It’s the end of the road for NZ First as the political party, and its longstanding leader Winston Peters, are voted out of Government.
Winston Peters has a penchant for keeping the public guessing.
After a bruising election defeat on Saturday, Peters’ four-decade long political career appears to be over. His party, NZ First, was voted out of government for the second time.
But Peters, 75, has often defied the odds and expectation. Whether he will retire from politics, or hold on to the party leadership in hope of a return, he will not say.
On Sunday, the outgoing deputy prime minister retreated to his home at Whananaki, a remote coastal township in Northland.
NZ First leader Winston Peters after addressing supporters at the Duke of Marlborough in Russell, on Saturday night.
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He had been seen having lunch at the Duke of Marlborough hotel in Russell, the venue of NZ First’s election party, and exited through a rear door to avoid reporters’ questions.
A Stuff photographer located him at a petrol station some 60 kilometres south of Russell; Peters covered his face as he was approached. His partner, Jan Trotman, cursed at the photographer and said: “He doesn’t owe you anything”.
Peters has retreated to his Northland home after election wins and losses in the past. There is much that has been repeated throughout Peters’ career: his popularity rising and falling amid scandal and court battles, his supporters leaving him after power is obtained, and his refusal to retire from politics.
Outgoing deputy prime minister Winston Peters tries to quietly leave Russell, avoiding media and questions on Sunday.
Wynston Raymond Peters, the name on his birth certificate according to Martin Hames’ biography Winston First, was born in Whananaki. He was one of 11 children raised by Len Peters, of Ngātiwai, and Joan McInnes, from Scotland.
”Northland is poor, but it shouldn’t be … Northland and Kaikohe have not just been ignored – they have been written off by those in Wellington,” Peters told an audience in Kaikohe, in 1999.
Before a politician, Peters was a teacher for a year, a youth member of the National Party at Auckland University, and in 1974 took up a job at the high-profile law firm Russell McVeagh.
He contested and lost the Northern Māori electorate seat for National in 1975, afterwards helping Ngātiwai in a legal fight to preserve its land, a battle seen as a precursor to Dame Whina Cooper’s land march.
His political career began in earnest with a court battle. He contested the Hunua seat for National in 1978, and, after losing, took Labour’s Malcolm Douglas to court over the vote count and won.
In his maiden speech he praised the values of free enterprise, advocated for a curbed welfare state, and lambasted “people scornful of our society”.
“The critic I am speaking about … sets out to exploit every tremor and spasm in society, the economy, or race relations, seeking to use every such event as a vehicle to project his own public personality,” he said.
Peters then lost Hunua in the 1981 election.
Winston Peters during the adjournment debate for the conclusion of the 51st Parliament.
After three years outside Parliament, he landed in Tauranga for the 1984 election,in which David Lange’s reformist Labour Government came to power. Peters won the seat and retained it until 2005, all the while his popularity rising and falling amid scandal and the creation of NZ First.
There were “affairs”. The first display of his attraction to scandal was the Māori Loans Affairs in which he exposed the Department of Māori Affairs’ unauthorised attempt to raise $600 million overseas for a development project.
As the Labour Government’s nation-shaking reforms carried into the ‘90s, Peters’ star continued to rise as politics began to shift beneath his feet. He first made the preferred prime minister polls in 1988, then surged to 17 per cent – ahead of National leader Jim Bolger.
His relationship with then-Prime Minister Bolger broke down in 1991, and when he told reporters New Zealand had an “Erebus economy” – a reference to the Air New Zealand plane crash. Bolger fired him from Cabinet.
Winston Peters pretends to get phone calls from Helen Clark and Don Brash during a 2005 press conference about his election campaign.
Peters turned on his party, and in 1992 made various allegations, including claiming that a member of the New Zealand Business Roundtable tried to bribe him. His tirades saw him again rise in popularity polls.
He then stopped National from expelling him from the party in a 1993 court battle. But the party blocked his selection for the Tauranga seat. He resigned from the party, forced a by-election, and won as an independent candidate.
Peters kept the public in suspense about his next move. In front of an audience of thousands of Grey Power members, he said he would be part of a “political vehicle that puts New Zealand first, second and third”, amid speculation he would join a minor party.
NZ First was born. The nascent party was announced at Alexandra Park Raceway in Auckland – stories of Peters’ childhood tell of him riding a horse from his Whananaki home to school when the tide was high, and horse racing was central to his political platform.
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NZ First leader and deputy prime minister Winston Peters holds his last rally of the campaign, in Whangarei.
