NZ First Leader Winston Peters at Shane Jones' Waitangi party; Peters gave a short speech in which he promised that he would be "coming soon to a town near you"

In what appears to be a move to distance NZ First from the current Government and on the eve of a comeback-campaign leader Winston Peters yesterday declined to “rate” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

In what seems like a repositioning of his party, away from Labour and back to the centre, he was also highly critical of both National and Labour’s race relations policies.

This appears to be part of what looks like a revived NZ First campaign which Peters told Shane Jones’ annual Waitangi function on Friday night would be “coming soon to a town near you.”

Senior figures in the party have told POLITIK they are waiting for the end of the Serious Fraud Office charges facing three party officials to be heard, probably in June, and then the campaign will begin.

In the meantime, Peters is putting distance between himself and the Government.

Yesterday on “The Country”, host Jamie McKay  said: “You are on record as saying you rate Jacinda Ardern.”

Peters: “When did I say this?”

McKay: “When you were in government with a coalition government, you were singing her praises.”

Peters: “You never heard me say I rate Jacinda Ardern. Now I’m not saying anything else. Those are not my words. I don’t use language like that.”

McKay could be forgiven for his question, given Peters’ comments to the UK Sun in August 2020.

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“She’s very genuine, very, very intelligent and someone who knows how to seriously analyse policy,” he said of Ardern.”

“She’s also not immune to listening to others sharing their views.

“When she became the Prime Minister, you could say we were taking a serious risk with someone who had no experience in Government.

“But in my case, I knew what I was dealing with, and that [Ardern] was someone who could do – when given a chance, and with a lot of experience around her – a seriously good job.”

Peters said the most obvious example of her “fine leadership” had been shown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“On the big issue, which is Covid, she has done a tremendous job and kept her eye – with some key medical people – right on the ball.”

Peters also claimed that one of the reasons NZFirst had not gone with National in 2017 was because of that party’s support for The UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights.

“I was up against a National party with nine years coupling with the Maori party and the ACT party that had approved the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights and changed the foreshore seabed legislation and every other stupid thing that’s unleashing racism and separatism in this country,” he said.

He told POLITIK last night that as Minister of Foreign Affairs, he had advised then-Prime Minister Helen Clark against signing up to the UN declaration, and she had accepted his advice.

Crown law also advised against signing the Declaration, but in April 2010, National signed up with Prime Minister John Key claiming at the time that the Declaration  reaffirmed the legal and constitutional frameworks that underpinned New Zealand’s legal system,” noting that those existing frameworks define the bounds of New Zealand’s engagement with the Declaration.”

Currently, Maori Development Minister, Willie Jackson, is developing an action plan to implement the principles of the Declaration.

But lurking in the background is the controversial report “He Puapua”, which was commissioned by the 2017-20 coalition government, which Peters claims was kept from New Zealand First and which advocates.

Its most controversial idea involved creating “a senate or upper house in Parliament that could scrutinise legislation for compliance with te Tiriti and/or the Declaration”.

Peters told POLITIK that the Declaration and He Puapua would be an issue in the next election campaign.

(No prizes for guessing which political party might seek to make it so)

“It’s going to be a massive issue,” he said.

“That’s the reality because everywhere you’re looking now, this co-governance in a race to the bottom being conducted by the Labour Party Maori caucus against the Maori Party and dare I say, against the Green Party now is unbelievably without any foundation in fact or numerical demand.

And as a consequence, you’ve got all sorts of developments happening now.

Peters and the man who is effectively his deputy, Shane Jones, both possess strong credentials to question the current Government’s Maori policies. Both are obviously Maori; Jones is fluent in Te Reo, and Peters is a former Minister of Maori Affairs.

What is clear is that the party is preparing to resume campaigning soon.

It is starting to get money; Wellington private equity investor, Troy Bowker, has just donated $35,000 to them, according to Electoral Commission returns. He has also donated $35,000 to ACT.

NZ First is also planning a major convention in October in Christchurch.

But among the Peters inner circle, there is also a debate on how the party should handle its next government formation negotiations it if returns to Parliament and is in a position to make or break a government.

There is criticism that the party has preferred to gain Cabinet positions and then to try and influence policy from the inside rather than making its policies bottom lines.

Peters last night defended the party’s role in the Ardern Government, saying they had “squashed” any proposals to implement Crown-Maori co-governance that had emerged.

Either way, expect to hear a lot more on this issue from Peters and Jones.