14 Oct 2020

Winston Peters returns to Tauranga in final campaign sprint

7:03 am on 14 October 2020

With just days to go to the election New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is on the final sprint after a marathon tour of the whole country.

Our political reporter Jo Moir got exclusive access to the campaign, in what could be Mr Peters' last, travelling with the leader and his contingent from his old stomping ground in Tauranga to Auckland.

Winston Peters with the NZ First bus on the election campaign in Tauranga.

Winston Peters with the NZ First bus on the election campaign in Tauranga. Photo: RNZ / Jo Moir

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is leaving nothing to chance as he fights for his political survival this election.

With 1 or 2 percent support in the polls the future is looking very uncertain for the man who both National and Labour have relied on to form a government.

In the last five weeks he and his contingent have travelled in the party's campaign bus from Bluff to Northland - almost 12,000 kilometres in total.

It was a wet and windy welcome for Peters when the bus pulled up in his old stomping ground of Tauranga, to be greeted by more than 100 people.

He visited just a few weeks ago, but with only days until the election he made one last stop in the place where it all began for New Zealand First.

It's the seat he won under National, again as an independent, and then once more when he formed the party in 1993.

Fast forward to 2020 and Peters is deputy prime minister but fighting for his party's survival as all polls point to a Labour-Greens government.

Winston Peters on board the New Zealand First campaign bus on Tuesday 13/10/2020.

Winston Peters on board the New Zealand First campaign bus on Tuesday. Photo: RNZ / Jo Moir

As election day draws near, and more than one million votes have already been cast, Peters is defending his party's decision to make Jacinda Ardern prime minister.

"Of course we took a risk. But we needed, at that time in 2017, to change.

"We just can't go on running the country for the big end of town and for overseas banks and overseas insurance companies. We needed to change,'' he told the gathered crowd in Tauranga.

And while he defends his record back then, he is also warning of what will come if New Zealand First doesn't return.

His campaign is now cemented on putting a stop to what he calls a "gigantic lurch to the left".

From the campaign bus Peters told RNZ every vehicle needs a "super-turbo charger to make it go, but the safety is the handbrake" - and that handbrake is stability.

"Dare I say it, when the prime minister came to tell me 'I'm going to have a baby', the sky didn't fall in, did it? We provided serious stability and kept the show on the road, and stability is very, very important."

Peters says his party's track record in government speaks for itself, from investment in KiwiRail and the Defence Force, to the Pacific reset and Provincial Growth Fund.

He says his party is miles ahead of the Greens.

"Contrast our negotiations, for example, with the Greens. Look at the comparison. The Greens in my view, went into negotiations, weren't clear what they wanted, and have spent the last three years trying to blame everybody else for what they wanted, after the negotiations were after."

So did New Zealand First achieve everything it promised its voters?

"If you get 80 percent of what you want, you're doing extremely well. Of course you are always frustrated. But you go into negotiations knowing you can't get everything you want, but to get as much as you possibly can on the manifesto you campaigned on, so you can look at people in the eye and say 'I did my best'."

RNZ spoke to those who went along to hear from Peters, and asked whether they thought the party would make it back.

For the most part people responded, "I hope so'' and when prompted as to why they weren't certain, they said there was an impression things weren't looking so hot.

But Peters is banking on a decent chunk of people holding back on voting until Saturday.

His theory is that people will throw their support behind New Zealand First when they wise up to the idea National and ACT have no chance of forming a government.

Some have already cast their vote, but others are still deciding.

Inside the New Zealand First bus.

Photo: RNZ / Jo Moir

On the bus with a political veteran

Peters is a creature of habit.

He sits in the seat just to the left of the bus driver every day, it's his seat.

It's the same seat he sat in when he travelled the length of the country in 2017.

RNZ joins the back of the entourage and steps onto the bus] as Peters is departing the day's public meeting.

He jokingly quips, "I forgot an interloper was joining us''.

Down the back of the bus suits are hanging, suitcases are stacked up, and there's a make-shift office with tables for Cabinet Zoom calls, strategising and media interviews.

It's a small contingent on the bus with Peters and they all have jobs.

There's two young candidates on board hitting the phones every chance they get, reception permitting.

One is calling members, letting them know where public meetings are, the other is emailing supporters.

Peters loves music, and can find a song and lyrics to go with almost any situation.

As he overhears a phone call on the bus to a woman named Caroline, Peters breaks out in tune to the song 'Sweet Caroline'.

Nobody is surprised, everyone just carries on with what they're doing.

The bus driver enjoys a bit of banter, and he and Peters talk about the Bay of Plenty, its kiwifruit fame and old roads that have turned into new highways.

Lunch gets eaten on the bus - sushi on this occasion - and a tidy Peters makes sure all the rubbish is picked up and put in the bin at the first available stop.

Peters says this campaign has been the most difficult by far, but he doesn't have time to complain about it.

Did he think he would still be in a bus campaigning, day- in day- out, in 2020? Absolutely not.

But he says there's no time for romanticising about missed horseriding and boating.

He still has unfinished business.

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