10 Aug 2020

Leader interviews: Winston Peters - 'One of these days I'll have a lovely retirement - but not yet'

11:08 am on 10 August 2020

New Zealand First and leader Winston Peters are up against it if the polls are to be believed.

No need to ask his opinion on that as he vows to fight hard to keep his party in Parliament, embarking on an old school campaign across the country "in all the halls and small places in New Zealand".

With Parliament adjourned and politicians ready to hit the campaign trail, RNZ presents a series of interviews with New Zealand's political leaders.

No political journalist is prepared to publicly make the call Peters and his party will be toast come 19 September.

He's proven the critics wrong on many an occasion and comes into his own when campaigning; but even he must be worried in this most unusual political landscape.

Labour and Jacinda Ardern are dominant after a competent Covid response and weeks of blanket coverage to a captive audience. All other parties suffered, including New Zealand First -Labour's coalition partner.

More from RNZ's Leader interviews:

So how does Peters campaign against Ardern and her sky high personal popularity?

"I'm not campaigning against her, quite the contrary," he insists.

"Let me tell you that we made a decision in 2017 to go with a change style of leadership. We don't resile from that.

"But we did promise all of our experience and understanding and common sense to the government. And we've done both those things. I'm not going to go and campaign against the last three years."

Asked again about going up against Labour and Ardern, Peters lets us "into a secret"...

"We're all campaigning against each other. That's what elections are about. So let's have a narrative common sense for goodness sake, we're all out there to get our market share on election night."

He mounts the argument voters considering Labour should back New Zealand First instead to ensure "the kind of stability they've got now, as opposed to potential inexperience and experimentation, which will cost them a packet and cost their grandchildren all their lives to pay it off".

Would he stay or would he go?

Peters bridles at the suggestion he may not stay the course for the whole term if re-elected to Parliament: "Oh come on, what's my record? Have I ever done that?"

"Why would someone put themselves on the line and travel the country, island to island, coast to coast from Invercargill to Kaitaia if they didn't want their party to win and to be part of it?"

And does that include him as leader?

"Well, I mean, this is getting rather tiresome, but I'm not going out there to lose. I'm not going out there to take some retirement. Look, one of these days I'll have a lovely retirement, but not yet."


Since Peters lost Tauranga to National's Bob Clarkson in 2005, New Zealand First has not had an electorate seat as a backstop. Parties need to get either 5 percent of the party vote or a seat to secure a place in Parliament.

Peters won the Northland seat in the 2015 by-election but it was returned to National at the 2017 general election.

Enter Shane Jones, son of the north.

Apparently not enough at the moment though to get the kind of support needed to take the seat, with a Colmar Brunton poll putting him a distant third behind the National and Labour candidates, a result understood to be consistent with National's internal polling.

Yes, we know, bugger the polls, but Peters has some advice for his MP: "Just keep on working hard and keep on making the comparison of representation that brings benefits, does things for local people, as opposed to inexperience, no influence whatsoever, with no track record of ever performing for the electorate".

"It's that blunt, it's that simple, it's over to Northlanders to see what's dramatically changed since Shane Jones and New Zealand First got a chance to do things in government versus the past."

Translation: a reminder of the significant amount of money that's gone to the north via the $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund, overseen by Jones from his ministerial position within Cabinet.

Labour and New Zealand First proclaim they've never done deals but both have been beneficiaries of strategic campaigning - Labour's Greg O'Connor in Ōhariu in the 2017 general election and Peters himself in that 2015 by-election.

No sign from Ardern though she's in any mind to do the same for Jones this election; it's now up to him to knock on doors and convince the voters of Northland he's the man for the job.

A "relentlessly positive" campaign

The "critical thing", says Peters, is to "connect with people and reconnect as hard as you can given that now that the balloon's gone up and the race is happening".

"With respect and not being arrogant" Peters points out he is the "most experienced contestant in this campaign", and says it will come down to the plan parties present and their past record.

"Our idea is to go out there and say to people 'you've done so well' but things are never more precarious than they are now. Now, it's about the economy and you do need serious experienced politicians who have been here before and know what they're doing.

"It's no chance, no time to experiment now."

At the time of this interview, Peters was putting the finishing touches on the party's election manifesto but demurred when asked whether it would hark back to previous 'red meat' campaigns targeting immigration, law and order or race relations.

"You're gonna see a lot of new ideas that we've never campaigned on before, but they will be based on the common sense foundation of a belief that is born of needing New Zealand to add value to the things we need to do more than ever ... to rely upon our own people who need to understand that we can't go offshore.

"All the things we were talking about, dare I say it, before Covid-19."

Peters is not known for holding back when criticising his opponents (indeed sometimes New Zealand First's own governing partners and with particular vitriol reserved for the Greens). This election though, he says he'll take the high road as "to go out and lambaste all the other political parties is not our idea".

Prompting the somewhat sceptical question - so you're running a 'relentlessly positive' campaign as well?

"You got it in one."

Troubles on the horizon

New Zealand's First's time from 2005 to 2008 was dominated by controversy over political donations, and once again the party's under formal scrutiny for its fundraising practices.

Back then when Labour under Helen Clark was fighting for the elusive fourth term and Peters for his political skin, he received a parliamentary censure after a high drama Privileges Committee inquiry over donations made to the Spencer Trust.

The police and the Serious Fraud Office both investigated and the party was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, but it was only a matter of days before the 2008 election the police said publicly no offence was committed. Peters lost Tauranga and falling shy of the threshold after polling just over 4 percent, New Zealand First was out of Parliament.

Fast forward to 2020 and the New Zealand First Foundation is under SFO investigation, again over political donations, with the agency indicating it will say whether or not it will lay charges before the 19 September election.

Former National MP Jami-Lee Ross and three other men are facing charges in the High Court over donations made to the National Party, and Labour too is the subject of an SFO investigation - so how can voters have faith in politicians and the system as they go to the ballot box?

He and the party were "completely exonerated" back in 2008 and "here we go again", says Peters.

"People throwing dirt, mischief and malice with forethought in their minds, and we got to put up with it. But there's nothing new about that.

"If you can't beat a political party legitimately, that's the tactic you resort to," he says.

Peters reads nothing though into the timing of the outcome of the investigation, so close to an election.

"Well, it doesn't say anything other than they think that they have got an investigation underway. And when they're finished the investigation, we'll know what that means."

However no party is guilty until proven so in court, says Peters, and it "wouldn't be the first time that authorities have taken action and got it all wrong - at all".

"We have said from day one we will co-operate, we welcome an inquiry of this nature, because now rather than foul rumour, we'll get the facts out there."