQC had been paying attention to the revelations.

"It's not like it's anything new," she said. "But the lid has been lifted."

On an election stunt like this, the media can follow and photograph but not ask questions. Key was observed in regular guy mode as he talked to bank tellers, sushi vendors and Lotto shop operators.

"Hello ladies," he said as he wandered into the BNZ. At the supermarket, his entourage blocked the exit.

"I don't care, I just want to get out," said a shopper with a full trolley.

There was a smart aleck at the supermarket eftpos.

"John, I just got declined. You got a spare fiver?"

Once Key might have produced his wallet and got a laugh. But he seemed tired and distracted.

He tried to compliment the young man on buying blue Powerade. "Right colour, anyway."

Two people presented books for Key to sign. Not Hager's book but John Roughan's more flattering biography of the prime minister. Others asked for pictures.

He bought a muffin from a coffee shop and handed it to an assistant after one bite. Then he bought a cheese roll from a bakery and did the same.

All the journalists had questions about Dirty Politics, Judith Collins and the SIS, but they had to wait for the formal standup which was two hours away. This was the public's turn to see political power up close.

"Hello John," said one, sounding surprised. "You're a tiny wee guy."

"I wouldn't say tiny," Key replied. "Five foot ten, that's what I tell them."

- The Press

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