Chris Trotter: Can Winston ride Jacinda's wave to an enduring political legacy?

Which Winston will show up? Sunny Winston or scowling Winston?
LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFF

Which Winston will show up? Sunny Winston or scowling Winston?

OPINION: Imagine how galling Jacinda Ardern's Auckland Town Hall love-fest must have been for Winston Peters.

Just one tumultuous month ago, that sort of spectacle had been his for the making. NZ First was on a roll: effortlessly rising on the swell of an electoral wave that had the pundits making serious predictions about Peters becoming New Zealand's next prime minister. Not anymore.

It is only fair to note at this point that the NZ First surge was no figment of the pundits' imagination. A month ago, Peters' understanding of the political mood seemed altogether more profound than any of his rivals. His appeal to what he perceived to be a simmering anger, roiling just below the surface of New Zealand politics, was borne out by his party's steady rise in the polls.

A dark and glowering Winston Peters hurling rhetorical thunderbolts at all and sundry will find himself very poorly ...
TOM LEE/STUFF

A dark and glowering Winston Peters hurling rhetorical thunderbolts at all and sundry will find himself very poorly placed to participate positively in the creative change unleashed by Jacinda Ardern.

Political historians looked at those numbers and, recalling Peters' ability to nearly double his party's level of support over the course of the formal election campaign period, began speculating that the final NZ First vote might actually equal (or even outstrip) that of the ailing, Andrew Little-led Labour Party. In those circumstances, the precariously placed, Party List-only candidate, Little, could, conceivably, have lost his seat in the House of Representatives, putting the post of prime minister well-and-truly in play.

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The rise and rise of NZ First proved equally unsettling for the Greens. Their Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Labour Party should have been a source of political reassurance, but the fact that it expired on Election Day made it a constant source of worry. With NZ First nipping at their heels in the polls, and their own history of losing support over the course of the formal campaign period, what guarantee did they have that Labour would not pull another "2005" on them by striking a deal with Peters?

Recklessly, the Green Party co-leader, Metiria Turei, lashed out at Peters; castigating him and his party for their "racist" policies. Then, even more recklessly, Turei seized the opportunity of her party's AGM to declare the Greens' determination to legislate a "preferential option for the poor".

The signal to Labour was unmistakable: MoU, or no MoU, the Greens had lost faith in their putative coalition partner. Labour was sinking and the Greens were standing by to pick up all of those Labour voters sensible enough to abandon ship. A five-point surge in the polls suggested that this just might prove to be a winning strategy.

Labour's answer was Jacinda Ardern – and it was devastating. As her first, astonishingly accomplished, media conference drew to a close, it was clear to every political observer in New Zealand that the game had changed.

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How seriously it had changed for the Greens was made clear by their catastrophic slide in the One News/Colmar Brunton poll of August 17. Amidst all the smoke and flames of Turei's and the Greens auto-da-fe, however, it was easy to miss the less dramatic, but equally important, decline in the fortunes of Peters and NZ First.

The outcome of the 2017 General Election may now turn on whether or not Peters is able to discern the full strategic significance of Jacinda's Love-Fest.

On his multiple tours of the provinces, Peters had registered a great deal of anger and resentment: feelings which, like Donald Trump, he believed he could distil into a winning brew of electoral moonshine. But anger and resentment aren't the only emotions out there in the electorate. As the heart-breaking responses to Turei's turn towards the poor made clear, so are desperation and despair.

'The Wave' is not, however, generated by anger and resentment; nor is it impelled by desperation and despair. These raw emotions are just the foam at the Wave's crest. Driving the Wave is a massive tide of dissatisfaction with the way New Zealand society is evolving. The voters want change, yes, but not for the purposes of punishing their fellow citizens and/or destroying the things they hold dear. The change they are seeking is creative and constructive; change to usher-in a fairer, more inclusive and more joyous nation.

A dark and glowering Winston Peters hurling rhetorical thunderbolts at all and sundry will find himself very poorly placed to participate positively in such creative change. But, a wise and benevolent Winston Peters, determined to render every possible assistance to New Zealand's youngest prime minister in more than a century (think Winston Churchill and the young Queen Elizabeth) will leave behind a political legacy of no small significance.

All the great historical changes contain a blending of radical and conservative impulses: a determination to construct a better future on the solid foundations of a cherished past. If Peters draws the correct strategic lesson from Jacindamania, he will make himself the champion for all that made New Zealand great – and can make it great again.

 - Stuff

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