The new party began with another longstanding aspect of Peters’ politics, a hard-line immigration stance. NZ First took 12 per cent of the vote, which under first-past-the-post granted him and Tau Henare – who would later become a National MP – seats in Parliament.
From this time came one of Peters’ defining scandals, the winebox saga. Having obtained an actual winebox full of documents which, he claimed, showed the Cook Islands was being used as a tax haven, Peters sparked a three-year inquiry.
In a move reminiscent of Peters’ more recent record, he used Parliamentary privilege to accuse the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) director, Charles Sturt, of lying, corruption, and incompetence over the saga.
Peters had similarly attacked the SFO in the week leading up to Saturday, after the office investigated donations received by the New Zealand First Foundation. The office had announced it had charged two people connected to the foundation – not party members, sitting MPs or candidates or their staff – after months of investigation.
In the lead-up to the 1996 election, Peters ran a savage anti-National campaign and claimed the balance of power in the country’s first Mixed Member Proportional election.
With a 17-seat strong party, both National and Labour entered into negotiations with him. He kept the country waiting for more than eight weeks, and chose National, despite his clashes with Bolger.
Peters became deputy prime minister, and a newly created role of treasurer was created for him. He secured an extra $5 billion in spending at the expense of National’s planned tax cuts, another 500 police officers, a review of the murder penalty, and a “population summit” – many policies that strongly resemble those Peters campaigned on this past election.
NZ First leader Winston Peters gives a brief speech at the Duke of Marlborough, after the 2020 election loss.
“This party is called New Zealand First. We stand in the centre. We are the middle party in this Parliament, and we will go on in coalition long after I am dead, and long after any member here is dead,” Peters said in the House after the win.
Labour was incensed.
“Members on this side of the House were misled. We were led up the garden path by Winston Peters. In my view he is quietly laughing at what he has achieved,” Labour MP Annette King said.
But Labour ultimately forgave him. Former Labour leader Helen Clark told Stuff earlier this week Peters did not deal in “bad faith”.
Winston Peters became the MP in the Hunua seat for National after the 1978 election.
Clark said Labour was not in a strong negotiating position.
The coalition with National did not last. Jenny Shipley took over from Bolger after a coup, and then sacked Peters in 1998 after he walked out from a Cabinet meeting during a dispute about privatising Wellington Airport.
As the coalition collapsed, NZ First split. Seven MPs, including Henare, stuck with the Government, while Peters and seven others sat on the cross benches.
The fracture in Government did not please voters, and NZ First dropped below the 5 per cent threshold. The party only survived because Peters retained Tauranga, by 63 votes.
Labour’s Clark came into power. Peters rebuilt his support, his firebrand style of campaigning and populist, anti-immigration platform becoming a constant in electoral politics.
There were plenty of controversies, and speeches about race relations which riled minority communities and created headlines. National leader Don Brash might have made political history in 2004 with his “Orewa Speech”, but Peters had mastered the genre years before him.
Winston Peters as the foreshore and seabed debate raged.
Former Victoria University political scientist Jon Johansson, who became Peters’ chief of staff in 2017, in a paper, Orewa and the Rhetoric of Illusion, described Peters as a politician who “routinely singles out groups for exclusion from his vision of a cohesive New Zealand society”.
“He stereotypes Asian drivers, third-world immigrants and ‘litigious’ Māori and blames them for eroding the fabric of what makes this country unique and strong,” he wrote.
Though Peters lost Tauranga in by a tight margin in 2005, NZ First scraped in at 5.7 per cent. (Peters took the winner of Tauranga, National’s Bob Clarkson, to court and lost)
Labour needed a coalition partner, and found it in NZ First. In exchange, Peters became minister of foreign affairs and racing, and secured the SuperGold card – a legacy policy for him – and an increase in superannuation payments.
Winston Peters speaks to reporters on the way into the debating chamber.
Again, Peters did not survive the whole term of Government in his ministerial roles.
He became embroiled in a donations scandal and the Serious Fraud Office began investigating. Clark confronted Peters about the allegations, and he handed over his portfolios. NZ First was cleared, not long before the 2008 election.
Many said it would be the end of Peters. He again contested the Tauranga seat and a young National MP, Simon Bridges, trounced him by more than doubling his votes. NZ First fell short of the mark, gaining 4 per cent, ousting them from Parliament.
Winston Peters reads a statement at the Carlton Hotel, Auckland, in 1998 after he was sacked as deputy prime minister and treasurer.
Peters, out of Parliament again, promised: “This is not the end.”
There was no such promise on Saturday evening, but there was a hint.
Peters hastily departed the stage after conceding the election loss, but not without saying: “As for the next challenge, we’ll all have to wait and see.”