Week in politics: Fighting talk from Peters

4:55 pm on 7 February 2020

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - Winston Peters comes out swinging after Simon Bridges rules out working with NZ First post-election; National's leader ruffles feathers at Waitangi and the opposition takes lessons on winning elections from across the ditch.

Simon Bridges and Winston Peters.

Winston Peters, right, has hinted that Simon Bridges might be replaced as National Party leader after the election, if Bridges rules out working with NZ First. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas / Patrice Allen

"If you're looking for trouble, you've come to the right place." Fighting talk from Winston Peters this week after National's leader Simon Bridges ruled out working with NZ First post-election.

Bridges said he couldn't trust Peters and didn't think New Zealanders could either. The chances of the two parties getting together post-election were always remote, and now Bridges has put it beyond doubt.

But not, however, in Peters' mind. He told RNZ he knew for a fact that National would still be open to coalition negotiations.

He's also said that if Bridges doesn't pick up the phone, someone else in National's caucus will. That's been taken as a suggestion National's leader could be rolled if the party needs NZ First to form a government.

Peters can be expected to strive to keep his options open, or persuade voters that they are open, through to the election.

He knows he could lose votes if people who want a National-led government turn away from NZ First - a situation which has the potential to push the party below the 5 percent threshold for seats in Parliament. It happened in 2008 when John Key said before the election he wouldn't work with NZ First after it.

It's a bold move by Bridges and it's designed to destroy NZ First, so it isn't surprising Peters is ready for a fight.

It's also a risky move. Scenarios discussed in the media this week included the possibility of National's support tanking before the election. If that happens some of the party's support could go to NZ First as conservative voters seek to ensure it gets back as a coalition partner for Labour to counter any socialist excesses coming from the Greens' influence.

This point was also made by NZ First MP Mark Patterson, who tweeted his thanks to Bridges. "Thanks Simon Bridges - National's voters now know a vote for NZ First is the only way to avoid the extremes of a Labour-Greens government," he said.

While this was playing out, RNZ revealed new details of the donations to NZ First's mysterious foundation. The foundation, which bankrolls the party, has received donations from entities connected to some of the country's wealthiest business people including Graeme Hart. The donations arrived in amounts just under $15,000, the threshold at which donors' names would normally be made public.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on the part of donors.

The Electoral Commission is investigating the way the party handled donations, but it isn't known whether a conclusion will be reached before the election. Peters insists it has always acted within electoral law.

Waitangi Tribunal and Māori seats should go - Bridges

When the action moved to Waitangi, Bridges challenged the government's record on delivering for Māori, suggested the Waitangi Tribunal should be wound up when all the settlements have been completed and said Māori seats in Parliament should eventually go.

He was severely criticised for making a political speech. Peters accused him of trampling over the significance of the event and hau kainga speaker Waihoroi Shortland took him on over National's decision not to stand candidates in the Māori seats.

Simon Bridges speaks at Waitangi

Simon Bridges has been criticised this week for the political content of his speech at Waitangi. Photo: RNZ/ Dan Cook

Bridges later defended himself on Morning Report, saying neither he nor National had "given up on Māori" and he had been talking about important issues.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern came through unscathed after managing to smooth things over with iwi leaders who had complained they lacked influence with the government.

Ardern, who is good at smoothing things over, met with the National Iwi Chairs Forum and they agreed to work together to resolve concerns around state care, water and Māori land.

Australian input into National's election tactics

During a week that was packed with politics ahead of Parliament's resumption on Tuesday, National held a caucus retreat in Havelock North and flew in one of the Australian Liberal Party's campaign directors to learn about the tactics that helped Prime Minister Scott Morrison win.

He had seemed to be in a hopeless position before the election and brought off a stunning victory.

The tactician, Nick Westenberg, told RNZ after making his presentation to the caucus the message he delivered was that no election was unwinnable. He said Morrison's success came down to a singular focus on what mattered to "the average voter" rather than what he called "the Canberra bubble".

"You need to listen to what the public is saying and talk about the issues that matter to them," he said. "The most important thing is speaking the language of the voters."

Bridges has been following that line since the beginning of the year, insisting his party is going to deal with "the things that matter" to ordinary people - such as having more money in their pockets. Wait for the tax cut promise.

New South Wales deputy campaign director Nick Westenberg.

Australian election tactician Nick Westenberg has told National politicians they need to address issues important to voters if they want to win this year's general election. Photo: Supplied / Nick Westenberg

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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