National MP Todd McClay’s offer to NZ First deputy leader Shane Jones last weekend for Winston Peters to become the Speaker was a vivid demonstration of how much National misunderstands Peters and what he stands for.
The irony is that he stands now for what they once did.
It wasn’t McClay’s idea; it came from Sir John Key, who pointed out to journalists that the big attraction of being Speaker for Peters would be that it all but guaranteed a knighthood.
Never mind that during the campaign, Peters had already said he had turned down offers of a knighthood twice, what Key failed to understand was that this campaign for Peters has looked like the culmination of his life’s work as a politician.
Even though NZ First had more money than ever, Peters’ campaign was minimalist.
There was no big black bus, no big city rallies, no shopping centre walkabouts, no photo opps; just Peters unplugged, alone on a small town stage, a speech, a few questions and then off with his constant political companion, Darroch Ball, in an SUV to another town and another meeting.
It looked simple, but it wasn’t.
Behind this is an organization that is a far cry from the often amateurish shambles that has been NZ First in the past.
Under party president Julian Paul and secretary Holly Howard, the party itself has begun more and more to look like a conventional political party with members, branches, meetings, and, this time round, billboards, pamphlets, and door-knocking volunteers.
It is all a contrast to that first MMP campaign in 1996 when the cigarette smoke saturated NZ First bus with Winston, a few hangers-on and journalists on board toured the country accompanied by legendary after-speech sessions which saw the box loads of scotch on board the bus slowly disappear.
That was during what might be called the NZ First wine box era when Peters knew what he was against, but we had little idea what he was for.
This was Peters alone with a largely forgettable cluster of would-be MPs, his Tauranga mentor, Tommy Gear and some informants of dubious credibility backed up by Radio Pacific and Grey Power.
It was a time during which Peters seemed to latch on to any passing conspiracy theory, which eventually led to him losing a defamation case against Brierly director and National Party Treasurer, Selwyn Cushing.
His vote plummeted in 1999, and then he bounced back in 2002, adding eight MPs.
This might be called the Gold Card era of NZ First.
As the Wine Box inquiry faded into history, he found a new platform to campaign on: seniors.
By 2005, with seven MPs, he was ready to become foreign minister and persuade the Clark government to introduce the Gold Card.
There were, however, grumbles in the NZ First ranks that he had put office ahead of policy, and in 2008, it all crashed to the ground after the Owen Glenn donations affair and the election of the Key National government.
The party was out of Parliament. But it was back in 2011 with a forgettable retinue of MPs who seemed to have little in common or any developed political philosophy.
It returned again in 2014 with some new MPs like Fletcher Tabuteau, Ron Mark and Darroch Ball, who represented a new trend in the party. They had all been successful outside Parliament and were either Maori or Polynesian.
In turn, there was new interest in the party from people like former National Party member and Otago farmer Mark Patterson, drawn in by his opposition to foreign takeovers of freezing works.
Slowly, the party’s emphasis turned from the Gold Card to economic development in the provinces.
In a way, that was where it had started.
The co-founder, Doug Woolerton, had always believed that it represented the small guys in rural service towns, the mechanics and fencing contractors, rather than the farmers themselves.
And then there was a pivotal defection to NZ First.
The former Labour Minister, Shane Jones, armed with a Harvard degree, fluent in Te Reo with a string of top-drawer jobs on his CV, joined up.
Jones, like Peters, is part of Ngapuhi. They both know the north like the back of their hands and what Jones knew was that unemployment and P was devastating the region.
He lives less than half an hour from Kaikohe, a once proud northern town which is now into its second or third generation of gang members, with kids as young as 12 seen selling drugs in the main street.
Peters came at it slightly differently.
In 2015, he won the Northland by-election, and he talked about the decline in towns like Dargaville, where he had been to school.
He saw what Jones was seeing.
Both looked back to a time when jobs were plentiful in the north, and young Maori had work and dignity.
And so when they joined Labour in coalition in 2017, their big demand was the $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund.
“I am going to take proposals to Cabinet. I’m calling it Work for the Dole. It may be the Work Readiness Kaupapa. But I am not going to remain silent any longer while my young ne’er-do-well nephews in Kaikohe and other places fall victim to the gangs,” he said on “Q+A” in December 2017 in the lead-up to the creation of the fund.
With Peters pre-occupied as foreign minister in the Ardern government, Jones, along with Tabuteau and Patterson in the background, were able to develop the $3 billion fund as it poured money into provincial areas.
It was a very Northland Maori-focused fund with top public servants like Ben Dalton administering it.
Dalton is from Kaikohe and has just returned to the north to head up the Waitangi Trust.
In the background were former northern politicians like Dover Samuels and Murray McCully, indicative of Jones’ ability to network across the aisle.
At his 60th birthday party in 2019, a Maori speaker congratulated him on the fund.
It would bring back the days of the Ministry of Work and the Railways and the Forest Service when everybody in Northland had a job, and there were no drugs, few gangs and little crime, he said.
Peters reminded an audience in Opotiki during the campaign of what those days were like.
“We want to see a time where everybody is employed and doesn’t have to be on a benefit,” he said.
“You guys know that time.
“I remember very well as a very young person, way up north as well as all around the country, in the provincial areas in particular, we knew what poverty felt like.
“But we knew that tomorrow would be better if we made the effort. And it was.
“We took ourselves to number one in the world with a population of two and a half million people and probably the size of the UK geographically, with a population only the size of Manchester.”
And Peters believes that if anybody, particularly Maori, are given a job and an even break, they can do anything; like him, he often suggests.
In the past, NZ First has called for a referendum on the retention of the Maori seats and frequently calls out what it calls elite iwi leadership.
Their manifesto includes policies to limit the use of Te Reo in government business.
And though both Jones and Peters often call for “one law for all”, they go only so far.
They do not support a referendum on the Treaty, nor privately do they support returning to a pre-1987 understanding of what it means.
They want to go back, but probably only as far as 2017. Peters has singled out issues like New Zealand being called Aotearoa before the so-called “Maorification” of New Zealand.
And lurking in the background are still the conspiracy theories. That may reflect the alleged involvement of the Hawkes Bay conspiracist Simon Lusk in the campaign and the Dirty Politics blogger Cameron Slater, who regularly boosts NZ First and Peters on his blog.
Slater accepts the World Economic Forum conspiracy theory, which states that the WEF seeks world dominance. That has been endorsed by at least one NZ First candidate, Kirsten Murfitt, and Peters himself talks obliquely about globalists.
Had he been at the WEF Forum in Tianjin in July, he would have heard its founder, Klaus Schwab, tell Prime Minister Chris Hipkins that the WEF had very little to do with New Zealand.
Peters apparently believes that the so-called “freedom movement” is an important strand of support for NZ First, as is the anti-co governance movement.
But they are all second fiddles to the main tune, which is the restoration of the economies of small provincial towns.
Their slogan, “Let’s take back our country”, really meant “let’s take our country back”; back to the 50s and 60s when there were no nephs on couches.
Peters is 78; he will be 81 at the next election, but he shows no signs of retiring. He likes to talk about how Warren Buffet is still going strong at 93 and Mahathir Mohamad at 98.
That doesn’t sound like someone you should try and sideline as Speaker.