NZ First Leader Winston Peters at his State of the Natyiona speech in Palmerston North yesterday

New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters’s state-of-the-nation speech on Sunday was really a state-of-Winston-First speech.

He barely mentioned any of the Government’s key policies and could not even wholly endorse its signature income tax cuts.

Instead, he rehearsed all of his complaints about the Ardern Government, including an extraordinary claim that co-governance was like Nazi Germany.

He dog whistled the anti-vax movement and returned to a favourite campaign theme of the past, anti-immigration.

All of this was punctuated by frequent bitter and often angry attacks on the media.

He used the word “media” over 30 times in his 58-minute-long speech.

The packed-out Palmerston North Convention Centre loved it and offered their own endorsements, particularly on the media attacks, with frequent shouts of “liars” as he continued to lambast the Press Gallery.

What was unusual about his speech was its bitter edge and the anger that accompanied that.

Even during the campaign, he would crack jokes and make witty references to current events, but not so yesterday.

He claimed the “insidious grip of racist co-governance” had spread through legislation and the public sector.

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“Everywhere, all the way to the real estate licensing provisions,” he said.

“Everywhere manipulated; no manifesto coverage; no campaign just under the radar.

“And what were the media saying about it? Deafening zero. 

“We are never going to make it out of this demise if we tolerate that sort of behaviour.

“Over and over again but when we had the audacity to say, there’s something dramatically wrong here, not just about the policy,  but their lack of warning, they shout racist.

“It was race-based theory where some people’s DNA made them, sadly, according to these people and condoned by their cultural fellow travellers, that DNA made them somehow better than others. 

“ I’ve seen that sort of philosophy before. I saw it in Nazi Germany. We all did.”

And who was at fault?

“We have seen it elsewhere around the world and in the horrors of history, but  here in our country, it was tolerated by people whose job was to keep the system honest.”

He means “the media”.

The crowd lapped that up as they did when he got on to one of New Zealand First’s favourite themes: immigration, or what he said was the uncontrollable level of new migrants coming in.

“None of which was forecast or told to you by anybody in the Labor Party. The Greens or Te Paati Maori or, dare I say it, my friends in the (Press) Gallery,” he said.

(In fact, StatisticsNZ reports immigration figures monthly, and they are widely reported in all media, including POLITIKToday.)

But he went on.

There had been no funding for the infrastructure to cope with 133,000 migrants.

“Any political party or government that can do that should go out of power and stay out of power,” he said to widespread applause.

“But anybody who asks questions about an unplanned immigration policy is instantly called something they can’t even spell; they’re called xenophobic.

“No, we’re not xenophobic. We’re just not zombies.”

None of this was new for anybody who followed Peters’ public rallies. These were the kinds of themes on which he built the party.

But what might worry his National Party colleagues in the Beehive was his return to the anti-free-market economics rhetoric he proclaimed in the 1990s.

Speaking to University of Auckland political science students in 2010, he said New Zealand First was born from those who rejected the radical reforms of National and Labour and wanted a party that represented ordinary New Zealanders—”not overseas interests or those of a few ever mighty subjects.”

“So, after the blitzkrieg neo-liberal policy destruction of Labour between 1984 and 1990 – and National until 1996, New Zealanders decided they wanted change,” he said.

“They had experienced enough economic pain, while the promised land of freedom and plenty was still a pipe dream, and we had missed out again on winning the Rugby World Cup. Enter New Zealand First, a First Past The Post party in 1993.

“We were established to bring back some of the traditional values of New Zealand politics.”

There were echoes of that in yesterday’s speech.

“For far too long, New Zealand’s economy has been the victim of ideological dogma, and there are people in this room who know what I mean,” he said.

POLITIK Just like the old days; NZ First Leader Winston Peters gets a hug from an audience member in Palmerston North yesterday

Later, when the media asked him how he reconciled his attack on the economic policies of the 1980s with the fiscal restraint policies of the current Government, he argued that Rogernomics in the 1980s had not been about fiscal restraint because “they ended up with the highest family support mechanism as a result of their failure that we ever had in the past going all the way back to 1935.”

(The Lange government introduced “Family Support” in 1986 which gave a tax credit of $36 per week for the first child and $16 a week for subsequent children for those with an annual income under $9880. In compensation for the introduction of GST, it also allowed a tax credit up to the rate of the unemployment benefit for working families. That allowance was increased in 1992 to 1.2 times the benefit by the National Government, of which Peters was a Cabinet member.)

Peters managed to find a journalist he agreed with and said he respected,  Sunday Star Times columnist Vernon Small, who yesterday wrote a column saying that “a gap of $5.6b had opened between National’s campaign rhetoric and the harsh reality of current forecasts.”

“Only one political party in 2023 campaigned to alert New Zealanders about how bad things were,” said Peters.

“New Zealand First pointed out where optimistic predictions of others were false – such as the ‘House Buyers Tax’ and taxing on overseas online gambling.”

However, when Peters was questioned specifically about whether the deficit meant he thought the tax cuts should go ahead, he did not give a definitive answer.

Media: “Given the $5.6 billion deficit, the surprise that you’ve got looking at the accounts, can the country afford the income tax cuts?”

Peters: “I know what you’re trying to do here. We’ve got a budget we are preparing for the 30th of May, and that’s partly a process of which we are part of. When you ask all those questions, you’ve got to look at what possible solutions to this huge gap are and rapidly turn the economy’s growth rate around. So it’s not impossible. But to answer that question, now, that would be wrong, premature when you’re in a coalition government.”

  Media: “Would it be politically wrong because you disagree with the government’s policy and you don’t want to be seen to be saying that?” 

Peters: ‘Well, look, as an experienced person, I don’t do translations or interpretations. Understanding this plainly, it’ll be wrong to break up the way of working and say, now what you want inside a closed discussion to come to an outcome which will be all before you on the evening of the. 30th of May.”

Media: “The simple answer to that question would have been yes. But can the country afford the tax cuts? You didn’t say yes.”

Peters: “ Oh, no. No. I admit that there’s a construction of the plan going forward where all these things can be done, but not the plan I’ve heard  just yet. However, we’re in coalition talks all the time to see what the construction pathway forward might be.”

The last media question gave the game away; could the country afford the tax cuts would have been answered by National Cabinet minister with a “yes” with maybe a qualification that ultimately it was a decision for the whole Cabinet or something like that.

The suspicion that must arise from the way Peters answered these questions is that he does not think the country can afford the tax cuts.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon may be on the way to finding out that working with Peters is as tricky as his critics have always said.

Opposition Leader Chris Hipkins’ comment on Thursday that keeping the coalition together would be a struggle might yet prove to be correct.