New Zealand’s longest-running political roadshow rolled into Opotiki yesterday, with New Zealand First leader Winston Peters knowing another poll last night showed he would make it back to Parliament and National would need him and his party if they wanted to form a government.
The Newshub Reid Research poll showed NZ First is the only party increasing its vote share on the centre-right of politics while National’s share slips.
That means Peters has become a prime target for Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, as he demonstrated in the Newshub leaders’ debate last night.
Asked directly by host Paddy Gower whether Peters was good or bad for this country, Hipkins quickly replied “bad.”
But the NZ First that is out and about in provincial New Zealand is cut from a different cloth than it has worn in the past.
At the centre of Peters’ campaign is his belief in the economic power of the provinces.
Yesterday, to an audience of about 150 that was around a quarter Maori, he came back time and time again to his life experience as a Maori who had begun life in poverty but who had advanced himself through hard work.
But not everything has changed.
It is still possible to find echoes of racism among some New Zealand First members, and Peters himself, in his speech yesterday, acknowledged the arguments of conspiracy theorists on the World Economic Forum and the United Nations.
But that is not what he wants to focus on.
So Peters detoured on his way to the rally to visit the Opotiki mussel farm that was initially financed by the Provincial Growth Fund. He was there to make a point.
“We’re never going to get out of this economic situation unless we understand some fundamental things about the economy, and that fundamental things are that it is the provinces that maintain the big cities, not the other way round,” he said.
“It’s the provinces that keep the big cities going well, their level of expertise and focus, not the other way around.
“And what party understands that?
“We are going to have a situation to go into now where we are seriously in trouble, and we’re going to have to work together collectively to get our way out of it.
“We’re going to have to each to export, export, export, and that’s why that mussel farm and a whole lot ventures like that going to be important in the future.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Peters has become a convert to the digital economy. He said that because we lived in an IT-centered world, we needed to take IT “to the max” and, as part of that, ensure that children went to school.
“Because we need that person to be trained in IT for the world that is coming and is here now.”
Around a quarter of the audience were Maori, and throughout his speech, Peters referred back to his own upbringing and talked about his Maori heroes.
He praised the governments of the 50s and 60s for building Department of Maori Affairs houses — one of which family lived in.
And he claimed Sir Robert Muldoon had agreed to give Dame Whena Cooper money to establish the Kohanga Reo movement because of what he had observed with the way the Maori battalion had quickly picked up Italian during the Second World War.
“It’s the phonetics,” Peters said.
He dropped in an anecdote about how the Mataatua waka, bringing the ancestors of several of the Bay of Plenty iwi from Hawaiki, developed a leak off the Northland coast, and it was his own iwi, Ngati Wai, who fixed it up.
A persistent theme was that we were all New Zealanders.
He recalled the Chief of the Army, Sir Brian Poananga, being asked by Sir Keith Holyoake how many Maori and Pakeha were in the army.
“I only have soldiers in the army,” Peters quoted Poananga as replying.
It isn’t a Peters rally without “they” getting a mention; “They” are other politicians, bureaucrats, academics, the media, and anyone who disagrees with him.
“They” say that white people are responsible for all the failings in the country, he said.
“That’s what they’re saying; until you arrived, us Maori were all living in a paradise, a Garden of Eden. No violence
“All of you know that’s bulldust, but that’s what they say.
“But the next thing they say is, we want you to fix it up.
“Here’s the paradox; if the white people are responsible for this country’s demise, why would you trust them to fix it up?”
Peters seemed to find many of his own stories amusing and would stop every now and then and lean back, chuckling as if he had heard the story for the first time.
But threaded between the stories and the gripes about “they” was some serious politics.
NZFirst has come under fire over its law and order policies, which would declare gangs to be terrorist organizations.
But an audience from Opoitiki, with its well-publicized gang problems, was ready to listen to what he had to say.
He challenged both Hipkins and Opposition leader Christopher Luxon over their promises to recruit 300 more police every year.
Peters said NZFirst would announce its police policy soon but pointed out that 300 extra police a year would not be enough to cover the number lost to attrition.
Police Association President Chris Cahill recently said that number was now over 400 annually.
A Maori teacher in the audience asked about prisons and reoffending from prisoners who had been released.
“Is it so sweet that people would want to reoffend,” she said.
“They can go and get trained at university, and they get three meals a day.
“They’ve got a pretty cushy existence.
I am a teacher by trade, and a lot of my students have had mums and dads who are reoffending.
“What can you do?”
Peters’ reply was straightforward; prisons were about punishment then rehabilitation, he said.
That is typical of the conservative forces that drive New Zealand First, which is a conservative party and really a provincial conservative party.
It should fit neatly alongside the National in a centre-right grouping, much like the National Party sits alongside the Liberals in Australia.
But National leader Christopher Luxon has spent the campaign often bitterly attacking both Peters and NZ First.
Last night, on Newshub’s leaders’ debate, he repeated that he did not want to work with Peters.
“But I am going to make the call if it means I stop you (Chris Hipkins) Te Pati Maori and the Greens coming to power.”
Peters won’t talk about what might happen after the election. In the meantime, he is claiming some members of the centre-left parties are talking communism while on the other side, there are neo-liberals whose experiments “always fail.”
When an interjector yelled out”too right”, Peters responded: “We’re not on the right; we’re in the middle.”
That is the New Zealand First myth: that they are a centrist party. They may be on economic policy but not really on anything else.