Walkabout with Winston

RURAL HEARTLAND: Many people turned up to Winston Peter's speech at Grey Power Timaru to hear his policies in person.
RURAL HEARTLAND: Many people turned up to Winston Peter's speech at Grey Power Timaru to hear his policies in person.

Few politicians can match Winston Peters in terms of celebrity pulling power.

In the latest of dozens of public meetings he is holding around the country, this one at the Timaru RSA on Wednesday, about 150 people brace against the bitter cold wind blowing across the Canterbury Plains to hear "Winston".

This is three times the number who rolled up for a recent planned visit by Green MP Gareth Hughes (an event then cancelled because the local airport was closed because of fog).

All but a handful in the audience will hold the Gold cards which make Peters so popular among those drawing NZ Super, although the major benefit of the card - free public transport - means fewer here than in larger centres.

Branch vice-president Tom O'Connor says the NZ First leader's speaking skills and message strike a chord with many among the membership.

The speech harks back to the past which they, and Peters, seem to remember fondly.

Early on he stumbles through a story about how the usually safe Labour seat of Timaru turned blue in a 1985 by-election, when local MP Sir Basil Arthur died in office, as the controversial economic reforms of the David Lange-led Labour Government, removing farm subsidies and floating the dollar, kicked in. (The point being that, after calling for voters to "send them a message", National eventually just did more of the same.)

But Peters moves fluently into full stride as he moves on to the core messages he delivers up and down New Zealand, drawing mumbles of agreement from the audience.

He issues blunt warnings about a slide towards Maori separatism and the way "paper pushers" like Prime Minister John Key and his friends are stealing the wealth of the regions.

"Someone is convincing you that it's all good for you, or more importantly, that you can't do anything about it," Peters bellows, urging voters to get some "serious insurance" by voting for NZ First.

When he tells the audience about how thousands of recent Chinese immigrants drawing a pension are fuelling an argument about whether the scheme is affordable, a man in the audience calls out "kick them out" in a thick Scottish accent.

The comment prompts laughter, especially as the man qualifies that he meant "except for the Jocks".

Peters quickly gets in on the act. "Sir, don't read my speech back to me."

Peters admits that the inspiration for his core campaigning strategy comes not from modern political strategy but Sir Robert Muldoon.

Recent party conferences have seen National and Labour unveil campaign slogans designed to please Twitter-savvy supporters, but Peters scoffs at the idea.

Peters, who celebrates 21 years as NZ First leader at its conference in Auckland this weekend, points out the number of people who "like" his Facebook page [almost 16,000] is second only to Key among New Zealand politicians.

Yet he describes social media as "bells and whistles". Important, yes, but certainly not the main event.

His real focus is old-school, inspired by the man who led the National Party when Peters was first elected to Parliament for the party back in 1978.

Muldoon used town hall meetings to take his messages straight to voters, cutting out a parliamentary press gallery which he believed portrayed him unfairly.

Peters does the same thing for the same reason, claiming the party does not get the coverage it deserves. When audiences gasp at some of his more lurid examples, he responds "didn't the media tell you that?" It is a message he delivers many times. On Sunday it was Gisborne; Monday, Tauranga, Tuesday, West Auckland and Wednesday, Timaru, before he attended a funeral on Thursday before preparations for the two- day conference.

While he claims the party's support is building in South and West Auckland, there is "no doubt" the party gets more support in provincial areas than among the "bankers, insurance people, paper shufflers" of central Auckland and Wellington.

"They like the way the country is, for them."

Will Peters again be the kingmaker after the September 20 election?

Current polling suggests otherwise. This week's stuff.co.nz/Ipsos poll had NZ First down to 2.6 per cent - just over half the support needed for it to return to Parliament.

But the polls always write off NZ First this far out from the election, he says.

Weeks out from the 2011 election the party was barely registering any support, before topping 6.5 per cent on election day.

Peters says the polls are a "gross misrepresentation" of his party's support and should be banned from being published within four weeks of the election.

"If the commentators had said what we knew we were on, we could have got 10 per cent," he said of 2011, believing many were put off by fears a vote for NZ First would be "wasted".

This was an election where Peters, out of Parliament since 2008, was propelled back into the limelight following the "teapot tapes" conversation between Key and former ACT MP John Banks.

Peters offers no explanation as to why he believes NZ First polls so lowly, other than that the industry is being "shonky". One small consolation, he says, is that his supporters were so tired of it, it no longer bothered them.

What is clear is his celebrity makes him recognisable and his policies are unashamedly populist. His refusal to even hint as which side he would be likely to support post-election means he is likely to represent many things to voters.

During lunch, a man in his 40s approaches Peters, standing almost at attention and saying he is former Royal New Zealand Navy, praising Peters for the way he "looks after the older folks".

A few minutes later a middle-aged woman comes forward, urging Peters to continue to "keep them honest".

A mother asks Peters to pose for a photo with her daughter; the publican wants a picture with Peters.

Clearly he is polarising; his views on immigration and Treaty issues have seen many accuse him of xenophobia.

But MMP can easily suit divisive figures - Peters does not need to appeal at all to more than 90 per cent of voters so long as he can motivate enough of the rest to back him.

His legend and name recognition, and keen sense of what issues appeal to voters, suggest that if he can be in the minds of voters as they enter the polling booth, he must be odds-on for another term in Parliament. Fairfax NZ

The Press