In two speeches on Tuesday and yesterday, Winston Peters has returned to Wellington and reminded everybody that NZ First has a mind of its own.
On Tuesday he set out his party’s nationalistic vision for New Zealand more precisely than at any time since he became deputy Prime Minister.
And yesterday in a speech that was laden with subtle hints, portrayed himself as a voice of pragmatic reason within the Government.
What he appeared to be doing was laying the groundwork for his election campaign.
And he is doing it against a background of continual suggestions that he is finding more and more issues over which to differ with his coalition partners.
His speech yesterday was innocuously titled “Foreign Minister commends New Zealand’s COVID-19 international response.”
And he did devote a considerable part of it to praising the work of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the way it had handled what he described as “the largest and most important consular operation in its storied 77-year history.”
“To give you a sense of its magnitude, during an average three-month period last year, the Ministry managed around 700 consular cases,” he said.
“This year, in the three months since January 27, MFAT’s Wellington Consular Call Centre has received over 11,000 enquiries; and provided consular support or advice to more than 4,500 New Zealanders in about 150 countries and territories.
“On behalf of the Coalition Government, and as responsible Minister, we extend our thanks to Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade Chris Seed and his team of dedicated diplomats, consular officials and other professionals working on behalf of their country.
“We are very proud of your performance.”
So far, so good.
But then he started to talk about criticisms of the Government’s efforts.
“One criticism is that we should have closed our border sooner, that we did too little too late,” he said.
“Another criticism was that the Government’s response has been too myopic and captured by advice from the Ministry of Health. Both critiques could not be further from the truth.”
Answering the charge about the border, he then took an unusual step for a Cabinet Minister.
He proceeded to make public advice which had been given to Cabinet by another Minister and then rejected.
“The Ministry of Health recommended a total shutdown of the border, including to returning New Zealanders,” he said.
“From its health perspective, this was understandable and appropriate advice.
“But the Coalition Cabinet rejected that advice because it was and is inconceivable that we will ever turn our backs on our own.”
The decision to reject the advice was a correct one since it would have left returning New Zealanders who might have been unable to re-enter the country they had left, stuck at the airport in limbo, unable to enter New Zealand and unable to return where they had come from.
Peters left no doubt that it was he — as Minister of Foreign Affairs — who had presented the case against Health at the Cabinet.
“Have we got a solution where we can assuage the health department that we can handle this?
“We presented that from MFAT and we’ve done it. And I salute the team that did it,” he said.
However, that was not the point.
The first question was whether he should have made the advice public.
The Cabinet Manual says Ministers should not “disclose or record the nature or content of the discussions or the views of individual Ministers or officials expressed at the meeting itself. The detail of discussion at Cabinet and Cabinet committee meetings is not formally recorded, or included in the minutes.”
Ardern, however, said he had made his comments with her “full knowledge”.
“It wasn’t a cabinet disagreement,” she said.
“It was advice from a department that as a whole cabinet did not share that view.
“And that is not unusual.
“You often receive cabinet papers that will hold a view that is not overall supported by the entire paper it even sits within.
“So it wasn’t a cabinet disagreement as we would frame it.
“Cabinet disagreement is when we can’t form consensus as a group of ministers.
“The second point that I would make is I frequently come down and share views and decisions that are made, and we release cabinet papers proactively that demonstrate where a department takes a view counter to a decision we’ve made.
“So it’s not at all unusual for that to have been done.
“And that’s what the Deputy Prime Minister has done today. And he did it with my full knowledge. So I see nothing unusual about that at all.”
The second question about his statement was why he had decided to make this public at all.
After all, it can be assumed that countless Cabinet meetings reject streams of advice from one Ministry or another.
But perhaps his decision relates to what he says is a second criticism of the Government – the argument that the Government had been captured by the Ministry of Health.
That sounded close to what he himself said in an interview with Mike Hosking on April 9.
“Health is an imperative, but it cannot be at all costs,” he said.
“If it’s at all costs, we can’t afford to pay for it. We’ll be broke. We have to be rational, sane and keep our feet on the ground and keep a commonsense approach.”
POLITIK understands that right through the Level Four lockdown, NZ First Ministers have been concerned that health was being given too high a priority compared with the economy — as Peters appeared to indicate in the NewstalkZB interview.
His decision to make public the Cabinet discussion can be seen in that light.
And it needs to be seen in the light of his speech in Parliament on Tuesday setting out New Zealand First’s nationalistic vision for the New Zealand economy.
Both were “branding” exercises for NZ First, designed to underline its pragmatic, nationalistic response to issues.
His Parliamentary speech argued that the fiscal demands of the huge deficits and debts that would be run up to fund Covuid-19 lockdowns would exacerbate already growing inequalities, spurred on by globalisation, and suggested that it could lead to rioting in other countries similar to that recently seen in Hong Kong, Chile and France.
And then he presented what amounted to an NZ First manifesto.
The NZ First economy would begin with “far greater autonomy for New Zealand.”
“ In short, if we can grow it or make it at near competitive prices, then we will grow it or make it, use it or export it, rather than use valuable offshore funds importing it,” he said.
He told NewstalkZB yesterday that if a product could be made here within 15 per cent of the global price, then it should be made here.
He revived his criticism of immigration, saying if a job could be filled by a New Zealander, then it should be.
And another old favourite, his opposition to foreign investment.
“We need to put up the shutters to more offshore ownership of this country’s economy and go back to owning as much of it as we possibly can.”
And he set out conditions for welfare payments which sounded like an early shot across the bows of any proposal for a Universal Basic Income.
“All New Zealanders need to be productive, and if they can in any way help to fund our society, then they and we should do that,” he said.
“It means designing welfare that places emphasis on the need for all to contribute to the economy, rather than accepting some beneficiaries choosing to take from it and giving nothing back in circumstances where they clearly can and they should.”
New Zealand First is obviously worried by continuing low poll ratings and their inability to take strong positions in the run-up to the election campaign that differ markedly from those of the coalition government.
This week Peters has been testing the boundaries of that.