Winston Peters. A living remnant of a bygone age, the man is like a political Tuatara. In many ways, the recent political history of New Zealand is also the history of Winston Peters. At various times, he has been the kingmaker in the formation of governments, and through this has dictated political agenda. In the 1996 election, he took a fishing holiday for three weeks while the country had no government, and emerged to unexpectedly support Jim Bolger’s National Party, who had created a brand new, powerful post of Treasurer for him. In 1998 he sent the same government into turmoil by walking out on Jenny Shipley and putting her majority into jeopardy. He held the kingmaker role again in 2005 when he opted for Helen Clark and her promise of funding for his GoldCard over Don Brash. A funding scandal saw him lose out in 2008, and many thought that it was the end for Winston and New Zealand First. However, he defied all odds to return in 2011 on the back of the Teapot Tape saga to claim seven seats in Parliament, possibly thwarting a National Party vote of over 50%. In this way, Winston Peters has remained a constant presence in Parliament – and one that we all really wish would go away.
Winston Peters is a complete political enigma. He has opted for governments run by both major parties in the past, and no one is really sure where to put him on the political axis. It is almost as if his decisions are driven by personal vendettas than party politics. Since 2011 he has sat in opposition with Labour, Green and Mana where he has argued vehemently against asset sales and has been a constant, grumpy thorn in the side of the National Party. This could very well be due to his being spurned by John Key in 2008, which probably contributed to his electoral loss, and again in 2011. Both times, Key has categorically ruled out working with New Zealand First, putting Winston in a difficult place between National, who he is probably more ideologically in sync with, and Labour who hold different economic and social policies to him.
In this upcoming election, New Zealand First has been the subject of much speculation. They are currently hovering around the 4.5% mark in the polls, and are likely to hit the threshold again – Winston is a veteran campaigner. Once again, he is causing a problem for both major parties, neither of whom want to ally with him but are worried that they’re going to have to. Given that he has been in opposition to, and a harsh critic of the National Party it seems sensible to assume that he would support a Labour Government. This would be true for anyone but Winston Peters, who is famously unpredictable. However, as of yesterday John Key broke with tradition and refused to rule out working with New Zealand First after the next election. This would have caused Winston as much satisfaction as it would have caused Key chagrin.
Given this new development, it seems likely that Winston will choose to work with National. As much as Winston professes to reject ‘the baubles of office’, he has traditionally gone with the party that has offered him the most. In a Labour Government, there is not enough room for two large minor parties with big ambitions, and so Winston would likely take third place after the Greens, and I can’t see him being satisfied with third place. Therefore, while Labour probably want to try to disassociate themselves with Winston as much as possible, they need to also put themselves in a position where they can use his potential tiebreaking votes, while reconciling New Zealand First and the Greens. This is much easier for National, who would likely use New Zealand First with either the Conservatives or a makeup of their current smaller allies. In fact, the Conservatives and New Zealand First both share very similar nationalist stances, which is certainly evident in their economic policies, and could easily be reconciled.
This being said, the man is a total enigma, and no one can really accurately predict what he may do. Regardless, there is a possibility that Winston Peters may once again hold the kingmaker position after the 2014 election. This is probably not a good thing for our democracy, as having the power to hold governments hostage to extract policy concessions that do not reflect his share of the vote is a very dangerous process. I’m sure that once Winston Peters does finally take his final bow, the other parties will breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that future governments will not hinge on the whim of one very unpredictable man.