Campaigning in the time of Covid has its limitations, especially for an old-fashioned politician like Winston Peters.
Prevented by the Level 2.5 restrictions from holding mass public meetings, Peter was left yesterday in Dunedin to meet and greet walkabouts.
But it appeared the people of Dunedin were as unfamiliar with this method of campaigning as the Leader of New Zealand First himself.
A first attempt at a walk around the Octagon produced one encounter with three young men enjoying the spring sun and having a beer and then a group of schoolgirls, half of whom, unfortunately, were wearing blindfolds because they were trying to experience what it would be like to be disabled.
On then to Otago University, where the reception could most kindly be described as muted.
Attempts by three young NZ First males to whip up excitement by playing Johnny Farnham’s “You Are the Voice” fell on deaf ears.
Eventually ,however, about a dozen students turned up.
Peters attempted to solicit questions and got one about the lack of Spanish interpreters at Invercargill Court. There were others on Ihumatao and GST on fruit and vegetables.
He had more luck in the Student Union where he demonstrated his table tennis skills and then did an interview with Radio One, the student radio station.
This broached what is a hot topic on the Otago campus, the “Mirror on Society” policy which gives preference to the entry of Maori, Pasifika, refugee and students from low decile schools to the University’s professional schools, particularly its medical school.
Currently, there is no limit on how many students can be accepted under this scheme, but the University has circulated a paper proposing caps on each category.
This has attracted widespread criticism, particularly from the Maori Medical Students’ Association.
For Peters, it was a chance to talk above the students’ heads and reach out to his core conservative constituency.
“ I can tell you that if you if you’re in the cultural or the sporting or business world, there’s no special cap situation for the Maori people,” he said.
“They don’t need paternalistic, tokenistic positioning of the type that some people argue for.
“And I happen to be one of them.
“I didn’t go to University because of any special quota.
“I was just a country boy that went off to law school.”
It was classic Peters, as was much of the day.
Like a heritage rock act performing its greatest hits, he returned to his age-old themes like stimulating New Zealand industry.
He staged a photo opportunity at the KiwiRail Hillside railway workshops; which once employed 1400 workers but were closed by National in 2012.
Peters is Minister of State-Owned Enterprises, and therefore KiwiRail reports to him.
“Under the Minister for Kiwirail, namely, yours truly — I don’t want to sound like Shane Jones — we’re going to make sure it makes a come back again, not just here, but across this country and heavy rail, is it,” he said.
Peters is promising to start releasing policy on a daily basis from today, but the reality is that he doesn’t need to.
New Zealand First’s best hope is that the electorate recognises their “handbrake” role on a potential Labour-Greens government and moves its votes to them as election day nears.
It’s not what they support, but what they can say no to that will matter.
“Well, we’ve got more economic experience in my party than the Labour Party,” he said.
“And we have demonstrated it.
“How would the capital gains tax look right now?
“ Right now, what would they be arguing with respect to that?
“And if you have busted every lease in this country, how many businesses would be in mid-flight at this point of time when all these businessmen had already made their private arrangements with their tenants?
“These are the kind of things we have stopped.
“What about light rail between 10 and 15 billion dollars costing everybody around the country for a plan that doesn’t work.
“But that’s what we’re talking about, and that’s why this campaign is important.”
Peters was in Dunedin ostensibly to campaign in Taieri — or South Dunedin as it used to be known — the urban part of NZ First MP Mark Patterson’s electorate.
Patterson is an ex-National Party Otago sheep farmer who is now the only South Island pastoral farmer in Parliament.
He offers a subtly different take to Peters on where the party might go.
He argues that if it is to be the party of the regions, then it has to also be the party of farmers “because farming sets the whole tone of what happens in the region.”
“So we’ve got to show that we are engaging with their issues,” he told POLITIK.
“But we’ve also got to be aware that there’s been a lot of regulation come through and there is a leadership role to play too.
“So it’s not about just being a handbrake for want of a better term.
“We actually want to have pragmatic and sensible reform that will get good environmental outcomes, but we can still grow our productive farming base.”
Patterson believes National is abandoning the farming sector.
They have a lawyer and a political advisor standing in the Otago-Southland seats. Long gone are the days of MPs like Sir Robin Grey or Peter Gordon or even Bill English who all, as Patterson puts it, were farmers who wore boots.
And he says NZ First can bring something to a Labour Government which has only one farmer, Damien O’Connor, in it.
“Our voice has been disproportionately heard in this Parliament,” he said.
“Having the balance of power has helped that somewhat.
“But we’ve certainly had much more influence than we would have had if we were in opposition.
“And the way I see it, we’re the only probably farmer-friendly party that’s got a chance of being part of the next government.”
That may be true, but the coalition government has angered farmers, particularly in the south, with some aspects of the National Environmental Standard on freshwater which NZ First was forced to support.
Again, Patterson argues that because they are in government, they have a chance to modify it.
“I’m already on public record of saying that it should never have been introduced,” he said.
“They (the regulations) were impractical and unworkable.
“Since then, there have been some amendments which have been a step in the right direction, and we’re actively involved in discussions to see whether there can be further amendments to tidy up some more loose ends.”
But getting that message across is the challenge; and with Covid-19 even further limiting the ability of the NZ First leader, Winston Peters, the party is on the back foot.
It might be that if NZ First does not return than Patterson’s prescription becomes even more important as the base from which the party could rebuild.
In the meantime, their strategy is obviously to hope that the polls will show a Labour-Greens government is inevitable and that the electorate will turn to them as the handbrake.
But they might feel more confident if their leader could hold a rally or two.