The smiling political survivor puts on fine Hamilton show

21:10, May 30 2012

NZ First leader Winston Peters spoke in Hamilton recently and I was privileged enough to be in the audience – privileged in the sense that it was a select crowd.

Colin "Pinetree" Meads was but a couple of metres to my left, a local National MP was marginally to my right (where else?) and various big media and political players joined some lucky Wintec journalism students in making up the numbers.

It was the type of event David Shearer thought it might be amusing to arrive late to, although in this as in most other things, the official Leader of the Opposition came a poor second to the veteran upstart.

After all, Winston is the only New Zealand politician that John Key is on record as ruling out as a coalition partner.

A combined Labour-National government is more likely than any rapprochement between the former member for Tauranga and the former merchant banker.

It's ironic that Key would prefer the strategic forgetfulness of John Banks and the pious prudery of newcomer Colin Craig to someone I first remember as the television front man in National's 1981 election campaign.


Although Winston Peters lost his Hunua seat in that election – a seat he was very lucky to have occupied at all, after displacing Roger Douglas' brother in some hair-splitting legal action – you could not have then asked for a more loyal Muldoon acolyte. Who better to put a positive spin on things post-Springbok tour then a charismatic, handsome Maori who loved the camera almost as much as the camera loved him?

Of course, there has been a lot of water under the bridge in the 31 years since. Too many twists and turns to recall or accurately recount here. Even those with a tragically short political memory, though, would have been laughing twice as Peters enjoyed himself at Banks' expense, mocking the ACT leader's faulty memory when it comes to the generosity of Kim Dotcom.

Is not the Banks-Dotcom saga reminiscent of the Peters-Owen Glenn fiasco that so hurt the NZ First leader?

One of my colleagues told me he had been tempted to bring along a few placards with the word "No" printed on them and to hold them up at measured intervals as commentary on one of Peters' more notorious media stunts. So similar are the two scandals that Banksie could have borrowed Winnie's originals during his press conferences.

Whatever else was to be taken from the afternoon, Winston put on a grand show. Think Enoch Powell crossed with Howard Morrison. If he is a demagogue, he's our demagogue: charming, witty, full of knowing allusions and outrageous generalisations, a walking, talking compendium of recent power broking shenanigans and backroom deals. For sheer pulling power and speaking ability, I doubt that any other politician in the country could touch the man. When Shearer did turn up, he seemed nice enough but colourless in comparison.

The only personality in the room to match Winston was one who didn't have to speak. When you've worn New Zealand colours for 14 seasons, straight conversation is just window dressing. The event's highlight for me were those moments when Peters ceded the limelight briefly to Meads, trying to engage Pinetree in some casual banter about the sorry state of the Blues football team.

Why, I wondered, would a King Country stalwart care about Auckland rugby? Even if the attempt fell flat, it still felt as if you were witnessing history to see the two icons chat briefly afterwards. The expression "twilight of the gods" came to mind.

The one objectionable part of Peters' speech, or at least the extract that made the TV3 News the next day, had to do with immigration and race relations. Prompted to make comment on a subject that he has gained some notoriety in before, Winston duly performed. You could do a lot worse in making xenophobia palatable to a broadly liberal audience than dress it up as restaurant criticism. Peters critiqued Asian immigration by doing just this: complaining about the amount of ethnic eateries on a stretch of an Auckland road. It got a biggish laugh, although many laughed nervously.

As a cross between a racist joke and a right-wing metaphor, the gag worked. However, it sat uncomfortably next to Peters' serious plea to have an open, rationale debate about immigration and its impact on New Zealand culture. The tension between showman and statesman explains both the man's strength and his weakness. Winston Peters generates more laughs than a politician should.